Using indigenous languages for job and wealth creation

2014-11-27 14:07

Employment and prosperity are some of the key challenges that all societies are facing.  Without it there can be no development.  In South Africa, the situation with regard to economic growth and employment looks fairly bleak. In his recent medium-term budget speech, Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene, painted a sombre picture.

The economic growth rate for the past year has been estimated at 1.4%.  Internationally, economic recovery is slow, and the demand for and prices of South African commodities are on the downslide. Local economic growth is stifled by all kinds of structural challenges, and the capacity of the state coffers to finance South Africa's comprehensive social and economic programmes is increasingly challenged. Added to this is the danger of rising debt levels absorbing more and more funds earmarked for development.

Our country cannot afford this, as employment creation and prosperity are dependent on development.  In the absence of development, societal ills such as poverty, hunger, violence, chaos, social unrest, criminality, epidemics of all kinds, drug abuse and corruption are bound to flourish. A pragmatic and purposeful development plan with cooperation over a broad spectrum should enable any country to bring about development in a decisive manner. Taiwan is a striking example of what a country can achieve by implementing a development plan and providing a favourable environment for the business sector to thrive.

South Africa's plan, known as the National Development Plan, provides an enormous opportunity for sustainable development, employment and prosperity. However, achieving consensus among government and other role players in business, labour, and communities regarding the objectives and implementation of this plan remains problematic. Aligning the aims of the medium-term budget with the outcomes of the National Development Plan therefore has to be welcomed.

While both the NDP and the medium-term budget emphasise the need for investment and productivity, as opposed to consumption and dependence on the state, the latter describes fourteen outcomes, each with its own projects and budgets.

Among the most important outcomes are quality education, an effective, competitive and responsive economic infrastructure network, effective state machinery, as well as a shared national identity and a nation united in diversity.

In order to realise these outcomes, Minister Nene allocated an amount of R30 billion, roughly 6,2% of the total medium-term budget, to the arts, sport, recreation and culture.  An amount of R640 billion over a period of three years, about 15% of the total budget, was allocated to education. Will these investments in culture and education indeed contribute to employment and prosperity? This is the question on everybody's lips.

To be able to answer this question, one needs to have a proper understanding of the role of language in education and culture. Language is not only a medium of communication, but also the main economic ingredient of a wide range of language commodities or language products and services marketed by a number of sectors. It is relevant to the knowledge economy, status and corpus planning, communication, education and training, second language teaching, publications, advertising, television, film, radio, music, tourism, indigenous herbs, arts festivals, traditional drag and architecture, indigenous cookery, communication pathology, insurance, contact centres, performing arts, design, language practice, software, arts and craft, visual arts, cultural amenities, and heritage, to name but a few.  The wide variety of services and products that these sectors bring to the market use language and culture, either as primary resource, medium of development or as a source of creative inspiration.

Employment and prosperity are therefore created through a demand for language and language-related activities brought to the market by various cultural sectors. These sectors also serve as incubators for creative and new ideas as reflected in the knowledge economy.

The impact of language and creative thinking on the knowledge economy is clearly visible in the development of new technological products and the formation of new words to describe the latest technology and trends.  Take for example ‘Facebook’, ‘Twitter’ and numerous other words, such as ‘mouse’ and ‘cloud’ which have acquired new meanings in the context of information technology.

As early as the 18th century Adam Smith, a well-known Scottish philosopher and economist, widely regarded as the initiator of economic development in an environment conducive to free and competitive trade, attributed the origin of language to the innate desire of people to fulfil the needs of others, and in so doing, create employment and prosperity to benefit themselves.

Adam Smith’s conceptualisation of the philosophical and market-orientated relationship between language, employment and prosperity, provides numerous opportunities for greater integration between the knowledge economy and the cultural industry.  A UNESCO study which measures the economic contribution of the cultural industry, describes this relationship as follows:  ‘Cultural industries are increasingly becoming important components of the modern economy and knowledge-based society due to their impact on the enrichment of development.’

This new development paradigm for economic and social development, however, requires high levels of knowledge, creativity, originality and skills. It also requires extensive state investment, optimal functioning of state institutions responsible for developing policy for the cultural industry, and an informed officialdom that understands the potential of language and the arts for employment creation and prosperity.

This potential is clearly visible in the vision and mission of the South African national Department of Arts and Culture.  The vision emphasises the importance of the cultural industry in relation to sustainable economic development, while the mission is aimed at employment creation. A very ambitious target of 150 000 employment opportunities is envisaged by the Department of Arts and Culture. However, not much is invested in language, which is the most important building block of the cultural industry.

The Department's ‘Mzansi’s Golden Economy’ strategy also analyses in detail how employment and prosperity can be created by means of the cultural industry. The question is where does South Africa find itself with this strategy which compares the cultural industry with a precious metal, such as gold, when it underemphasises the main ingredient, language, and does not properly implement the Language Act which supports it?

Another role player that understands the potential of language and culture for employment and prosperity is the Department of Trade and Industry.  Some of the steps taken by this department include research in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Reg. (WIPO) and subsidising the film, television, music and arts and craft industry through their Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP).

Through IPAP a substantial number of financing opportunities are made available to the film and television, music and arts and crafts industries. The South African film industry, for example, contributed R8 billion to the economy between 2008 and 2012. Employment creation and local economic development are some of the key considerations for the allocation of funding by the Department of Trade and Industry.

The results of research on the economic contribution of copyright-based industries in South Africa released by the department provide insight into the extensive contribution of these industries to the national economy.  The South African copyright industry contributes approximately 4.11% to the Gross Domestic Product and 4.08% to employment creation. Copyright industries include all those activities involved in creating, producing and manufacturing, performing, broadcasting, communication, exhibition, distribution and selling of works and other protected content.

Language also plays a crucial role in the copyright industry. The annual Pendoring award for quality Afrikaans advertisements is a good example of the innovative and creative use of language to market a product or service.

Furthermore, there is a strong correlation between the contribution of Afrikaans to employment and prosperity and the state of development in especially the Afrikaans-speaking community.  This is evident in the different sectors where Afrikaans is a key driver.  If any of these industries should be scaled down due to a decrease in supply and demand it would impact heavily on employment and prosperity in the Afrikaans community.

The development, maintenance and creative use of Afrikaans is therefore of the utmost importance. It is imperative that all those who create employment and prosperity through Afrikaans should work together to ensure that Afrikaans remains a language of instruction at school level and beyond.  Without language and a demand for language commodities, both the cultural and the copyright industries will cease to exist. Worse still, in the absence of a breeding ground for creativity and new thinking, the knowledge economy in South Africa will also not develop. This will result in us being merely consumers, while opportunities for wealth creation in the knowledge economy will pass us by.

Just imagine the many opportunities for employment and prosperity if every language community would use its language as a driver to establish various industries.  This on its own will not solve all the economic challenges such as a low growth rate, unemployment, poverty and low participation in the knowledge economy. Let us nevertheless take maximum advantage of the funds allocated by the medium-term budget for the development of cultural industries and ensure that state institutions, such as the Departments of Arts and Culture and Trade and Industry, do not merely pay lip service to language plurality, but instead actively start nurturing and promoting it.

However, the promotion of language plurality goes hand in hand with the market value of a language or the lack thereof. The late prof Neville Alexander, in an article entitled ‘The power of language, the language of power’, formulates this as follows: ‘(However) …unless African languages are given market value, i.e. unless their instrumentality for the process of production, exchange and distribution is enhanced, no amount of policy change at school level can guarantee their use in high status functions and, thus eventual escape form the hegemony of English. An articulated programme of job creation and employment on the basis of language proficiencies would, in the South African context, also serve as an organic affirmative action programme, one that would not have the unintended consequences of perpetuating and entrenching divisive racial identities inherited from the apartheid past’.

Indeed a bold statement by a true scholar and visionary. Perhaps giving market value to all of our indigenous languages could be in part the answer to South Africa's low economic growth rate and the multitude of economic challenges we are facing.  A highly contestable statement for sure, but just maybe it does hold true. Ask the Taiwanese, or better still, update the National Development Plan with a chapter which focuses on the advancement and commodification of our indigenous languages for purposes of employment and wealth creation.

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