Adopt­ing two or three lan­guages as the coun­try’s of­fi­cial ones could help break cul­tural bar­ri­ers and build a col­lec­tive iden­tity

CityPress - - Voices - David Ma­sondo voices@ city­press. co. za

The re­cent de­mand by the peo­ple of Mala­mulele, a pre­dom­i­nantly Shangaan/Xit­songa-speak­ing ru­ral town­ship in Lim­popo, for their own mu­nic­i­pal­ity has been prom­i­nent in pub­lic discourse. But it has been re­duced to whether a mu­nic­i­pal­ity at Mala­mulele is vi­able, given the size of the pop­u­la­tion and the rev­enue po­ten­tial. Framed in this way, the mat­ter has been turned into a tech­no­cratic in­sti­tu­tional is­sue.

In cer­tain cir­cles, the is­sue has been sim­ply un­der­stood as a tribal con­flict be­tween Ven­das and Vat­songa/Shangaans.

To re­duce the de­mand for a mu­nic­i­pal­ity to trib­al­ism is to over­sim­plify the is­sues. In the same vein, to deny the ex­is­tence of tribal con­scious­ness is to ig­nore how eco­nomic­class in­ter­ests are some­times me­di­ated through tribal and other iden­ti­ties.

The de­mand for a mu­nic­i­pal­ity by the peo­ple of Mala­mulele is borne out of eco­nomic de­mands ar­tic­u­lated in cul­tural terms. In other words, this is a re­flec­tion of in­ter- and in­tr­a­class strug­gles for ba­sic ser­vices, jobs and other eco­nomic needs me­di­ated and in­ter­preted through tribal lenses.

Th­ese eco­nomic de­mands also pro­vide tribal en­trepreneurs with raw ma­te­rial to use tribal iden­ti­ties to mo­bilise mass power to gain political and eco­nomic power.

Th­ese tribal phe­nom­ena have brought back into fo­cus the ques­tion of how to build a na­tion in a demo­cratic South Africa.

The res­ur­rec­tion of dif­fer­ent forms of cul­tural con­scious­ness does not just demon­strate our ANC govern­ment’s fail­ure to re­solve our eco­nomic prob­lems, it is also a man­i­fes­ta­tion of our in­abil­ity as the ANC-led move­ment to pro­vide an­swers to th­ese sem­i­nal na­tional ques­tions in post-apartheid South Africa.

The ANC is un­in­ten­tion­ally re­trib­al­is­ing South Africa in dif­fer­ent ways. This has set con­di­tions for the reawak­en­ing of a po­lit­i­cally re­gres­sive tribal con­scious­ness, which not only im­pedes the rise of na­tional con­scious­ness but, more im­por­tantly, of class con­scious­ness as well.

While it is im­por­tant to deal with the ma­te­rial con­di­tions (land re­dis­tri­bu­tion, ac­cess to ba­sic ser­vices, etc) that set a con­ducive en­vi­ron­ment for trib­al­ism, one also needs to fo­cus on is­sues such as lan­guage as part of na­tion-build­ing to fa­cil­i­tate bet­ter con­di­tions for class con­scious­ness.

Lan­guage can be an im­por­tant in­stru­ment in frag­ment­ing or con­struct­ing a na­tion and a class, since it plays a key role in iden­tity for­ma­tion, col­lec­tive ac­tion and class con­scious­ness.

Na­tion-build­ing should in­clude the adop­tion of two or three of­fi­cial lan­guages (lin­gua fran­cas), which should in­clude English and one or two African of­fi­cial lan­guages that are spo­ken by all South Africans.

This is not to sug­gest the res­o­lu­tion of the na­tional ques­tion sim­ply lies in adopt­ing the sug­gested of­fi­cial lan­guages, nei­ther does it en­tail the ban­ning of in­dige­nous lan­guages.

It sim­ply means that adopt­ing two or three lan­guages as our coun­try’s of­fi­cial lan­guages could set the nec­es­sary (but not suf­fi­cient) con­di­tions for a com­mon na­tional iden­tity and na­tion-build­ing. Other in­dige­nous lan­guages should con­tinue to ex­ist as na­tional lan­guages, but not as of­fi­cial ones. In this con­text, Afrikaans would be a na­tional lan­guage.

Dur­ing the apartheid era, Africans were des­ig­nated to live in Ban­tus­tans ac­cord­ing to their cul­tural groups, while in town­ships such as Soweto and Soshanguve they were grouped ac­cord­ing to their lin­guis­tic iden­ti­ties.

The Inkatha Free­dom Party and other Ban­tus­tan political par­ties mas­tered the art of us­ing cul­tural iden­tity to di­vide the na­tion­ally op­pressed and work­ing class in ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas – and in so do­ing, di­min­ished the na­tional and work­ing class con­scious­ness.

Apartheid leg­isla­tive acts also dis­rupted a process of newiden­tity for­ma­tion, which was emerg­ing among black South Africans.

Un­der­stand­ably, the na­tion­al­ist move­ments have never adopted an over­ar­ch­ing African lan­guage as a lan­guage of re­sis­tance, which could also be po­ten­tially used as a post­colo­nial lan­guage. In­stead, they ap­pro­pri­ated their colonis­ers’ lan­guages to ar­tic­u­late their de­mands.

English in South Africa be­came the lan­guage of the re­sis­tance, rev­o­lu­tion and em­pow­er­ment. Dis­cus­sion on eth­nic­ity was dis­cour­aged to max­imise the unity of the racially op­pressed and to un­der­mine apartheid colo­nial iden­ti­ties. The lan­guage ques­tion was ac­knowl­edged, but not fully re­solved.

In the demo­cratic era, th­ese spa­tial pat­terns and geopo­lit­i­cal bound­aries – which en­forced ter­ri­to­rial eth­nic­ity and co­in­cided with lan­guage – have been re­in­forced. That is to say, geo­graphic spa­tial names in post-apartheid South Africa still co­in­cide with the tribal iden­ti­ties of the in­hab­i­tants.

Even some in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing, such as the univer­si­ties of Venda and Zu­l­u­land, have re­tained their tribal iden­ti­ties. Th­ese names and bound­aries un­der­mine our sense of na­tional unity and iden­tity.

Re­tain­ing apartheid names and re­nam­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal spa­ces in this way deep­ens apartheid cul­tural con­scious­ness.

There is also a rise of os­ten­si­bly clan-based groups, which have an­nual and other cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties.

Th­ese acts of eth­nona­tion­al­ism seem to sug­gest that while cul­tural na­tion­al­ism has been de­feated in its Ban­tus­tan forms, it has now de­vel­oped a life in civil so­ci­ety.

If we are se­ri­ous about na­tion-build­ing, we must relook at the ques­tion of com­mon lan­guages.

Apart from our Con­sti­tu­tion, our na­tional cur­rency, na­tional flag, an­them, iden­tity doc­u­ments, com­mon ter­ri­to­rial geo­graphic bound­ary, com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of op­pres­sion (as black peo­ple) and the same vot­ing roll, what else do we share as South Africans? What makes a South African typ­i­cal re­gard­less of her/his skin colour, re­li­gion, cul­ture, gen­der and class?

In ad­di­tion to the core val­ues en­trenched in the Con­sti­tu­tion, we ar­gue that lan­guage as one of the crit­i­cal na­tion-build­ing mech­a­nisms has huge po­ten­tial to build a com­mon South African iden­tity.

The post-apartheid lan­guage pol­icy for­mally treats all lan­guages as equal.

In re­al­ity, English is the lan­guage of the dom­i­nant political econ­omy in this coun­try. The other con­sti­tu­tion­ally recog­nised lan­guages are gen­er­ally only spo­ken in cer­tain geo­graphic ar­eas, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for all South Africans to share a com­mon lin­guis­tic iden­tity and com­mu­ni­cate with ease.

Our na­tion-build­ing should be based on the no­tion that ev­ery­one can be South African. Our iden­tity should not be an­chored in lin­guis­tic ex­clu­siv­ity or other so­cial iden­ti­ties.

Be­ing a typ­i­cal South African should not be about colour, but should posit an abil­ity to speak the two or three South African com­mon lan­guages that en­able us to com­mu­ni­cate with each other with ease. One or two na­tive black African lan­guages and English should con­sti­tute th­ese com­mon lan­guages.

Why English? Firstly, de­spite its colo­nial ori­gins in South Africa, English has been the lan­guage of the na­tional lib­er­a­tion strug­gle, al­beit con­cen­trated among a few elite. Its use is rapidly grow­ing among the black middle class.

Fur­ther­more, while it is not spo­ken in the en­tire world, it is used in sig­nif­i­cant parts.

Many post-colo­nial African coun­tries, such as Tan­za­nia, also adopted their erst­while colonis­ers’ lan­guages as their of­fi­cial lan­guages with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

The pos­si­bil­ity of English be­ing the lan­guage of a tiny elite, ex­clud­ing the ma­jor­ity, is real. The so­lu­tion is not to main­tain nar­row tribal lan­guages. In­stead, it is to make ac­cess to education, in­clud­ing th­ese lan­guages, free and com­pul­sory.

We could start by har­mon­is­ing and stan­dar­d­is­ing the Nguni and Sotho lan­guages to pro­duce two African lan­guages.

Xit­songa should be syn­chro­nised into the Nguni lan­guage, while Tshiv­enda should be part of the syn­chro­nised Se­sotho lan­guage. In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, South Africa would have two na­tive African black lan­guages. This has the po­ten­tial to set the con­di­tions for a new South African iden­tity.

But there will be ob­sta­cles in the way of this na­tion-build­ing pro­ject. It will re­quire time and re­sources to be fully com­pleted.

An­other ob­sta­cle will be re­sis­tance from white and black lin­guis­tic cul­tural na­tion­al­ists. Fur­ther­more, ed­u­ca­tion­ists who spe­cialise in th­ese in­dige­nous lan­guages, as well as tribal tra­di­tional lead­ers who profit from the cul­tural lin­guis­tic na­tion­al­ism, will mount a fight against th­ese ideas.

Pol­i­tics and change is not just about the art of the pos­si­ble; it is about political will and strug­gle. Na­tion-build­ing is a strug­gle.

Ma­sondo is the for­mer Young Com­mu­nist League na­tional chair­per­son. This edited ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in African Com­mu­nist

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