African tongues losing favour?
Languages must be spoken in all their variety, in streets and gathering places, writes Prof Nyameko Barney Pityana
THE Eastern Cape has a rich seam of intellectual and cultural heritage. This arises from the fact that in the early encounters between the colonial settlers and the indigenous inhabitants of the area of the Eastern Cape now known as the Zuurberg, the European settlers established a foothold followed by the missionaries.
With their presence the colonial settlers and the missionaries established mission stations, and schools and hospitals. Thus it was that the Eastern Cape became not just a theatre of war, but also of education and westernisation.
The Eastern Cape missionary institutions developed the indigenous languages into written languages, established printing presses, translated the Bible, established schools and trained evangelists.
Among these institutions the Lovedale Press was foremost in publishing books in Xhosa, and other languages.
In time many of these books were written by African writers. Now that heritage of publishing is no more. Lovedale Press was closed many years ago. It was reported that the last of the printing presses was stolen.
Rhodes University in Grahamstown hosted a Colloquium this week under the theme: Rethinking South African Canonical Writing – Centering the isiXhosa Writings of the 19th and early 20th Century.
The theme, place and moment is significant. This comes at a time when African literature written in indigenous languages is losing favour at our schools and at universities. Book publishing by writers in Xhosa has lost momentum, and only possibly one newspaper is being published in Xhosa and another in Zulu.
There are claims that readership in African languages is diminishing. And yet South Africa has committed itself in the constitution not only to recognise 11 official languages. It obliges “the state to take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.”
A colloquium of this nature, though, not held to address this discrepancy, can hardly avoid the politics of language and literature.
However, its call is for a rethinking of the canonical writings in Xhosa of the 19th and early 20th centruy.
These writings have enjoyed the status of the canon in that they are usually referred to as reference points of quality literature. Although they embody the environment, and milieu of their time, they do retain a timeless quality about them. They tell of the history and customs and uses of the language that may be lost in contemporary Xhosa society.
It must be remembered that much of that early Xhosa writing was authored by the products of the missionary institutions, under the tutelage of such institutions.
There is a sense that such writing earned the approval not just of the colonial and missionary institutions. This is not unusual because writers and artists have always functioned best with the support of the influential and those who have the financial means in society.
And yet the craft of a writer is best exercised under conditions of independence, so that creative arts can draw from the experience and insight of the writer. For this reason, writing becomes an intellectual exercise.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for example, says in his famous book, Decolonising the Mind, that writing tests the versatility of language, and such versatility opens language up to express deep thoughts, culture, character, history and customs.
Above all, through language an understanding of philosophy, science, technology and all other areas of human creative endeavour are captured.
Xhosa writing of the 19th and early 20th century, written under the circumstances of colonial and imperial rule, of dispossession, poverty and inequality under apartheid was bound to express the people’s search for identity, and self-determination, the expression of pain, and their constant revolt against the powers of dehumanisation.
This literature also depicts the people’s struggle at the point of cultures that seek to overwhelm them, urbanisation and Christianisation. In other words the theme in such early writing was about the search for the human and the power of resistance.
“Words”, says Chinua Achebe, “become weapons again rather than tools; ploughshares are beaten back into spears. Fear and suspicion take over from openness and straight conversation…”
But writings serve other purposes. They do not just represent society as it is. Writers are the society. In reality they also show that which society wishes to become. It raises the level of possibility and that which is achievable to a level where it makes the struggle worthwhile.
For that reason the writer expresses a moral truth and an ethical challenge to one’s own society and readers, but also to those in power. Truth telling and moral integrity are a burden writers cannot avoid. For, to do so, would be to rob writing of its essence and power.
In the sketches of character that are the skill of a writer are the nature and quality of relationships, the extent to which characters enable that quality of becoming human to shine through the challenges of living, and the ability to evoke emotions like love, hatred, compassion, caring, and to manage and overcome emotions. In that sense the writer becomes an ethical agent.
Wa Thiong’o states it bluntly that whenever writers are true to their craft they become subversives. They seek to overthrow the hegemonic models of thought and the quality of relations. That is because at the hands of a writer, words become a soul force.
The construction, development and organisations of words into sentences, the search for the right word to express the deep emotion or idea produces such beauty that becomes unforgettable.
That is the case that wa Thiong’o, especially makes for the use of one’s own indigenous languages because they reach deep into the recesses of one’s consciousness in a manner that translated thought can never achieve.
What then is the challenge for South Africa? The first thing is that languages must be spoken. They must be spoken in all their variety in the streets and places where our people gather.
Second, language arises out of listening. South Africans must learn the art of listening and learning from one another. Third, we need to accept that language is dynamic. It grows and it gathers, all the better for borrowing from other languages, contexts and cultures. There is no such thing as “pure language”.
The people of South Africa must be set free to speak as they feel.
The Re-thinking Colloquium is set to place South Africa’s writing in Xhosa onto a new paradigm of the human, the moral agency and transformative values for this new South Africa. In other words we learn from the canonical writings, but we also advance from where they left off. Professor Nyameko Barney Pityana is a human rights lawyer, theologian and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation’s programme adviser
READING THE FUTURE: Teacher Reginald Sikhwari with his class of Grade 11 pupils at Sekano-Ntoane school in Soweto. While it is important to learn other languages, one’s mother tongue should be celebrated in text and the spoken word.