Hon Chairperson, members, distinguished guests and our children, you will recall that one of the defining moments in our struggle, the 1976 youth uprising, was sparked by the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools. We therefore know the consequences of using language as a political instrument and we are now determined to ensure that our country does not go down that road again.
Our language policy recognises that our country is a multilingual society, with a large number of indigenous languages. If language contributes to our attitudes, then language is the central feature of culture. It is in language that culture is transmitted, interpreted and configured. Language is also a register of culture.
Historically, the trajectory of a culture can be read in the language and evolution of its lexicon and morphology. Language is one of the distinctive features that distinguish us from the animal world. We are in effect talkative animals. In this respect we can extend the logic of the argument by saying that language is the key distinguishing feature between us and the rest of the animal world. Our ability to create culture and language marks us off from the animals.
Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Language and cultural rights are therefore central to all considerations of human rights, in contemporary South Africa and the world at large. Furthermore, it suggests that the revitalisation of indigenous languages is at the heart of contemporary debates about identity, social cohesion and the development of a knowledge-based economy. The aforementioned affirms respect for the diversity of indigenous languages, tolerance, dialogue and co-operation, in a climate of mutual trust and understanding.
In this regard, it is important to note that indigenous languages and literacy are crucial for societal development. For instance, we have isiNdebele and Khilobedu, which, until now, are not recognised in schools as written languages. The Balobedu children are taught in Sepedi. Maybe this is what contributes to the high failure rate, because they speak Khilobedu at home and when they get to school, they have to write in Sepedi.
Our country's reconstruction towards a national democratic society is possible when its citizens are literate in the languages of the masses. In other words, it is not possible to reach social cohesion if the language or languages of literacy and education are only within the intellectual ambit of a small powerful elite. What has PanSALB been doing since 1996, when our Constitution was adopted, to revitalise such languages? PanSALB has an obligation to develop such languages.
The language question in our country, with respect to its challenges, calls for concerted efforts to revitalise indigenous languages. We know how far we have travelled in terms of past achievements at policy and legislative levels.
Tindzimi ta hina Vantima a ti nga hlayiwi helo. A hi fana na vahlampfa etikweni ra hina. Hi hoyozela ntshunxeko lowu nga va kona hi 1994. Hi ri endzhaku ku vuyela singe hina a hi nga ha vuyeli. (Translation of Xitsonga paragraph follows.)
[Our indigenous languages were not recognised. We were like foreigners in our own country. We welcome the freedom that was achieved in 1994. We are saying backward never, and we shall never go backwards.]
I want to agree with hon Lotriet, who said that if you undermine other people's language, you actually undermine the people who speak it. That is true.
Tindzimi ta hina Vantima a ti nga vulavuriwi hi nkarhi wa apartheid [xihlawuhlawu]. Loko va tsala swilo a va tsala leswaku "and other languages". [Our indigenous languages were not used for official purposes during the apartheid era. When they wrote something, they would write "and other languages".]
Our Constitution states that:
Everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice, but no one exercising these rights may do so in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.
In addition, the point is made that:
Persons belonging to a cultural, religious or linguistic community may not be denied the right, with other members of that community -
a) to enjoy their culture, practise their religion and use their language; and b) to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society.
It is further stated that these rights may not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.
In the area that I am from, white farmers speak Xitsonga so fluently. I remember in Giyani, during the birthday celebrations of our former President, Nelson Mandela, we had a young white girl who attended a multiracial school. She was 16 or 18 years old. She requested to be allowed to stand before us in order to read a poem in Xitsonga. Unless you saw this white girl, you would think, from her pronunciation, that she was a Xitsonga-speaking child. Why can't our communities speak the languages of the people who are living in it?
The state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages. The letter and spirit of these words are that all are equal before the law. This is the famous call of the Freedom Charter. Up until now, multilingualism has been invisible in the Public Service, in most public discourse and in the mass media.
Consequently, and despite the fact that the Constitution provides for the cultivation of multilingualism and the revitalisation of indigenous languages, there is still an urgent need for the Departments of Arts and Culture, and Science and Technology, to revitalise the use of indigenous languages in a manner that draws from the framework of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, and to maximise the utilisation of the country's multilingual human resources.
Ironically, the Department of Arts and Culture is a department that is not given a large enough budget. If they could get enough money, I think they would promote indigenous languages, traditional music, traditional dances and traditional folklore. Indigenous languages should all be elevated to the same level by providing the necessary resources to enable and permit this direction. However, one hardly notices much reaction by the speakers of indigenous languages in our country to the increasing predominance of English. Occasionally we hear and read strident African-language-speaking voices. Generally, however, they are few and far between.
A sharply worded article entitled "Africans opt for English as the Language of 'Brainy People" which I think most people have read, was written by an African language-speaking reader. It appeared in The Star in recent months. The writer trenchantly observed that:
It is disheartening to see people actively shunning their languages. African languages are relegated to second-best, compared to English, despite the fact that the Constitution advocates equality with respect to languages. What is more disturbing is that Africans are assisting in the marginalisation of their mother tongues. The country is currently busy producing African youth who can hardly read, let alone write text in their mother tongue. These youth fail to even pronounce African names correctly, let alone spell them. In extreme cases African children can hardly construct a sentence in their parents' mother tongue.
I think the fault is with us as parents -
The poor kid's identity is lost because they are supposed, for example, to be Tswana and yet they know nothing about the Tswana culture and language.
Or a Mupedi who knows nothing about the Bapedi culture. These children look down on African cultures, just as most proponents of colonialism do, or did.
They look down on African religious practices as superstition. They are alienating themselves, with the help of their parents, from their own cultures. It is unfortunate that most parents still believe that speaking eloquent English necessarily means you are intelligent.
That is not the case.
The fallacy of this observation is the suggestion that the English in England are all intelligent because they speak English.
Some of them are not intelligent, despite the fact that they can speak English.
The interesting thing is that when parents enrol their children in township schools they insist that their children attend schools that offer their mother tongue. When these kids move to schools in town, mother tongue preference is shelved for English and Afrikaans.
Why? - Granted, the school may not be offering any African language at that stage even though it has African pupils in the majority. African parents resign themselves to the status quo more often than not.
Parents should speak up -
Our children should learn other languages in addition to their mother tongue.
We definitely agree with this -
Imagine if white, coloured and Indian children were to learn African languages as their second language at school, that would add some impetus to nation-building.
We support the call by hon Dr Blade Nzimande for indigenous languages to be included at tertiary and university levels.
I once attended a court case where the judge could not understand any of the indigenous languages, and there was an interpreter who was interpreting for the accused. Those who speak Sepedi will understand when I say, "Hlogo ya mmago". This is an insulting expression, but the interpreter rendered it, "Your mother's head." The judge asked, "What is wrong with her mother's head?" [Laughter.] It had been literally interpreted. It should have been translated in Xitsonga. Xitsonga-speaking people could have translated it. We can thus see how much we don't know when we don't have the chance to learn other languages, in particular the indigenous languages. Sometimes it is not good for all us.
It is important that we decolonise our minds and avoid giving in to the status quo. By the way, one does not need to be conversant in English to be an electrician, doctor, mechanic or professor. You can become a professor without being proficient in English. If you could have used your mother tongue, you could maybe even have passed with distinction.
The technological culture of South Africa is constructed on the cultures and in the languages of its white minority. Knowledge, its production and reproduction, is negotiated and built in the languages and culture of this cultural superpower.
Adopting a culturally exclusive approach in South Africa means that if you go to an ATM machine, for instance, the procedure you have to follow will be in English, or when using a computer, the procedure you have to follow is in English. Even the manuals for the use of ordinary cellular phones are in English. So, unless you know that language, you cannot access those technologies. There must be indigenous-centred development to provide the masses of our people with cultural and linguistic access to these processes. This will have to be done in the cultures and languages of the masses, unless we want to suggest that the indigenous languages and cultures of the masses are inherently inferior and can provide no basis for social and cultural advancement.
Hi fanele ku tsundzuka ubuntu [vumunhu]. Hi leswi mfumo wa hina wu vulaka swona. [We should remember the principle of ubuntu. This is what our government says.]
The situation we currently have is one in which the languages of the indigenous majorities are marginalised and underdeveloped. The only way in which to revitalise them is to be given more in terms of the budget, to be supported by government and, more importantly, by the parents of our children at school.
In comparison, you find so many textbooks and so much research material written in English and Afrikaans. Where will our people get this information from? There are no textbooks and research books written in our indigenous languages. It is high time that our writers embarked on that.
This condition of the relative cultural deprivation of the languages of the majorities cannot serve as a viable basis for social and economic development. The latter needs the enlistment of the cultural energies of the masses.
In conclusion, the revitalisation of indigenous languages requires active advocacy work and awareness campaigns. This should involve both state and civil society organisations. A systematic plan for this work needs to be drawn up. Co-operative linkages should be established with bodies involved in similar or related work of a cultural or linguistic kind. Publications flowing out of this work should be produced. [Applause.]