GOING against the trends, an isiXhosa newspaper in the Eastern Cape has been launched, led by Unathi Kondile. Will this turn out to be a watershed moment, not only for the media industry and its twilight print segment, but for the country itself?
Other titles do exist in local languages, but these are usually just shells run by a core staff in which news produced by others is poured in in translated form. Ilisolezwe aims to have a proper staff producing news in isiXhosa from the start.
Independent Newspapers under its new management has acquired a reputation for running titles into the ground, so it remains to be seen whether the project will succeed. The least we can hope for is that its arrival will put the spotlight on an issue that is hugely underplayed, but which several thinkers, academics and administrators believe is a key factor in SA’s development: language.
As the "Africa rising" narrative rolls on, and the continent’s middle class grows, calls for the vernacular are increasing. Recently Tanzania announced plans to have all education eventually presented in Swahili.
Anton Harber wrote on this website about the change in his students’ preference for their mother tongue, from just about zero two years ago to a fair majority this year. Earlier this year reports highlighted the far better performance of grade 6 pupils in maths, who responded to instructions in their home languages.
Among educationalists and cultural experts there is little doubt that mother-tongue education is essential for a child’s full development. Paradoxically, this is most true for maths and science. Most pupils displaying talent in these disciplines are a little less proficient in languages and therefore need instruction in the language they understand the best, the one they grew up with. The only real argument in this broad consensus is at which level teaching should change to the lingua franca of science, English. Must it be at primary school or only at postgraduate level, which is the case in most European countries?
In SA, however, there seems to be an enormous bias against local languages. One factor certainly is the conflation of ethnicity with language, another disaster of the homeland system that we are unable to shake off. But it is also negative fallout from globalisation, which has induced in many members of the middle classes a disdain for the vernacular.
It is important for the issue to be seen in the context of transformation, and here the events at the University of Cape Town (UCT) can provide a useful lens.
Many commentators were quick to state that calls for the removal of Cecil John Rhodes’s statue is really about the slow pace of transformation at the university. Some have made a convincing case that discrimination on racial lines is still being practiced. Looking in from the outside, academia appears like a labyrinth of firewalling and gatekeeping in which merit does not always determine the pecking order. It does seem, however, that such merit is insisted on when the applicants are black.
But what is transformation about? If it has to do with rooting out discrimination or adapting the curriculum, then it should be easy to bring about. Such transformation is merely an affirmative action, that awkward euphemism for token change. By pursuing such an agenda exclusively, you are merely reinforcing a very Eurocentric discourse, suffused in the liberalism activists so despise.
Transformation has to be about more than that. It must have to do with eradicating the economic ills left by white colonial domination, with transforming a deadly system that relegated poor black people to lives of misery into one in which the opportunities are equal for all. Which is why the anti-Rhodes movement has become so important. It allows us to move beyond a debate that is stuck in anti-apartheid discourse, in angry demands for blackwashing institutions with tokens and quotas.
The problem I have with the commentary is a failure to understand the "enemy". UCT is not a standalone, provincial backwater devoted to Seffrican culture. However conservative you may find it to be in your limited exposure to it in your field of specialisation, it is a globalised entity, fully integrated into a vast network of institutions. Technology has changed it into more of a node for tertiary learning than a site-specific edifice.
This is by virtue of English, its medium of instruction, which is a language without parallel in its ability to absorb and transmit knowledge from other cultures and languages. English has an array of usages and an archive so enormous that no single person has been able to have a full grip on it for several generations.
You cannot transform it, it transforms you. When commentators in the Rhodes debate speak of transformation, they can only mean transformation of the humanities, and some minor sections of law, because in other faculties not much more can be done than the cosmetics of blackening the staff complement. The basis of their knowledge will stay Eurocentric for a long time to come. This is especially so as we negotiate the extended information technology revolution. Scholars such as Nicholas Ostler, in his Empires of the Word, have shown how lingua francas such as Greek, Latin and English rode on technological innovation and vice versa.
Even if the humanities were to become founded on postcolonial studies, to manufacture a scenario, the already globalised nature of postcolonial studies will ensure they remain Anglocentric. Already most work in the field is being done at American universities and while the offerings from African universities will certainly improve, they will remain overwhelmed by the other "Englishes" for some time to come, perhaps forever. Postcolonial studies will never really gain traction unless they are extended to include colonial studies in general, incorporating the many examples of colonialism in other worlds than just the Third World.
This will be neither here nor there for the many black Africans whose command of English is as good as any, but gaining such command is only possible if your parents have had the financial means and access to Eurocentric schools. In the developing world English has become the dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. And vociferous campaigns for the removal of discrimination and adaptation of curricula could merely end up in promoting the process of Eurocentric absorption.
The way out lies in promoting the vernacular. Insisting on lectures being given in local languages might go some way and will help students master their course material, but will not really address the concerns above unless the whole university becomes embedded in a particular vernacular. In UCT’s case this is very unlikely, not only because it serves a well-established English-speaking community in the Western Cape, but because its attraction to its customers is being a gateway to the global economy.
But we could nominate other universities to transform themselves into carriers of the vernacular. Rhodes University springs to mind. Its incongruity, always fondly remarked on by visitors can be ameliorated by turning it into a bilingual university where all lectures, from maths to the arts, have to be in isiXhosa.
Achille Mbembe, one of the foremost postcolonial thinkers in SA, points to already well-established models, one of which is just down the road from UCT. At Stellenbosch University one has a living example of real transformation, which turned a creole, "bastard" language from the 19th century into a vehicle for the rapid development of a society of poor white Afrikaans speakers.
Sure, colonial and apartheid policies played their part, but SA would have had even fewer engineers, scientists and artists had it not been for the Afrikaans language movement. There is no reason why this cannot happen in any of the other indigenous languages.
Setting up a newspaper in a local language may be a good start. Indeed, a key part of the Afrikaner transformation was the establishment of Nasionale Pers, which in its current incarnation of Naspers has become a global economic player.