South Africa: Minister Nathi Mthethwa - Indigenous Languages Conference, Ekurhuleni

press release

Opening address by Minister Nathi Mthethwa at the Indigenous Languages Conference, Ekurhuleni, Theme: "Celebrating the Year of Indigenous Languages"

Programme Director: Mr Putco Mafani

MMC for Community Services: Ekurhuleni, Cllr Nomadlozi Nkosi

Dr David Maahlamela, Chair of the PanSALB

Esteemed Guest of Honour and Keynote Speaker: Prof Molefi Asante

HOD of Gauteng Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation: Ms Monica Newton

Prof Simphiwe Sesanti of the Institute of African Renaissance Studies at UNISA,


Delegates from Provinces, Universities, Book Clubs and Organisations

Distinguished Guests

Members of the Media

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Let us also give a special welcome to students present here today who have received language bursaries from this Department.

We are gathering here today in a year in which the United Nations has declared as the Year of Indigenous Languages, conscious of the plight of indigenous people all over the people.

UNESCO, an agency of the United Nations charged with the responsibility of promoting the year on Indigenous Languages, make a telling point when they say:

"keeping our languages alive is the work of generations (... ). Our languages are like sinews that ties us to our heritage and our ancestors; they might tear, but can be mended, with care, with love, and with lots of hard work.

It continues to say:

"a person's freedom to use his or her language is a prerequisite to freedom of thought, freedom of opinion and expression, access to education and information, cultural expression, and other values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (... ). We believe that it is key to unlock national strategic assets - indigenous languages - which have the potential to benefit humanity as a whole by providing original solutions to contemporary challenges".

We meet at a time when we have been seized with celebrating our Heritage and all that binds us together as a nation.

Consistent with the vision of the United Nations, we as country have been celebrating the importance of our literary classics written in indigenous languages.

At the government level we have made progress through entrenching language equality through the establishment of the PanSALB and more recently in particular the Official Languages Act of 2013 that demands of our civil service that our people be served in their own languages and the languages of their choice.

We welcome PanSALB's work in monitoring the implementation of the Official Languages Act.

We have been encouraging all South Africans to visit our libraries and take out books in our indigenous languages.

We have taken it upon our own shoulders in a partnership with the National Library to reprint South African literary classics in indigenous languages.

We have done so with pride and dignity, knowing fully well that disseminating our literature conveyed in our languages is an act of restoration and an assertion of transformation.

We have done all this to convey a simple yet powerful message:

You are what you speak.

We are what we speak.

We have been deprived through centuries of colonialism, segregation and apartheid of putting our languages at the centre-stage of our development and of our lives.

We have been deprived of our cultural identity and our economic, psychic, spiritual and social well-being as a result.

And this hijacking of our identity has not been by chance, but a deliberate, concerted, willful and systematic deprivation, depriving Africa of its Africanness, and the world of its worldliness.

Because our languages are what makes us located on this African earth and it is from this rootedness, the uniqueness of our location, that we contribute to the cultural wealth of the world.

Our languages are not inferior, nor incapable of scientific or rational thought.

In fact they have been proven to be more robust, resilient and complex than the languages imposed upon us - as that African scholar, Ngugi wa Thiong'o would say, the imposition of these languages have been brought about both through the barrel of a pen and the barrel of a gun. And I quote from his writing:

"Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle."

This "visibly gentle" action became a cultural bomb laying waste nations and states and destroying people's identity, loyalty, philosophy and self-worth.

I am reminded of the words of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, who championed the colonial project in India on behalf of the British Empire. His advocacy for the policy of using colonial language in education gives insight into what the colonial powers sought to achieve.

In his Memorandum or "Minute Upon Indian Education", which he wrote for the Governor-General of India, he sought to produce a class of colonized people through English language education who would be "a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect." He writes and I quote:

"We ought to employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing; that English is better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic; that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanskrit or Arabic; that neither as the languages of law, nor as the languages of religion, have the Sanskrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our engagement; that it is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed... "

"I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanscrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England... "

"How, then, stands the case? We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language. The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre- eminent even among the languages of the West."

Not long after this, English was made the official language for the colonial governments across the world.

It has taken a titanic fight over centuries for the liberation movements to be victorious and for the ideas of those who put Africa first, to come to fruition - more recently from the turn of the last century we remember the ilk of Pixley ka Isaka Seme to Marcus Garvey, from W.E. B. du Bois and Sylvester Williams to Charlotte Maxeke, from Moses Kotane to Clemens Kadalie, from the founders of the South African Native National Congress in 1912 (later the ANC) to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, among others, who have shaped the way in which we have viewed ourselves and where we are going as a people.

Because lived experience has shown us, what we always knew to be true, that speaking in a language, teaching in a language, is not value neutral but is a cultural transmission.

We know that languages develop, when they are spoken by powerful people. Because then all those who want to access that power are forced to learn the languages of the powerful.

In The Silent Dialogue, Lisa Delpit writes about the culture of power and how "Success in institutions-schools, workplaces, and so on-is predicated upon acquisition of the culture of those in power."

More recently, through a newer book, "Multiplication is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People's Children. (The title is based on the words of an African-American boy who, discouraged by the difficulty of a task, declared the subject out-of-reach), she says:

"I am angry that the conversation about educating our children has become so restricted... "What has happened to the societal desire to instill character? To develop creativity? To cultivate courage and kindness?"

Our late Poet Laureate, Mazisi Kunene wrote in a poem that:

Ukukhula Kuya ngengqondo

Bona labo abasivalele endlini

Bethi kasikhule kandube sibone ilanga

Yibo bemazwi abo angangawabantwana

Yibo bengazanga ukukhula okungokukhula kwempela

Kona akuyi ngabo labo asebekhulile kuya ngengqondo

Translation reads as follows:

Growth is by mentoring the mind

Those who have locked us behind doors

Telling us to grow before seeing the sun

Are true infants, not understanding matters

Without any clue as to the true rites of our passage

Growth is not measured by how tall one stands

Growth is engendered by mentoring, exposing the mind

It is with this imperative of instilling character, inculcating creativity and mentorship that our indigenous languages should speak and take centre-stage.

As we explore the theme of Celebrating the Year of Indigenous Languages we must stake stock of how far we have come and what gains we have made since 1994 and what remains to be done to transform the linguistic landscape and to ensure that the languages of our homes are the languages of the economy and the languages that are used and can command undivided attention in the global platforms of the world.

Three days ago on 30 September we marked International Translation Day and it is important that we also focus on literature and translation so that we tell the South African story in many different ways and to different audiences.

It is crucial that every South African school child has access to literature in their home languages and to literature in translation from the rest of our indigenous languages.

Finally, this year we pay tribute to the class of 1919 - we remember the great South African intellectuals and authors such as Eskia Mphahlele, Peter Abrahams, Noni Jabavu and Sibusiso Nyembezi born one hundred years ago, and all of whom left a legacy of greatness at home, in the rest of Africa and its Diaspora and the world.

Let us take courage from their contributions as we too must be as disciplined and decisive as they were, in fulfilling their mission, in developing our languages, our culture, our creative economy and in leaving unflinchingly our decisive mark in the world.

I thank you.

Issued by: Department of Arts and Culture

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