Language is more than a means of communication but an influential tool in preserving culture. In language are contained various nuances that allow individuals explore different relationships, emotions and power.
Language has even been used as a weapon, a means to subjugate and enslave people. When Africans were captured and forcibly taken across the Atlantic as slaves, aside from being given new names, they were forced to speak English and abandon their indigenous languages. This had the effect of wiping their identities and forcing them to adopt identities of a slave.
On the continent, when the missionaries and colonialists arrived, they did not bother to learn the indigenous African languages but forced the Africans to learn English, French, Portuguese, German or Spanish. African languages were seen as being uncouth or uncivilised.
Despite the abolishment of the enslavement of Africans, the end of colonialism and the promotion of Pan-African ideals, the issue of language and African identity is still very problematic on the continent today.
Recently, South Africa was caught up in yet another form of protests with students at Pretoria High School for Girls (PHSG) speaking out against the school’s rules against natural African hair. Black girls complained that they were not allowed to have their hair in natural afro and were forced to chemically straighten their hair.
Girls as young as 13 years old spoke out against these school rules which they felt were racist and perpetuated the belief that the natural African was uncouth.
Aside from the rules on hair, the black African girls were not allowed, by some teachers, to speak their indigenous African languages. Some of the teachers would make statements such as “don’t make those funny sounds,” the students at the school said.
In other schools in South Africa the issue of language is equally troublesome. At one school students are said to be fined R10 for speaking in isiXhosa. At Sans Souci High School in the Western Cape, students were given a demerit for speaking vernacular with school officials stating that the only languages allowed were English and Afrikaans.
The issue of language is not only at high schools but also at universities. Students at both Stellenbosch University and the University of Pretoria have both challenged the language policies at the institutions where some of the courses are only available in Afrikaans.
It is quite concerning that the 22 years after the end of Apartheid the politics of language is still extremely prominent in South Africa. In 1976, students in Soweto marched against the fact that Afrikaans was to be the language of instruction in schools, 40 years later students in South African academic institutions still face the struggle.
How is possible that in an African country with majority African people, indigenous African languages are treated with such contempt? Why is it that in African countries foreign languages are given greater prominence than the indigenous?
This question does not only apply to South Africa but also Zimbabwe where the revised education curriculum has proposed to introduce French and Chinese into schools and yet Shona and Ndebele are not compulsory nationwide, neither are the other 12 indigenous official languages in the Zimbabwean constitution.
As Africa continues to decolonise, one of the key issues that needs to be addressed is that of language. It should not be a spectacle or a wonder to find a white person who has lived in Africa their whole life speaking a vernacular language. If one were to reside in Japan would it be an amazement to find they speak Japanese?
African languages need to be given prominence and reverence in Africa that other languages elsewhere receive. Why should the African compromise on speaking Swahili, Sotho, Bemba, Twa or Igbo when in France they will speak French or in Russia, Russian?
This is not to say that one should abandon the speaking of English or other foreign languages. In fact, the learning of multiple languages should be encouraged as it is a way in which one can immerse themselves in the understanding of other people and their culture.
But it is important that the African language and identity reclaim an important status in the African narrative. In 2016, for an African language to be referred to as “those funny noises” should be unacceptable.
Both the MEC’s for Education in Gauteng and the Western Cape in South Africa have compelled the schools in question, PHSG and Sans Souci to revise their policies following the recent controversies.
More than that, what is needed for there to be a revamp in the national policies of African countries. Last year Tanzania opted to dump English as the language of instruction in schools in favour of Swahili. Such a move is an important step in reclaiming the importance of African languages.
Aside from national policy, individuals in the arts, such as musicians, authors, playwrights and filmmakers should produce work in vernacular. This will not allow African languages a platform to be showcased but also contribute to the preservation of the language and the inadvertently the culture of the people.
(This article first appeared in The Herald on 06/09/2016)