Interview with Dilip Menon - on Learning Zulu and monolingual universities in South Africa

Learning Zulu, a Secret History of Language in South Africa
Mark Sanders
Wits University Press
ISBN: 9781868148707

Questions surrounding multilingualism in South Africa are addressed in a new book by Mark Sanders, Learning Zulu, a secret history. It traces the journey of the writer from his first engagements with Zulu as a Cape Town school boy during a performance of the musical Ipi Ntombi, and the urge he developed to learn Zulu after he had settled in New York. Finding the lessons from fellow expatriates excellent though inadequate in such a foreign setting he returned to South Africa to master Zulu in a proper way. He is confronted with various issues around Zuluness, such as Jacob Zuma’s rape trial and the xenophobic riots in 2008. At the launch of the book in Johannesburg an introduction was delivered by Dilip Menon, director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand. Hans Pienaar sat down with Menon at the centre for an interview on matters emerging from the book and the launch.

You used the phrase “the politics of monolingualism”. Can you explain to me what you mean by that?

One of the things about the landscape of South Africa is that our universities are monolingual within a multilingual landscape. There are various ways to think about a politics of monolingualism. One is the majoritarian: ie there is a majority community in any particular space, they speak a particular language and that becomes de facto the language of that space or country. Or you can have a minority that is ruling and then their language becomes de facto the language of power; it is political will that drives it to become the language of the people. You’ve seen that in South Africa in an earlier period.

But there’s a much larger issue here which moves beyond the terrain of individual countries and that is really the fact that if you think about the history of the world in the last 300 years, predominantly one could speak about it through the narrative of colonialism. And colonialism has meant that English has become the language of power, has become the language of communication in various ways. Of course it is important that people are able to speak across borders and so on, but the fundamental fact remains that if you think about the universities in our parts of the world, whether it is in Africa or Asia, there is a way in which there is a politics of monolingualism and our universities are pale shadows of institutional structures with an epistemological inheritance from elsewhere.

The Euro-American university runs on the principle of English as the language of knowledge, of power, of communication, and we tend to take that on board because in many senses we are servicing the world economy. That’s how we see ourselves, and the politics of monolingualism in our spaces arises from a complete lack of self-confidence in the fact that our languages matter; that there is knowledge in our languages; there are ways of conceptualising ourselves, our community, our history in our language which we don’t tend to take into account. So we make a division in our lives between a politics of engaging with the world and a politics of community. We reserve our multiple languages for engaging with poetry, literature, autobiography – you know, thinking about community and so on – and when it comes to knowledge we immediately turn to English. And this schizophrenia in our understanding of the world arises from the fact that we do not think our languages can bear the burden of knowledge.

This is something we need to think about, this politics of monolingualism, because we know this is not true for China, this is not true for Japan, this is not true for Russia, where they have an extensive vocabulary, across disciplines –  science, maths, astrophysics – as much as producing some of the most profound literature of the 19th and 20th century. That’s the space we need to be in.

I’m immediately thinking of a fascinating review that I read of a book about how English came to be the language of science, and it seems that ever since the First World War there has been a concerted effort from the Anglo-American establishment to push English as the language of science when the French were defeated and the Germans were faced with the embarrassment of having caused this calamity. This reached a peak after the Second World War when our friend the CIA came to the fore and they actually pushed this, you know in fear of Russia taking the lead in science in launching a massive attempt to just translate any scientific paper that came out in a another language immediately into English. Were you aware of any of this?

Yes, I am actually aware of this debate. We also know about the campaign for cultural freedom which was funded by the CIA that led to the foundation of the journal Encounter in England, Quest in India, where the attempt was, one, to promote English, two, to promote the American way of life, and three, to establish America as the repository of political and intellectual liberty. At one level as a historian I am cognisant of this, but at another level, any kind of conspiracy theory has me as a sceptic backing off a bit. I think the important thing to bear in mind is that none of this would have been particularly successful had we not had colonialism earlier, which introduced a level of subordination in our minds.

I don’t think that with post-colonialism and with the formation of the nation-state we managed to recover ourselves fully, as wholly healed psychic beings. There remains the sense of subordination: intellectual subordination as well as all over Africa a kind of racial subordination in the sense of being subject to a hierarchy of colour, where the white person is seen as superior to the black person. In India the same is true and there is a much larger landscape of skin-lightening creams and so on. There is something about our damaged psyche where we are unable to assert ourselves in ways that the Chinese and Japanese were able to do because they were never fully colonised.

This is an important thing to think about. Japan in 1868 had the Meiji restoration. While in China after the Opium Wars there was a lot of European capital investment, the soul of China remained largely undamaged, I would say..Which is why they can think of Confucianism as a living tradition even now, in a way that we can’t in places like Africa and India.

So while it is true that there may be a propagation of English, the tragedy is that we have bought into this in a way that the Japanese and Chinese and Russians have not. And that’s the question to ask. The conspiracy theory gets undermined if one says that, well, if you think about the major powers – and these are not small nations – China, Japan and Russia – they have continued with what they have been doing in their own language. Think about the Japanese scientist who got the Nobel Prize this year for his work on autophagy, the cells that consume themselves. His scientific papers were written in Japanese. Those who wanted to read them got them translated. And that is an act of self-confidence. We do not have self-confidence in our spaces. I am reiterating the point I made in response to your first question.

Obviously that leads one into the whole issue of decolonisation, which is a keyword for the students as well, but which I miss from the students’ rhetoric, or it is there only on the fringes. I want to ask you: Can one take decolonisation seriously if it does not lead to a new language policy, and specifically new universities devoted to a specific language in South Africa?

You’re right when you say one cannot have decolonisation without a language policy. Now I wouldn’t be too hard on the students. Having taught all my life, to blame an 18-year-old is neither here nor there. They enter institutions, they encounter people with opinions ranging across various hues, they inherit a lot of what they say from what they hear, what goes around. So there is a way in which a lot of these opinions are in some sense what the French call bricolage – they put various things together. So if there is somebody to blame it’s institutions and the professoriat.

Having put that on the table and to go on with this question of language, one of the fundamental problems at our universities is that the student is incapacitated mentally and psychically the moment they enter the university. They are told that their languages are merely affective, and not intellectual. So you can speak to each other, you can curse at each other, you can make love in it, but that’s all a private affair. In the public spaces of the university there is an injunction to speak in English and you see this happening in the schools as well, where there are strictures against the speaking of the mother tongue and an insistence on speaking English.

So if we are to have decolonisation, the fundamental thing is that the university must take upon itself the task, and we don’t need new universities, we need the existing universities to take into the account the fact that what we actually teach in our universities is really second-hand and third-hand knowledge. We reproduce syllabi which in many ways were set in place in Euro-American universities 30, 40 years ago. We have something called the canon, so we teach Hegel, Marx, Durkheim, Rousseau and so on and so forth, and there’s an entire idea of a lineage where knowledge comes from elsewhere.

The question here is that if we did have a language policy we could then proceed to the creation of a pedagogical corpus from within our spaces which is a dynamic corpus. Decolonisation is not the mere rejection of everything that comes from Europe or everything that is called white knowledge – that is the shallow end of the debate and most intelligent students I have spoken to do not believe this to be true. Because the world we live in is already a space in which all these knowledges circulate.

So we need a policy where we say, well we need to institute a second language or third language, classes are bilingual, that we produce a corpus of texts which are available not only in English but in Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, depending on where one is. That’s one kind of translation that needs to happen, where you translate from existing social sciences into the local languages. Now one of the consequences of this is that in the course of that translation you are also developing a vocabulary, which will get refined over a period of time. The other thing that needs to happen is to actually think about local traditions of ethics, history, religion, politics that need to be translated into English.

So we need to have this kind of two-way traffic happening and I cannot think of anyone better than the students who come in who are located at the interstices, to be these interstitial thinkers, right, who help make the university, who can help to make the university a better and more intellectually profound place than it is. Trading in second-hand knowledge is not going to get us anywhere; whatever we do, Euro-American universities will do far, far better. They have more resources, and they have a stronger intellectual genealogy of doing this. So there is always – again to go back, and I shall keep emphasising this in all my answers – our lack of self-confidence.

Where does that stem from? We are psychically damaged and we have to restore ourselves. Decolonisation is about that and to engage with the bad end of the spectrum of the debate is not leading us anywhere and is not doing us any favours. To give you an example, which is now doing the rounds of the internet: there is a student who is saying decolonisation means giving up on Western science, on Western mathematics, and people seeing this say look, that is anarchy, that is chaos. But if I were to think about it seriously, that argument in itself is not really profound. It’s a poor rendition of a much more profound argument.

What is the more profound argument? When the student enters the university in our spaces, let’s call it the global South Africa, Asia and so on, they are told that there was something called the Renaissance, something called the scientific revolution, and all knowledge came into existence, all knowledge that we consider modern came into existence at that point – questions of reason, separation superstition and religion and so on. But if you had to look at the history and philosophy of science, the Renaissance would have been impossible in Europe without a carrying over of an Arab tradition of thinking which preserved the best of Greek knowledge. So in that sense the Renaissance was possible only because the Arabs were a bridge to Greece. To remind students, to teach students a genealogy which doesn’t start arbitrarily in the 17th century, is something that’s important, because it’s important to remember genealogy.

One can equally make the argument, that while there may have been all these preliminary discoveries elsewhere, Europe perfected them. That argument is slightly specious, since it encourages amnesia as an intellectual method. We need to establish a landscape of knowledge for students that does not begin from an arbitrary point in history. Let us stop at one fact: when you think about the university, as we call it, and you have this tedious and ridiculous ritual every year – the convocation ceremony, people wearing 13th-century costume – they have these robes and what not – and you think, what is the relevance of this??What is this mystical link being established with Europe? Because it is at the point that you don medieval garb that you remain colonised.

Many believe that the idea of the university came to us from Europe, but nothing could be more profoundly untrue. The university, as George Makdisi’s work has shown, comes to Europe after the Crusades, because the Crusaders were exposed to the madrassa in the Islamic spaces that they went to conquer. Christopher Beckwith, a scholar on Central Asia, has got a book called Warriors of the cloisters in which he shows conclusively that if you think about the madrassa in the Middle East, and you think about Islam in Central Asia, central Asian Islam carries with it the inheritance of Buddhism, and the vihara, which is the original conclave of scholars getting together to engage in knowledge separate from the world. So you have an even older tradition. To know this is important.

You might say this is not important, I’m only interested in the present, but considering our interest in genealogy [laughs] – that we want to know who our grandparents are, and sometimes we take great pride in descent – all of these alternative genealogies create a landscape of knowledge which is truer, broader than the one we have now and goes a long way towards decolonising knowledge. To know that algebra came from the Middle East does not diminish algebra, or us.

Dilip Menon (photo: YouTube)

Just to come back to the focus on language: you talked about the overwhelming nature of Anglo-American knowledge, and you were talking about translating this into local languages, but isn’t it the case that you cannot do this on a voluntary basis? There has to be some force somewhere along the way in the sense that you have to enforce translation, say at the university, if you want to get anywhere. What do you think of that argument?

If you put this in terms of someone doing it voluntarily and someone being forced to do it, it is presented as two stark alternatives. If you think about going up to university you don’t really have a choice as to what you study. [Laughs] You come to a university, you’re given a syllabus and you study it. And that is one of the main points, the sticking points for most of these students: Why are we studying this? And very often the answer that is given to them is: this is what is in place and you need to study it.

So if you think about language as well, it could very easily be incorporated into a syllabus. So let’s say you’re doing political science, or literature and so on, and that one component of that teaching involves translating a text. Now as anyone who has done translation knows, it is not merely about rendering a text from one language into the other. There is a whole world one has to engage with, of concepts, and of the right word that connotes the right degree of affinity with that world. So translation is not an easy task. So what one is setting before the student is a complex intellectual exercise, which is pedagogical, but also historical. It is also creating a text for future generations to use. So if you ask me is this coercion, I say all education is coercion.

To get back to Mark Sanders’s book too, I liked his phrase “making it good” by learning black people’s languages, speaking as a white person, so that’s from the perspective of whites who are really marginal figures nowadays in South African politics. So I wonder if one can recast it as a need for the system to make good. Reparations are often seen in monetary terms, but there are other more important areas of reparation. Would you agree with that?

Oh, certainly. If you think about the idea of reparation, at the end there is no complete form of reparation that is possible. No one can be fully compensated for what they have lost, and it is just not in the power of those who have done wrong to fully compensate those from whom they have taken. So keeping in mind that full reparation is not possible, one has to ask is what is the kind of reparation that is possible in any society which actually helps to heal that society.

There’s one way in which at the international level there is the trivial form (for me – I’m not saying this is true for everybody), which is the form of the apology. So somebody apologises for slavery, the Pope apologises for child abuse in the church and so on, which is probably a necessary step in terms of the Pope or the president of the USA or somebody representing them but it doesn’t actually do anything in the world. It’s merely one generation apologising for what a previous generation has done. It doesn’t address the central question as to the continuing inequalities. The other kind of reparation to think about is the payment of money. When the French revolution happened, the simultaneous revolution in Haiti that overthrew slavery was the limit of the French revolution. The French revolutionaries cracked down on the possibilities of slave rebellion and the establishment of a republic in Haiti. Once slavery was abolished, Haiti had to continue to pay indemnity to France for the loss of its revenues. When you think about all of this and if France were to pay back that money, it still wouldn’t help.

So what do we need? We need a knowledge change, we need people to think about the world differently. We need to think about the whole idea of masters and slaves differently. We need to think about the fact that the world is structured by power differences. That is where questions of language and knowledge come in, because if reparation is to be made in South Africa it can’t be through creating universities to which only a few can have access. It cannot be through creating universities in which the knowledge that is imparted is irrelevant in many senses to the psyche and everyday lives of people all around them.

It should not be that the university does not encompass the experience of the society, and instead reproduces an experience, an ideal experience that exists elsewhere. We all deeply desire something called modernity – we say we are not modern enough, this is the way we are and we need to become modern – and now when we look at the spaces of Europe, [laughs] that film across our eyes is slowly being pulled away as we see Europe collapse into racism, into jingoism. So if we think about knowledge, knowledge at university has to reflect this, reflect the state of power and provide reparation to the people here by actually teaching them what allows them a proper sense of pride. The word “proper” is important. It is not only about national pride, which can descend into chauvinism.

A proper sense of pride can only be based on proper knowledge, where someone coming to the university realises that they are teaching the university something as well. That is not what is happening right now. The university is an act of power. The student enters the landscape of the classroom disempowered and they are told this is what you have to learn. And very often the divorce between what they’re being taught and their own experience of the world is so profound that it introduces psychic damage, so that is the reparation that I’m talking about where every person who comes to university feels that they bring something to the university, and that they are building the future university, the future nation and so on.

I just want to talk a little bit about Afrikaans. My question is, I find it significant that in this year’s round of protests the Afrikaans at Stellenbosch issue has gone completely off the agenda. I might be wrong, I might not have picked it up, but in the rhetoric of the students there is now often the demand for instruction in local languages. Do you see the shift as well – have you observed it as well?

There is a demand for instruction in local languages. But when you say “local languages”, there is also a history of what is a local language, which is the problem with something like Afrikaans. With Afrikaans it’s very difficult to invoke the history of Afrikaans, of how it became a language that was not merely something that was an argot or a pidgin, but actually became a language that has a literature, that has a scientific vocabulary. It is difficult to invoke all of that, even though it is a local language, because we are still too close to the point where it was seen as a language imposed on a population.

So if you think about local languages, it is a fraught landscape, right. So the Pedi will not see Zulu as their language, they see the Zulus as people trying to force a culture on them. As in any country, within this question of local language there are questions of political power, there are questions of histories and so on, and one has to tread carefully. But there is also the practical point, the pragmatic point that to teach Xhosa in Gauteng doesn’t make sense and similarly to teach Zulu in Cape Town as a secondary language doesn’t make sense. One has to work within the fault lines of an existing terrain of language and to introduce language teaching, and to not just have it as language instruction, right, to actually incorporate it into the syllabus in meaningful ways like we’ve been talking about – translation of texts, bilingualism in the classroom …

This is a fundamental process that needs to happen if South Africa is to become a nation in which everybody is able to talk to one another. We don’t have that, and that cannot be emphasised strongly enough. And when you think about this distance between white and black and so on, there is this wonderful book written by Jacob Dlamini, Native Nostalgia. One of the things he talks about is controversial for a lot of people, but he is basically stating a historical fact, that for a lot of black people Afrikaans had become yet another language in their landscape – they joked in it, they watched programmes on television, and it allowed for bonds of affinity. His second book, Askari, talks about another level, the kind of bond that was created at Vlakplaas between white Afrikaner torturers and the black men who worked with them through that language of communication. So you have to think of language as circulating in very many different ways allowing for very many different things. If you think about Native Nostalgia and Afrikaans and how it became the language of conversation, of joking, friendship and so on, it should be possible for Zulu, theoretically, or Xhosa in Cape Town, to become the language of communication and imagination for white people. That is equally possible. So how are we to get there? And that is the question, and it is the question of the university, and right now the demand on the university is profound, because we have a political class that isn’t a political class. We have a kleptocracy in power: without any direction, without any will, without any sense of the future.

So who is to take leadership? Who is best placed to take leadership? It is the university, because that is what the university is all about – universities are about reflection. It’s a luxury to be allowed to think and read and to speak and to influence a generation. That can happen in the university, so I do think universities need to take the lead in this, because it’s not going to come from the political class. At least not the political class we have now. It can come from a political class, and in places like India, it did mean at the time that India became independent the political class showed a sense of leadership. There was a multilingual landscape that was established. I speak four languages, not because I’m a linguist, but that was a requirement. As my father got transferred and moved around, whichever school I went to I learned another language, in a different province. So I have four different languages with four different scripts, with somewhat of a common vocabulary, but not very much. Wherever I travel in India, I feel at home, right.

Feeling at home, it’s a simple thing, a very simple thing. One of the things that I increasingly find with these discussions that are happening about the crisis at universities, and a lot of people are saying now we have to pull our children out and educate them abroad and this and that and the other, they don’t feel at home here. Why do they not feel at home here? Why do friends I know in Johannesburg relocate to Cape Town? They say they do it because too many of my colleagues speak Zulu at work, and I think: they’re not speaking Chinese. They’re speaking Zulu, [laughs] a language that is a local language. So it’s that whole set of complicated connections starting from feeling at home in this country, to the production of knowledge. I mean, it is a big spectrum.

Yes, I think it is one of the things that is implied in Mark’s book that, speaking as a white person, we don’t feel at home because colonialism has forced us to shy away from learning a local language, seeing it as difficult, but it’s just another language.

It’s just another language, because if it were difficult native speakers wouldn’t be speaking it well, either.

To stay with the Afrikaans issue: you mentioned earlier that Afrikaans could serve as a model for other languages.

What little I know, if I were to think about conscious efforts that have been made to make languages encompass a universe of not only human, interpersonal interaction, but also knowledge, I think Afrikaans has done this and Japanese has done this, but these were acts of will. So Japan, during the Meiji restoration they had this policy which is best exemplified in a metaphor where you have the salary man who goes to work in a suit, he comes back home, he takes off the suit, puts on his traditional dress and at home he is “Japanese”. There is a sense that knowledge from the West is useful, but there is something of the core of who we are that we need to retain. This is a 19th-century formulation and just a metaphor.

From the 1920s there was a conscious policy of creating Afrikaans as a language, a language that can connote everything, from love to astrophysics, right, and that was a conscious effort that was done. Now, it’s possible to argue that it was shoved down the throats of people, but it’s also possible to argue that this was an act of will that made it possible for a few to actually have a language that carried the weight of their experience in history, and which they could put alongside the languages of the world. In that sense it is a model. The history of the imposition of Afrikaans is not a model to be emulated. But how Afrikaans was created as a language, for a people, I think it is an interesting model to think about.

With one important proviso, as you said, that one has to take into account that part of this political will was racism and a Europeanisation. I remember as a child we were always taught that if you had a doubt about grammar or spelling issues, always choose the Germanic alternative, which elided the history of Afrikaans as what you might call in quotes a “black language”. It was created by black people: the first book in Afrikaans was the Koran.

Yes, I do know that the first time you had Afrikaans in written form it was in Arabic script. And you see, that is the history we tend to forget when we talk about local languages. All languages are shot through with histories of miscegenation. Every language is a bastard language, right. And that is the thing we have to think about. Salman Rushdie, when he began writing in Indian English he called it the chutnification of language. He talked about our deeply mongrel selves. This is something that people began to think about in the ’90s, largely as a reaction to the purities of nationalism. It was possible in the ’90s, in India at least. 50 years from independence we talked about the fact that, look, there is no pure Indian identity – it is shot through with histories of loan words and sedimentations.

My language is Malayalam. I come from Kerala, which is on the south-western coast. There are words from Portuguese, Chinese, English, Dutch and so on. I think we have to think about that kind of inheritance as well, when we think about something called the local language that Afrikaans moved away from. It looked to Europe, but we can think about ways in which language can look two ways, right?

One of the conceits of apartheid, or one of the artifices that apartheid introduced was that Zulu is wholly a language of community, and so they fetishised the language, the deep Zulu, the Zulu spoken in the royal household. But Zulu can become like English, or like German, or French in a way that there is literature, social sciences, philosophy, aesthetics and so on and so forth. We have to move away from the fetishisation and mystification of language. As you so rightly point out, that it is one of the profound metaphors for us that the first text in Afrikaans is in Arabic.

I was going to touch on that in my next question on Sanders’s book. Of course, he makes a lot of this strand in his book, the purism of Zulu and so on, and he wrote about the shibboleths that were used during the xenophobia incidents in 2008. So if one looks at the solution for this, there has to be some sort of standardisation effort on an official level, and this will level the field a little bit, if one looks at the case of Zulu, by wrenching it from the hands of the royal house, where this deep Zulu is, if I understand Mark correctly.

Yes, but the important thing is there will be all these multiple registers of a language which survive, at any given point. We keep talking about the Queen’s English, BBC English, and nobody on the street speaks English like that.

In Afrikaans we have Hiemstra language.

What does that mean?

Hiemstra was one of the compilers of one of the most used dictionaries, and he became quite sort of, what one may even call fascist in his insistence that his way of spelling and grammar was the right way.

Yes, between demotic speech, everyday speech, and the language that becomes enshrined in the dictionary and what is considered the proper form, there is a whole world in between. I don’t think one should diminish one and exalt the other, one should continue with the landscape as it is. Because if you think about academic production, it has to strike a balance between what people can comprehend and an aspiration to a vocabulary of its own. It’s a bit like liturgy – so you have religious liturgy emerging that separates itself from the common language, and increasingly academic works seem to do that, which is why nobody but the mother and sisters and brothers of academics read their work, or a few other academics and their friends.

We have to rethink the academic enterprise. If we think about the way in which Njabulo Ndebele writes, he writes for everybody. When he speaks everybody can understand and it is deeply profound. Or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, when he writes overpoweringly about what language does to people and what does it mean to think about languages and knowledge from our part of the world, that we need a network of knowledge rather than a hierarchy of knowledge. These are simple ideas which are very profound ideas which can be read by an undergraduate and which can be read by you and me, given our experience. And we arrive at different understandings, but we can still get to the heart of it.

This fetishisation of any language, of academic language, royal language, possibly undercuts the enterprise because all language encompasses variety. And that is what has made English a language of power – there is Caribbean English, there is an Indian English, and the Oxford English Dictionary revises itself and incorporates new words. English is the original creole, as it were. There is this exclamation in India where I come from where we say, “Ayyo” as an exclamation of surprise. Now it’s there in the OED, because they realise that English is a thing that is constantly expanding. That is what one has to keep in mind.

I quite agree with you, but still, I think standardisation is necessary and I think in a sense the tragedy of apartheid is that the apartheid masters used the need for this for their own nefarious purposes and actually poisoned the well and so at the moment we are shying away too much from the need for a standard Zulu or a standard Xhosa that is not connected to some or other ethnic formation like the Zulu royal house.

I agree standardisation is necessary, right, in a landscape in which there is a multiplicity, but the question is again to think about these words that we use. What exactly do we mean by the word “standardisation”? It is not that everybody will speak the same way or to set a register which is unaccomplishable. If we say this is the perfect form of the language, but if nobody speaks it then this is just a pipe dream.

So what we are thinking about alongside the question of standardisation are appropriate forms of pedagogy. How do you teach it? For Zulu, one of the interesting things people say is that you have to immerse yourself – it is almost as if the entire country should take a vacation for one year in Durban and then they will have learnt the language, but there has to be another way of doing this.

When we think about Zulu teaching in schools, or let’s say I want to learn Zulu… I went to the Alliance Française to learn Zulu because it was close to my house. They were offering Zulu classes and a man who worked as a tourist guide, who knew Zulu, took the classes. But he was a tourist guide. So he didn’t have the understanding of language that would allow him to teach me a set of propositions from which I could then move to something else.

I know Malayalam, which is my language, but I can’t teach it. Teaching is another thing altogether. What Afrikaans has developed, what English developed over a period of time, is the way of being able to teach a complete foreigner the language, and that is what we need for Zulu. So standardisation raises the question of the prior pedagogy, which allows us to move beyond propositions like “it is a mysterious language” or “you will never be able to speak it perfectly unless you are one of the royal household”.

But the fact is that we need to start somewhere. We need to be able to say that this is a language that everybody can learn. These are the procedures through which you learn it. This is the grammatical structure. And so on. So having gone through three months of learning you’re not just parroting what you have learnt in those three months but you are allowed a bit of adventure, you can do things on your own.

A problem we have – and this comes from Mark’s strand about the purity of language – in the Afrikaans context … You know when a lot of people are talking about another taalstryd, or another phase of the taalstryd, that we have entered because of what they see as the assault on Afrikaans at specifically the two remaining universities that have Afrikaans instruction, Potchefstroom and Stellenbosch. This struggle tends to be owned by right-wingers, and many of them are apologists of apartheid still. So my argument is that we need two Afrikaans universities where language then can be connected to many other value systems, rather than just identity politics. This doesn’t really flow from what you’ve said, but I wonder what you would say to that.

I would agree with that. Once any language learning comes through the premise of identity politics, it immediately introduces an element of power and of differentiation, of hierarchy into something that is a practical possibility of human beings talking to one another. This is a profound principle when you think about that story in the Bible, the Tower of Babel: the possibility that everyone can speak to one another. It is a profoundly disturbing possibility, which is why you have the idea of Babel where people are split into various languages and so on. So one must set aside identity politics if only for the larger possibility of people coming together. And so no argument can be premised on that.

But the other danger is that in India, for example, you have Sanskrit, which is one of the oldest languages in the world – a lot of the Indian languages, the 19 or 20 that we have, and many dialects, a lot of them derive their structure, a lot of their vocabulary from Sanskrit. But when India became independent, Sanskrit came to be seen as a language of the past, came to be seen as the language of a minority called the Brahmans, who were seen as possessing a monopoly over it. As a result Sanskrit teaching is no longer engaged. Now what has been the consequence of this? I’m 54 now, and this is something that I’ve realised as I began to engage with the project of decolonisation, that I have no connection with a past. I live like an amnesiac, I’m like a sleepwalker. If I wanted to go back and Sanskrit has reflections on religion, philosophy, history, ethics, poetry, if I were to try and read this I cannot read it in Sanskrit, so I read it in translation. But because I have not engaged with that tradition it’s like learning a new language. There are different concepts, there are different categories that make no sense to me. So it’s a tough task to actually begin to read and connect with a tradition that is supposedly mine.

Think about another thing that happens, within Western philosophical texts. Western philosophical texts have created this fictive unity with Greece, so you can take up a book of philosophy and they will refer to Socrates and Plato, they will refer to Augustine, they will refer to Heidegger, they will refer to Derrida, and they’re all contemporaneous on that page. That is a contemporaneity that I cannot summon up. Because for me there is only the last 300 years, and post-independence, an excision of Sanskrit. So the question to ask here in South Africa is, what would the excision of Afrikaans, and the forgetting of other languages in the universities mean? The lady who comes to work in my house is fluent in English, in Venda, in Tswana, in Zulu and in Afrikaans. It is an extraordinary landscape of language.

Yes, yes.

And it is an extraordinary humanity. If you are able to speak these five languages, you are able to connect with those people who speak those languages. It is not just about power and identity and so on. What it does is it dissipates this question of a hard identity. Who are you? You say “I am South African” because that is the identity that is available to you. For most people I know, being white, being Afrikaans, being of English descent is the only identity possible because they speak one language. Or Afrikaans and English at best.

So the question of language and this question of Afrikaans being associated with an identity which, as you rightly said … a lot of the proponents are right-wing and they’re fascist because for them the language is theirs, alone [laughs] … Languages should be a common inheritance and South Africa is struggling with that idea. And that’s the decolonisation that we probably want.

So the right approach to Afrikaans really should be that no Afrikaans speakers should appropriate it for themselves in this creation of this South African identity.

And vice versa. And that everybody speaks every language, I mean that’s the ideal, right. For those who propagate Afrikaans as a language to say that we propagate Afrikaans as a language but Xhosa at the same time. These are conjoined. These are histories that are joined at the hip. To Arabic. To actually separate these out it is like the question of, you know when a family falls apart then the children struggle with the inheritance and say what is dad’s is only mine. That’s a sign of disorder, not a sign of order. And that’s what’s happening right now and this question of a common inheritance has been forgotten. Everybody is hiving off into their own spaces and claiming something entirely for himself or herself, and I don’t think that leads us anywhere. And we need a simpler approach to life, that learning a language means that you talk to people, right, and not only talk to people through a version of Fanakalo. And that was Mark’s point as well. There was the possibility of speaking, but that possibility was confined to a situation of power. Now we’re all equal, or should be, and we need to rethink the question of language differently.


The reference to the CIA’s role in cementing English as the language of science comes from the book Scientific Babel, by Michael Gordin. To quote from the review in The Guardian:

After the first world war, German’s status as a scientific language suffered a blow from which it never fully recovered. From being one of the triumvirate of languages central to science, it became an object of suspicion and even of disgust. By 1919, 16 US states had severely restricted the use of German – if you spoke the language in the streets of Findlay, Ohio, you could be fined $25 by the city council…

[Gordin] charts a cold war “language race”, in which scientists on both sides of the iron curtain strove to keep up with the work being done by their counterparts. The CIA ploughed funds into research on machine translation, while a lucrative private translation industry grew up, turning Russian journals into English so that Anglophone scientists could read about Soviet discoveries a mere six months after they had first appeared in print. English translation of Soviet material opened Russian science up not only to the Americans and the British, but also to a growing international community for whom English was fast becoming the main language of science.


* Prof Menon writes about theses in the mother tongue: “In Japanese, and in China and Russia as well students complete their PhDs in the national language. What I was talking about was the requirement from the Meiji Restoration that students would translate texts from other languages into Japanese. Japan has one of the most flourishing translation industries in the world now. People read Marx to Dylan in Japanese.”


Hierdie artikel is deel van LitNet Akademies (Opvoedkunde) se universiteitseminaar. Klik op die “University Seminar 2016”-banier hierbo om alle essays wat deel vorm van die gesprek, te lees.

This article forms part of the ongoing university seminar, with new essays continually being added. Please click on the “University Seminar 2016” banner above to follow the ongoing conversation and to read more essays on education, access, transformation, language and the Constitution.


  • Johannes Comestor

    Dit is darem verregaande dat Hans Pienaar LW Hiemstra se voortreflike bevordering van Afrikaans met fascisme assosieer.

  • As meer mense hierdie deurdagte en insiggewende siening van Menon kon verstaan, oordink en praktiese werklik kon maak sal ons almal ryker mense wees. Daar is geen eenvoudige manier om hierdie idees toe te pas nie, maar dit veroorsaak 'n gedagteskuif en maak deure oop vir nuwe oplossings. Kennis is werklik nie eensydig en stagnant nie, maar 'n dinamiese proses en behoort aan almal. Ons leer bymekaar - die student by die dosent en die dosent by die student en so kring dit uit. In wese is Menon se siening eintlik post modernisties. Ek wens die studentegroepe wat propageer vir dekolonisasie van Universiete kon oop wees vir werklike debat waar idees soos hierdie bespreek en bedink word; sommige van hulle uitlatings wys dat hulle nie regtig verstaan waaroor dit gaan nie en blyk hulle siening baie eng en afgewater te wees. Hulle dra wel die emosie en die gees van verandering, maar hulle kan nie die leiers wees wat werklike verandering bewerkstellig nie. Mense soos Menon moet die tipe leiding gee wat uiteindelik tot werklike oplossings kan lei.

  • Monica Hammes

    While reading this thoughtful piece I once again asked myself "Who is stopping us/them?" Too often one gets the impression that someone out there must give permission or must abdicate or whatever before we/they can start picking the low hanging fruit of decolonisation.
    Here are three examples:
    1. Recently there was an amazing story on the Internet about a library in Fez, Morocco. Only one of the many excellent libraries in Africa, eg Timbuctoo, Alexandria, which can be brought to the attention of staff and students on university campuses. I cannot imagine anybody complaining about that.
    2. In the Afrikaans community there is an initiative to populate Wikipedia with articles in Afrikaans and many people are contributing. The same can be done in all the other local languages. It is an ideal place to tell our story.
    3. I could not help to chuckle this morning when I saw the Grade R graduation ceremony complete with small kids "wearing 13th-century costume", and, as you said “ they have these robes and what not – and you think, what is the relevance of this?” This was at a black school where I am one of only two white people who come there regularly. The parents are so poor that they cannot pay school fees nor uniforms but they can dish out the R600 for this event. And I know this is going on all over the country. Who should bring an end to this?

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.