Afrikaans, African languages and indigenous knowledge systems - the connection

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Paper presented at the Roots-conference at the University of the Western Cape, 22-23 September 2009

Prof Sandile Gxilishe, University of Cape Town


This paper looks at the widening inequalities in the fields of science, education and technology in respect of African languages. With the advent of the post-1994 era with a multilingualism policy, the paper discusses challenges facing African languages and what can be done to meet these. Suggestions are made as to the role which Afrikaans can play, given that it has gone through some of these experiences. The paper gives a brief history of Afrikaans and lessons to be learnt from that history.


It is said that of all the elements which best characterise an individual, language is the most obvious. It is through language that we convey our ideas. All the accumulated knowledge, value systems, aspirations, beliefs, history and identity find expression through language. Language constitutes an important piece of a person’s multiple identities and is access to a whole culture, a cultural experience, a way of looking at the world. Hence losing a language will core out a nation and reduce it to a nation without a heart and soul (Mutasa 2006; Alexander 2005).

Decades after the political "independences" the situation of African languages keeps on widening the inequalities, in the fields of science, education and technology. African languages have not been used for economic value nor, at most times, in higher functions, for example in economic, cultural and practical situations.

South Africa pre-1994

In South Africa pre-1994, the development of African languages was restricted, in contrast to the development of Afrikaans, which in less than 25 years became the language of instruction in several universities (Campbell 2008:69). Xhosa, for example, was first reduced to writing in 1824, whereas the first literary work in Afrikaans was in 1832. Commenting on the strategy of the Afrikaans regime, Cluver pointed out that the government never intended to develop African languages into fully standardised languages. It sought to limit them to use within the family, cultural group, the Bantustan and the school (Cluver 1991:6).

However, the era described above has since passed and a new policy of multilingualism has since been adopted which has made a significant break with the rigid policy of Afrikaans-English bilingualism that existed during the apartheid years.

Multilingualism policy

According to the post-apartheid Constitution, language policy must recognise the historically diminished use status of the indigenous languages of the South African people. The state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages. It commits the government to build upon an underlying philosophy of pluralism and linguistic human rights by pursuing a policy of multilingualism.

Historical background regarding the use of African indigenous languages in the past

Despite the above-stated good intentions by the present government, a crisis is looming in South Africa and in Africa per se regarding the preservation, maintenance and associated identity of our indigenous African languages. These indigenous languages are languages which from time immemorial have been vital in day to day communication of peoples of Africa. They have been the cornerstone in acculturation, that is, in the process of dissemination of accumulated knowledge, wisdom and values and the process of assimilating new ideas into an exciting cognitive structure. There was no stigma attached to the use of one’s own language for any purpose (Mutasa 2006:80).

However, after independence countries were grouped according to the languages adopted at independence, signifying the dependency syndrome and neocolonialism. This created a scenario which continues to stultify and marginalise African languages.


Students taking African languages courses

In our country, African indigenous languages are beset by many challenges. University students are saying farewell to South African indigenous tongues as they turn their backs on studying African languages. Classes have dwindled, because few people today consider teaching an attractive profession. Until 1994 many students studied African languages as part of a teaching degree. Departments of African languages are closing down, because student numbers have fallen drastically. The number of student enrolments in official indigenous African languages at universities and technikons has shown a dramatic decline of about 50 percent since 1999.

Literature written in African Languages

Few books are published in indigenous languages. There is no market for them. Today we, speakers of African languages, are not keen to read literature written in indigenous languages. The only book that sells well in African languages is the Bible (Kaschula 2008). South African indigenous literature, for example, has for long not provided mature commentary on the society in which we live. The material published has been parochial, apolitical and neutral in style. Only apolitical novels were published in the indigenous languages. Only law-abiding and conservative material was fed into the school market by the system. African literature written in indigenous languages has for long been aimed at the school market.

Parents’ attitude towards African languages

Many African parents equate education with competency in English. Mutasa (2006) points out that on many occasions speakers of African languages boast about how their children can speak English, French and Portuguese, but rarely do they utter the same boasts and compliments when the same child speaks an African language or the second and third African language, significantly, using its idioms and proverbs. Many speakers of African languages view the knowledge of European languages as a sign of intelligence and a major achievement for the child.

The use of European languages conjures up or engenders stigmatisation of African languages, for it creates the impression that African languages are inferior and that they cannot be used for effective communication. What this also implies is that with European languages, business can be achieved and, conversely, with African languages, there are no effective business transactions. Thus, changing the image and status of African languages in the practical sense of the word remains a challenge on the continent.

Like other people of the world, Africans South of the Sahara, can best learn in their own languages if opportunities to do so avail themselves. Africans can improve their lives and overall living standards, if they use their languages in domains related to economic development.

Mother-tongue education

Mother tongue education is South Africa’s and Africa’s missing link. And indeed its importance for the reduction of inequality, through the economic and social development of the majority of South African citizens, cannot be underestimated.

Africa remains the only continent where children go to school in languages other than their own.

Why is this allowed to persist on the continent? African languages spoken in South Africa, for example, continue to remain a largely untapped resource as far as contributing to societal development is concerned because of this factor.

The African elite

The African elite preach about the importance of African languages at conferences and other platforms, but they do not show much enthusiasm, largely because they are not used to doing business in African languages. They even converse in European languages among themselves, even in situations where one would expect them to speak an African language. Pandor (1995), for example, reported that in 1994, 87 percent of the speeches made in parliament were in English; less than 5 percent were in Afrikaans and the rest, 8 percent, were in the nine African languages – that is less than 1 percent in each of these languages.

It is often claimed that indigenous African languages do not possess the requisite registers for (Western) science and scholarship or other high-status functions. Indigenous African languages possess many specialised registers that are not available to speakers of English and other non-African languages. As examples, Gough (1999) mentions the rhetoric employed in various ceremonies like releasing the widow, opening a homestead, traditional legal discourse, in praise poetry or even a folk tale. We need only think, for instance, within the field of Indigenous Knowledge Systems, of the specialised registers associated with traditional heeling practices or with the use of indigenous technologies.

All the successful societies of Asia and Europe are societies which use their own languages. The fact that people use their own languages contributes immensely to their development endeavour in all societies. The fact that English is a universal language does not mean that Danish people, who are no more than five million people, use English or French, although these languages are more universal. The Malaysians, who got their independence within six months of Ghana’s independence, today use Bahasa on a large scale. The Indonesians, who were also colonised by the Dutch, also do not use Dutch. They use Bahasa. Since Hong Kong reverted back to China, Chinese is rapidly replacing English in Hong Kong (Prah 2001).

If we as Africans want to culturally and educationally empower the masses of Africa, we have to take knowledge to the masses in languages of their native historical experience and creativity. Unless we do this, there is no chance of advancement. Until we do this, we will be forever culturally tied to the linguistic and cultural apron strings of the former masters of the world!

There is an estimate by a linguist of Alaska in Fairbanks, writes Prah (2001:12), who projects that in another hundred years, 95 per cent of the currently spoken speech forms in the world will be extinct. When he says something like that, he does not mean English, French, Dutch, Chinese or Bahasa. He means the languages of the dregs of the Third World. The moment our African languages become extinct, we cease culturally, as Africans, to exist. We vanish into history. We become culturally part of the world whose language we have adopted. Culturally we would be totally de-nationalised.

That danger is serious.

People’s language attitudes and acceptability

Attitudes are very important, as they protect people’s self-esteem and allow people to express their fundamental values. Attitudes or perceptions play a crucial part when it comes to language policy implementation. Hence, in spite of the government and language planners, the implementation of a language policy depends to a large extent on the people’s perception of or attitude towards a language. What appears crucial in policy formulation is the language’s acceptability. People can develop the necessary material, but without the people’s will and right attitude nothing can be achieved. The fact that the Bill of Rights guarantees the right of the individual to choose the language of learning, the low status and low economic value of African languages prevent a concerted effort being made to promote the use of these languages. There is currently a widespread mistrust of mother-tongue tuition. This arose from apartheid’s attempt to foster and impose ethnicity as a divide and rule strategy (Moodley 2005). Other legacies from the apartheid era such as the Bantu Education Act also perpetuate a stigma against mother-tongue education as disempowering.

Empowering African people

One major factor that keeps African languages in the periphery is the economic circumstances of the speakers of the languages. The speakers of African languages are not empowered economically and technologically enough to determine their own destiny. Nations that use their own languages practically in all aspects of public domain are countries that are economically and technologically advanced. Examples of such nations are Japan, China and Malaysia. Another instructive example is Afrikaans, which was bestowed perquisites and status after the Afrikaners had made inroads into the economy. The economic exigency is a prerequisite in language revalorisation. If a group owns nothing, in terms of big companies that produce market products that sell, their language is not bestowed power, in essence. Nothing much exists in African languages because the speakers of those languages do not own big companies. Thus empowering Africans economically and technologically is an essential ingredient in the promotion of their language.

According to Van der Rheede, recent research regarding community development indicates that an indigenous language:

  • is of the utmost importance for participatory and sustainable community development
  • is instrumental for broad-based economic empowerment
  • is a crucial determinant for holistic community development.

Thus, our official indigenous South African languages provide a variety of economic opportunities for the economic, cultural, educational, social and spiritual advancement of indigenous South African communities.

Role of Afrikaans

A model of national integration which seeks to counter the dominance of the English language in South Africa, ideally requires that speakers of all marginalised languages work together in mutually reinforcing collective self-interest.

This conference can set the platform for such a purpose, in that Afrikaans speakers, with their historical experience of fighting (largely successfully) against English hegemony, have the opportunity to play a leading role in a collective movement which seeks to redress the linguistic inequality which characterises present day South African Society. The development of Afrikaans from a highly stigmatised, lowly "kitchen vernacular" to that of a standard language of science, technology and government may serve as an example for the development and acquisition of higher domains by the currently marginalised African languages (Schlemmer and Giliomee 2001:5). Afrikaans can use the positive parts of its history to plan for the promotion of African languages. It shared a fate not dissimilar to that of African languages, under colonialism: denigrated, devalued and dispensable. Yet Afrikaners made a meteoric rise to political dominance whereby they were able to elevate and entrench their language through state power.

During the late 19th and the 20th century Afrikaans was consciously built up to compete with English and Dutch as a language of higher learning and science, only one of four languages during the 20th century to have been elevated to this level.

The Afrikaans-speaking community was the major factor in shifting the use of Afrikaans, even before it was used as a nationalistic tool for the apartheid government. It had reached a high degree of social and economic value because of the hard work of the community in transcription and grammar development, including the development of its literature.

Lessons from the history of Afrikaans

On writing on how Afrikaans became a language of economic value, Van der Rheede points to lessons we can learn from the history of Afrikaans, such as:

  • the role of minority indigenous language activists
  • the belief in your language
  • the importance of mother-tongue education to develop communities
  • the creation of products and services in your language
  • the importance of language pride and loyalty
  • the importance of institutionalisation for the protection and promotion of minority indigenous languages
  • the importance of a network of support and engagement between minority indigenous languages.


As the world moves further into the 21st century, Africans are beginning to reappropriate their languages. Monolingual dictionaries are being prepared by indigenous speakers of African languages who are also linguists. Africans are engaged in language elaboration, vocabulary expansion, standardisation of orthographies and a range of other corpus planning activities. There are language committees and boards and language research institutes in many African countries and regional bodies like the Linguistic Association of SADC Universities (LASU), the Academy of African Languages (ACALAN), African Languages Association of Southern Africa (ALASA), and Isiqhamo sikaPhalo in the Western Cape, to name a few. Through conferences and other fora organised by the regional bodies, experiences of the participating countries are shared.

We are beginning to see transformation through black-run printing presses such as Skotaville, Vivlia and BARD publishers. With funding from the Ministry of Arts and Culture, one publisher, Realities Xhosa, a new publishing house, specialises in the publication of Xhosa literary works. This sets the scene where African literature can be liberated from its past to develop naturally. If the elevation of indigenous languages as equal-status languages achieves increased literacy in these languages among all South Africans this will result in a wider adult readership which, in turn, will encourage the publication of more creative works which do not cater only for the school market.

In conclusion, for true multilingualism to prevail in our country, we should aspire to a situation whereby every South African citizen has a useful knowledge of English, Afrikaans and one or more African languages. Such a genuinely multilingual citizenry which has a multilingual repertoire broadly representative of the composite linguistic communities of the South African population at its disposal, would signify considerable progress towards the achievement of the linguistic equality aspired to in the Constitution. It would also be a great facilitator of communication between citizens of diverse linguistic backgrounds. Such a scenario would clearly provide more fertile ground for the emergence of sentiments of social unity and for the development of community relations, without which democratic national integration will remain a faint prospect (Orman 2008).


Alexander, N. 2001a. Die noodsaak van universiteite vir die oorlewing van die nie-dominante tale in Suid-Afrika. In Kruispad:Die toekoms van Afrikaans as openbare taal. Eds H Giliomee and L Schlemmer.

—. The role of African universities in the intellectualization of African languages
Alexander. asp. Accessed 28/02/2006.

Batibo, HM. 2009. Language documentation as a strategy for the empowerment of the minority languages of Africa. Selected Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference onAfrican Linguistics. Eds Masangu Matondo et al. Sommerville, MA Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

Cluver, AD. 1991. Language planning models for a post-apartheid South Africa.

Language Problems and language Planning , 15(2).

Coetzee, A. 2009. Een land, een taal? Die Burger, 22 August.

De Martino, S. 2009. Die taal is gans volk? Building a common Afrikaans languageidentity and community in post-apartheid South Africa. Paper prepared for the UCT School of International Training.

Gough, D. 1997. African languages: discourse, concepts for a post-apartheid South Africa. Language Problems and Language Planning, 15(2).

Gxilishe, S. 2009a. Towards promoting African languages in a multilingual context. Paper presented at the KKNK at Oudtshoorn.

–. 2009b. How can Xhosa become a language with economic value? Discussion held at Langa during Xhosa Week.

Kaschula, RH. 2008 The oppression of isiXhosa literature and the irony of transformation. English in Africa, 35(1).

Louw , PE . 2004. Political power, national identity, and language: the case of Afrikaans. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 170.

Moodley, M. 2000. African renaissance and language policies in comparative perspective. Politikon, 27(1).

Mutasa , DE . 2006. African languages in the 21st Century: The main challenges. Pretoria: Simba Guru Publishers.

Orman, J. 2008. Language policy and nation-building in post-apartheid South Africa. United Kingdom: Lighting Source UK Ltd.

Pandor, N. 1995. Constitutional multilingualism: Problems, possibilities, practicalities. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Conference of the Southern AfricanApplied Linguistics Association (SAALA). University of Stellenbosch.

Prah, KK. 2001. In tongues: African languages and the challenges of development. Cape Town: Centre for the Advanced Studies of African Society.

Roy-Campbell, ZM. 2001. Empowerment through languages: The Africanexperience – Tanzania and beyond. New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc.

Schlemmer, L and H Giliomee. 2001. Inleiding. In Kruispad: Die toekoms vanAfrikaans as openbare taal. Eds H Giliomee and L Schlemmer. Cape Town: Tafelberg.

Van der Rheede, CO. 2008. Exploring the actual economic activities and possibleeconomic opportunities in the official indigenous South African languages and theimplications thereof for Broad Based Economic Empowerment of Developing IndigenousCommunities – A comparative and cross-cultural study. Research proposal.

—. 2008. Background on how Afrikaans became a language ofeconomic value.

—. 2009. Armoede in die bruin gemeenskap van Suid-Afrika.Waar lê die oplossing? Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

Biographical note  

Sandile Gxilishe is Emeritus Associate Professor in the School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Cape Town. His chief interests are acquisition research in both first and second language, and first- and second-language teaching and learning. He has published extensively on these. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (SBA) and also a member of the Ministerial Steering Committee in the Afrikaans Project.

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  • I understand the tragedy of a language and a culture diminishing, but on the other hand developing a language from a private to a public language takes a lot of resources. South Africa doesn't have the resources to develop all the official languages in politics, education, commerce etc. Is it not better for the development of the people to better their understanding and usage of English rather than clinging to a diminishing language and culture. It is very sad when a language and culture dies, but what is better for the development of the future generations? In evolution things die and new things are born, it is the nature of the world. Most of the countries mentioned in this article are countries with only one dominant language, how would you go about developing 9 different languages to a national level? 

    China is mentioned as a country where people are educated in their own language. However, Chinese comprises of seven main dialects, Mandarin (??), Cantonese (???, ???), Hakka (???), Wu (??), Min (??), Xiang (??), and Gan (??). These dialects are not mutually intelligible. These are just the 7 main languages, there are about 56 other smaller languages that are private languages and not public, these children don't receive education in their home language. 
    In South Africa, which languages deserves to be developed? What about KhoeKhoe languages, should those children also be schooled in their home language? They are after all the original peoples of South Africa and the Nguni the colonisers who pushed them to the fringes of their country. 
    This is a very complex issue and not one that can be approached emotionally, but rather practically and intellectually.   
  • The author is on point. But I do not support developing our indigenous languages separately; would not be economically feasible nor is it a desirable choice. It is better and easy to group them as language clusters and then harmonise, standardise then develop that cluster. For example here in South Africa, why not group mutually intelligible Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi and Ndebele to Nguni and Sesotho, Sepedi and Setswana to Sotho? So that we would have to worry about only four language clusters namely Nguni (spoken by 25 million people across seven countries), Sotho (18 million across seven countries) Venda and Tsonga.
    Then develop literacy including study material in those language groups with the aim to eventually enable the entire academic experience through these languages. Only when that has been achieved will we see South Africa entering catch up phase with double digit economic growth.

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