Open Stellenbosch and the importance of mother tongue education

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Kamal Kweku Yakubu

Reflection on Open Stellenbosch and the language debate, not only in South African context, but for the whole of Africa from an economic-historical perspective

When there is the right level of moisture in the earth, and the perfect amount of humidity in the air closest to the soil, mushrooms sprout. There is a mushrooming of “decolonisation” student movements all across South Africa; and the social environment in the country is the perfect humus for it. 

If you perform an internet query in search of the hotly contested debates at Rhodes, Stellenbosch, Cape Town or Wits universities in 2015, the answer will undoubtedly be a dialogue on decolonisation. Indeed, many of the big universities in South Africa, those universities which wield considerable power in the imagination of the public, and thus influence our individual and collective perceptions of success and general progress, have been immersed in this seemingly uncomfortable dialogue for a while. Why it is uncomfortable is a question everyone must inquire within the self, and is a discussion left for another time.

In this reflection I put forward what I find to be a self-imposed constraint, a myopia perhaps, of these well-intentioned and reactionary student movements. A blind spot which is evidence of Frantz Fanon's famous inferiority complex (if you ask me). The same subconscious inferiority complex which has coloured the psychology and the standards in the idea of beauty in African society, and has mesmerised many African men and women, seemingly bamboozling us and our children and perhaps even our children's children, into rationalising that the wearing of “human” hair cut off women of other ethnicities (usually from South-East Asia), skin bleaching (Michael Jackson, remember him?) and straightening of “tough” ugly hair, among other macabre acts, is “normal'. And has made us helpless and vulnerable to various religious fundamentalisms.

Why are we talking about making a compromise and learning in either English or in Afrikaans?

My question is simple. Why is Open Stellenbosch talking about making a compromise? And learning in either English or in Afrikaans? Afrikaans is an academic language, I have heard members of Open Stellenbosch  say again and again:

So in their own words: “We (referring to Afrikaans speakers and other language speakers) need to compromise and learn in English.” English is an academic language. And so they are fighting and protesting to be educated in English. By this statement, if they are unaware, they also imply that Xhosa, Zulu, Venda and all other African languages, which we speak, adore and love, are not academic languages and are incapable of ever being academic languages.

The fault is not entirely that of this generation of South Africans. For if you look at South Africa, a rainbow nation with supposedly 11 official languages, you will realise that in fact there is only one official language – English. English is the default formal medium of communication and is the language used in parliament. I remember arguing with a South African “coconut” friend of mine who made fun of one of President Zuma’s speeches in 2012. My response to her, which caused an obvious expression of shock, was that, ideally Jacob Zuma as the president of a rainbow nation should not even bother to address the public in English. He ought to speak in Zulu and translators should be provided for other listeners. This would be the same for a Venda, Afrikaans, English, Tswana or Xhosa president. Today I still stand by this view, for a rainbow is an interdependent spectrum of light. All the colours shine in an interdependent and equal manner, without conflict, and thus make the rainbow. If there was too much of one colour, there would not be a beautiful rainbow for all to behold. I think that was what Desmond Tutu meant by the rainbow metaphor.

Perhaps one ought to hint at the reason as to why Afrikaans is an academic language today. The historical facts are there for anybody concerned enough to check (and I will urge you to search for your own answer). However, even without resorting to academic historical scrutiny, I can confidently say that it took less than 50 years for Afrikaans to become a working academic language.

The length of time does not even matter; what must not be overlooked is that Afrikaans developed as an academic language not by chance, but because the Afrikaners made it academic by deciding to educate themselves and their children in it. By so doing, they passed it on intergenerationally and kept it in sync with the changing times, publishing dictionaries, Bibles, textbooks, etc.

They saw the importance of the language question not only in education but also in the running and in the progression of their civilisation. Historically, this is what many European ethnicities across time have done. From Germany to Italy and to Russia.

Why are we afraid to develop our African languages? Does this not come with political independence as well? Did our revered Madiba not stand for the liberation of African people? Surely this included the use of African languages as well? Perhaps Frantz Fanon's famous inferiority complex and corollary of cognitive dissonance is very real in Africa, and more specifically it is rife in South Africa today even in our student movements? (If you are not familiar with the text, I eagerly point you to chapter 6 of Black skins, white masks: “The Negro and psychopathology”.)

When economists talk about development and economic growth, GDP, GNP (and all the rest), they are also talking about societal transformation and a progressive change in the order of things. This is especially so on the African continent, where societal transformation has been on the agenda since independence. In this regard Africa and, more narrowly, South Africa need to undergo a societal transformative process similar to what happened in Europe; what the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to as a process of enlightenment.

Africa needs a socio-cultural transformation similar to the industrial revolution which occurred in England in the beginning of the 19th century; and even more recently, such a transformation is embodied in the great leap forward by Maoist China. 

What is common to all the aforementioned is that in all these episodes of economic-historical transformation, the broadest section of society had easy access to the cutting-edge scientific knowledge of the time and so increased their productive capacity tremendously. 

In certain cases, such as in the industrial revolution, this broad spectrum of society was in fact the most innovative – capable of making ingenious tools and instruments like the Spinning Jenny. Once again, one only needs to inquire into it. I will leave it here.
The point I am driving at is that the type of scientific knowledge which we are today educated to acquire can easily be made accessible in a language the majority of the citizenry are not alienated from. The only thing stopping us from doing this is ourselves. 

I am consciously choosing not to look at the language question in terms of what the English-speaking “African middle class” desires, but rather I am conceiving language as the bootstraps and the engine by which the broadest and currently impoverished section of South African society can uplift themselves.

How do you get someone out of the township? For me this is a question of transforming and evolving the township into a better and more hospitable place for all, and not merely moving a person from one geographical location to another. The answer to this question of transformation is simple: educate them in their own language! Educate people in their mother tongue, the language which they are most comfortable with, so that they will have a good foundational grasp of new scientific concepts.

This to me is how to “develop” in the broadest sense of the word. What are we afraid of, I ask again.

Decolonisation at South African universities may have begun with pointing fingers at the various heads of the universities and their administrations, but it is a question more complex than reactionary finger-pointing and wagging. It is also very much an economic question. The youth of South Africa must today point fingers also at the government, our fathers, mothers and grandparents. This is something that needs to happen all over the continent and not only in South Africa. We need to ask our elders about the so-called compromises they have made and the rationale behind them. We must interrogate these ideas in an objective manner. 

Steve Biko, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Marcus Garvey, Mangaliso Sobukwe, Ingrid Jonker, Frantz Fanon, Nelson Mandela (all our African heroes) were all human. Just like the young generation of leaders we see in the student movements today, they were all too human. Our role as young Africans in history, the point of our existence, is also to interpret the world – unabashedly, fearlessly. This is not a passive or a submissive role to socio-cultural institutions of the past.
What has any African government done in pursuit of development in the broadest sense of the word? It is only this year that Tanzania decided to use Swahili in primary schools. In 21 years, what has the South African government done in pursuit of progress and modernity? Perhaps a definition of enlightenment as put forth by Immanuel Kant is a good thought to reflect on at this point: "Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in a lack of understanding, but in a lack of resolve and courage to use knowledge without guidance from another."

What Stellenbosch has accomplished, and what the Afrikaners have accomplished in the “academisation” of Afrikaans, is an example to all of Africa, and not only South Africa. It is an example for a continent that is “underdeveloped” as a result of self-imposed alienation.

I am not making this statement in ignorance. I was a student at Stellenbosch University. I was there for five years. And as an African “foreign” student I learnt a lot. I heard Afrikaans for the first time in Stellenbosch. And for my first and second year there I, too, was passionate about the language issue. I was angry at why my parents were paying for an education for which half was in a language I didn't understand. 

But this insight did not grow despair in me; on the contrary, it fuelled a thirst for knowledge, I became accountable for my own view of the world, developed a critical attitude towards knowledge cultivation and science in general. Even though I self-studied most of the time, I did not leave Stellenbosch with merely a degree on a piece of parchment. I also spent many evenings thinking and debating with many of my friends about the language policy and other issues of African identity.

In my third and fourth year, I began to see the sense in educating a people in their own language, in their mother tongue. I began to see the importance of the language question and how it relates to enlightenment, development, progress, modernity (and whatever you may call it).

I saw the exemplary feat of the Afrikaners in the academisation of Afrikaans, and in their flag university offering undergraduate studies in Afrikaans so that their children would grasp foundational concepts easily. My anger instantly turned to respect. Among my friends I was always quick to point out that quiet observation to understand is better than reaction.

The academisation of Afrikaans, to me, is a remarkable feat for all Africans to notice and emulate positively, especially when contrasted with other things we emulate from other parts of the world, like skin bleaching, accent wearing and “human hair” wearing.

I am careful not to glamorise Stellenbosch too much, because some of the allegations are true – there are many racists in Stellenbosch, not only in the University, but in the entire community and its surrounds, if I may say so. And it is a tough environment for any black person. I actually had a classmate, whom I haven’t heard from in a very long time, who had to leave the university because of depression. I helplessly watched him sink into a vortex from which he never returned. I, on the other hand, was one of the fortunate ones who personally enjoyed the alienating university experience, because it gave me the chance to reflect, the chance to reflect first and foremost within, and then on to the world. Which is a gift I cherish very much. Once again, this is a discussion for another time. 

An interesting fact for your consideration, to elaborate further on my point. There is an Afrikaans word for “economy”: “ekonomie”, backed, I suspect, not only by a linguistic situation, but also by a deep philosophical understanding of the contemporary economy. What is the word for “economy” in any African language? This is a puzzle that I asked all my acquaintances, and the overwhelming answer was that there was no such word.

“We just use the English equivalent,” was the most common response. Yet the world today is very much embedded in an economy. We are all in an economy – whether you are in the Kalahari, the Sahara, Pretoria or in rural Eastern Cape, you cannot escape this. This narrative is true for many words and concepts.

I say that in order to reflect on what an economy is and what it means for our individual and collective livelihood deeply and philosophically, we need to be able to conceptualise what it is in our mother tongue, the language we are most comfortable with. This is the only way of seeing the world for what it is.

For the student movements: we need to stop making compromises on behalf of the masses. Some of these compromises are mistakes our parents and grandparents made. As conscious Africans, instead of accepting them as writ in stone, let us interrogate them. We are only a few generations removed from slavery, after all. Perhaps it is time for us to change some of these compromises? If not us, then who? The generations that will come after us?

The generation that championed physical liberation from the chains of servitude are long dead and gone. The “political independence” generation have almost all taken the boat across the river; only a handful, like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, are still alive. 

The call for decolonisation is a call that has to be made all over the continent. It is not local to South Africa. The problem is that it is not the “European”-looking man or woman who is keeping colonial structures in place, it is our own parents and grandparents, our governments, if you care to dig deep enough. At least South Africa, perhaps because of its relatively recent history of race conflict, has the humus and the milieu to conscientise young Africans and inject them with knowledge of self. This is a positive, and a gift I received from Stellenbosch. The call for decolonisation has started here; by all means it has to be championed well, spreading to other parts of the continent.

What, then, are we afraid of, I ask again. 

Do you think China is what it is today by teaching in English? Japan? South Korea? Germany? Spain? Italy? If you think so, then you're mistaken. The Chinese and Germans you meet in South Africa or Stellenbosch may be well versed in English, but their knowledge cultivation does not begin with a compromise. The Chinese have made such a great leap in a lifetime that they even program and use technology in their own language today. 

Imagine students in England learning about science or philosophy in French. How are they to understand the foundational concepts of the discipline? Second-hand? Third-hand?

It is only in South Africa and in general, Africa, where you speak in one language at home and with your colleagues and friends, and are educated in another language. Usually the language of the coloniser. The rationale we provide for this sort of thing is that it is good for growth and economic development. It is good for business. It is enlightenment when you can speak like the American (perhaps the reason why we want to learn Mandarin now?). It is good for investment, because when the investors come you can communicate with them. This is a way of thinking which perhaps could not be more wrong. If only we had the critical-mindedness to interrogate historical phenomena like the European enlightenment.

What do you tell the smart young girl who speaks Xhosa at home, but is given foundational knowledge in English or in Afrikaans, which she is not 100% comfortable with because it is not her mother tongue? Is she equal to the English girl who speaks English at home and receives it in school? Or conversely, the Afrikaans girl who speaks Afrikaans at home and is taught in it at Stellenbosch University? Yet they are supposed to write the same exam? And when the individual we have disadvantaged by default does not do well, we complain that the system is racist and flawed?

Perhaps what is really not being said is how we are racist towards ourselves by not having confidence in our culture, languages and traditions, instead self-subordinating them to European standards all the time. Must we drag the Afrikaners to subordinate their culture and language to an English standard as well? Just like their African brothers and sisters?

Some readers will remark that “Oh, this is very idealistic. It is impossible and cannot be done, it will sow the seeds of tribal conflict, too much money is involved …” etc. To these people, all I say is look within yourself and let go of your fear of the unknown, your self-doubt and your surrender to authority. Idealism, if you do not know, is the engine of the world. It was an idealistic impetus that made a cavewoman (or man) rub two sticks together to spark a fire. The idealism to fly created airplanes; it was idealism that carved the locomotive engine, the internet and modern human life as a few of us know it (many more are in slums and townships, all across Africa).

I rest my case.

Although the ideas expressed are mine and I fully claim responsibility, they equally belong to many others, too numerous to mention. They come from an accumulation of shared conversations and observations throughout my time at Stellenbosch University. Hence this article is dedicated to all, for it would not have been possible without them.

- For all who listen, from all who are listening.

Words by Kamal Kweku Yakubu

Suggested reading

Kwesi Kwaa Prah, Mother tongue for scientific and technological development in Africa, 1995. Published by the German Foundation for International Development (ZED).

Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, 2008 edition.

Immanuel Kant, Idea of a Universal history from a Cosmopolitcal Point of View (1784).

I am a masters student in economic history at the University of Cape Town.

I also write poetry for the online journal

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  • Johannes Comestor

    Daar is baie wysheid en ewewig in die bostaande skrywe. Reeds in die jare sestig is 'n woordeboekkantoor vir Xhosa aan die Universiteit Fort Hare gestig om die werk van die Skotse predikante van Lovedale voort te sit. Fort Hare kon vandag 'n Xhosa universiteit gewees het en die Universiteit van Zoeloeland 'n Zoeloe universiteit, ens. Om die redes deur bostaande skrywer aangevoer, behoort daar geen sprake te wees van 'n US wat onafrikaans en onafrikaner getransformeer word nie.

  • Liked this piece - it makes clear that there is A LOT of work/organizing/managing to do. Can we work/organize/manage hard/well enough to achieve this ideal? Not so sure.

  • André Badenhorst

    This is thinking par excellence! Thank you very much. We need thinkers like the above in Stellenbosch, but in SA! I totally agree with him on each and every point. This is my thinking for years now and, damn, I feel very much alone ...

  • Vir eens stem ek saam! My wyse ou vader het reeds in die vroeë 90's gesê dat ons weer eens mense minderwaardig maak deur Engels voorrang te verleen bo die ander tale. Ons is meerrassig, meertalig en nog meer. Minderheidsgroepe soos die Ndebele en kleiner Afrika-groepe se taal is steeds vasgevang in onderontwikkeling. Dit raak tyd dat elke taalgroep sy eie identiteit ontwikkel. Begin eie universiteite wat Afrika-gerig is. As jy dan deel van ’n Afrikaanse universiteit of Zoeloe-universiteit wil vorm, val jy by die instansie se taal- en kultuurbeleid in. Daar is genoeg plek om almal in hierdie land maksimaal te ontwikkel. Kom ons begin fokus op die toekoms van hierdie mooi land. Ongelukkig sal ons nooit weer met die waters wat verby is, kan maal nie!

  • Charl-Pierre Naude

    Perhaps one can add to the recommended books to read: Decolonising the MInd - Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

  • [Hierdie kommentaar is deels aan die outeur en sy argumente gerig, so ek neem aan dat Engels meer passend is.]
    Thank you to the author for this thinkpiece. I also love languages and multilingualism, but my standpoint, which addresses practicalities and not ideals, is already partly dismissed in one of the last paragraphs of this piece. I do however wish to raise it nonetheless.
    To first backtrack somewhat, I found the perspective on the Industrial Revolution and the Great Leap Forward quite unique. My inquiry into these periods has left me with a rather different understanding. Whereas certain kinds of progress may have been made, this was at tremendous cost to what I would consider "the broadest section of society." During the Industrial Revolution, countryside serfs essentially became city serfs, working extremely hard at great cost to their health, while enjoying very little of the supposed benefit of progress. The Great Leap Forward saw widespread hardship, also in the form of extreme demands on the people to do backbreaking work, and not least in the form of famine. Let's not forget that Mao was a dictator, with all the problems that brought for anyone who may have held somewhat different opinions. I'll leave comment on the environmental impact of these great 'progressions' aside.
    The point I want to argue for above is that major progression in certain spheres or for certain people often comes at the cost of others. If we assume that the author's claim, that Afrikaans became an academic language in the last fifty years, is correct, then we could perhaps wonder if this also happened at the cost of something or someone else.
    Afrikaans is what it is today, at least in large part, because of the direct and indirect effects of apartheid era government funding. Take, for example, decades of Afrikaans cinema and performing arts. Perhaps there are readers out there with more knowledge who could correct me, but I'll assume that the many Afrikaans-language films of especially the 1970s were not privately funded. TRUK (Transvaalse Raad vir die Uitvoerende Kunste) and similar were government institutions, creating Afrikaans art for an Afrikaans public.
    None of this is to demean either Afrikaans itself or the artists and the art that they created. The point is simply that while the apartheid government was spending money on Afrikaans and Afrikaners, it was spending much less money on other citizens and their languages. The progress of Afrikaans and Afrikaners came during a time when a chokehold was enforced on many, many others. The same goes for education. White citizens were educated for their 'destiny' of being the higher-ups, while black citizens were educated for their 'destiny' of being the working class masses.
    Today, even though much has changed, it would be a challenge to find various novels or books of poetry in your local Exclusive Books written in Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Venda, Pedi, Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, or Ndebele. The Afrikaans media market may now be dependent on private investment and the money that its audience can spend, but the historical development of both the market and the audience was by no means independent of apartheid.
    I too am saddened by the fact that government investment in the other languages of South Africa has not been forthcoming. Indeed existing channels for the creation and dissemination of local content, like the public broadcaster, perform ever worse, not better. (I remember a time when an SABC 4 and SABC 5 were promised, for more content in local languages, something which seems like a cruel joke now.) The only positive development I am aware of is more newspapers in local languages, which is heartening, but more and faster development cannot depend only on a few courageous publishers producing popular media.
    I agree that taking Afrikaans down by a notch does not actually address the core issues in developing the various languages of South Africa. Indeed, we should strive for a situation where we also have week-long festivals of Zulu theatre and music, of Tswana poetry readings, of Xhosa youth novel discussions, of Sotho book signings, etc. And achieving this is very likely linked to how well these languages are doing at all levels of educational institutions of South Africa.
    Stellenbosch University however does not exist in a vacuum in which the only goal is to preserve the achievements of the Afrikaans language. To be an institution which fosters creativity and innovation in the South African context, it needs to be open and accessible to as wide a segment of the population as possible. It is unfortunate that we have to weigh up the ideals of multilingualism and language development against the ideals of integration, but that is, for various reasons of historical context, the present reality.
    Furthermore, comparison with European nation states, China, or Japan, are unrealistic. In my four years of study at Stellenbosch, partly taught in Afrikaans, partly in English, I read exactly zero texts or textbooks in Afrikaans. For countless disciplines they do not exist and for simple economic reasons will never exist. German, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, these languages are all far larger than any South African language. Add to that both private and governmental funds that flow into media and education, and it becomes quite clear that a comparison will not get us anywhere.
    Perhaps it would be fairer to look at Estonia, where I recently completed a Master's degree. The population of Estonia is 1.3 million, of which about 70% identify as ethnically Estonian, making for an even smaller native language pool than the population figure. (For the purposes of this argument, Estonians in the diaspora are ignored.) Estonian is, however, extremely present in media and higher education. Why? Since its independence from the Soviet Union in the early '90s, Estonia has been on a proudly Estonian nation-building track, part of which is heavily tied in with the Estonian language. Hence, I guarantee you, the government spends large amounts of money on the Estonian language, be it in culture, arts, or education. Furthermore, alternatives are limited only to Russian, quite manageable -- indeed many Russian speakers attend school in Russian. Then, if they would like to study in Russian at university, Russia itself is right there next door. Finally, as one might expect, English is widely taught and many people who learnt it at school command it well.
    The key points? There are only two major languages and for historical and political reasons, Estonian trumps Russian. In South Africa we have no such binary choice. For historical reasons English is perceived as more neutral. The historical backdrop meets the reality that it is a widely taught and spoken second language, and of great international significance, hence it has become our de facto official language. Whereas parliaments all over the world may function with interpreters and translators, I dare say rolling this out as an option that covers all students at all times does not lie within the budget of any university in the world.
    So yes, it is a pity that instead of raising all our languages up, we take one down. But in our national context as well as in the international context of higher education -- the exchange of opinions and knowledge -- this is simply practical.
    What we can learn from the example of Afrikaans, in my opinion, is not only that Afrikaans people worked hard to develop it, but also that government support and funding can play a key role. Government investment in the other languages in the last decades has unfortunately not achieved anything similar. And indeed, the state of our local languages in primary and high school education is a crying shame. Similarly, the state of ESL education for the majority of South Africans is also a crying shame. Indeed our education system is, unfortunately, failing those who could benefit most from upliftment through education.
    My hope is that our national awakening shines a huge spotlight on inequalities, especially in education. My hope is that we realise that a language with a base as strong as Afrikaans, is not going anywhere. Even if it is not taught in at Stellenbosch anymore, the public can keep opening their wallets at the Woordfees, the KKNK, Aardklop, and Exclusive Books. But hopefully that same public will start to realise that speakers of other languages do not have these kinds of opportunities. And maybe they'll start to wonder what that means for the development, not of only part of our nation, but our nation and our democracy as a whole.

  • Is dit nou nie bejammeringswaardig nie dat die Apartheidsdonkie elke keer opgesaal word nie sodat jou eie keuses daardeur bevoordeel kan word nie. Die US was nog altyd 'n Afrikaanse instelling, nie om "Apartheidsvoorstanders" op te lei nie, maar om akademies die voorpunt te neem en te bevorder. Die keuse word aan almal gestel om aan ’n inrigting te studeer waar jy tuis voel deurdat jou moedertaal of taal wat jy magtig is dit gemaklik maak. Kolonialisme is lankal onder die mat gevee, maar wat die lot nie besef nie is dat deur hulle beheptheid met Afrikaans, sien hulle nie die Chinese kolonialisme wat stadig maar seker besig om 'n Ebola te word nie. Gaan studeer by ' n instelling waar jy gemaklik voel. Dit laat my dink aan die opponerende pole. Die een groep mense sal sê hulle kyk nie na 'n TV-kanaal nie, kom ons gaan na ’n volgende. Die ander, kom ons protesteer dat die kanaal wat ek nie van hou nie, verwyder word. Bejammeringswaardig!

  • Wat my moerig maak is die wit Engelsmannetjies wat op Stellenbosch rondloop en weier om Afrikaans te praat en dat dit maar OK is om daarmee weg te kom om eentalig Engels te wees. Dit maak my rooi sien.

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