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
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 www.iconsiderafricansociety.com.