Universities should reflect multilingual South Africa

19 March 2017 - 02:00
By Antjie Krog
The Cecil John Rhodes statue is removed from the University of Cape Town in 2015. The event was symbolic of a wider goal of decolonisation in tertiary education.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER The Cecil John Rhodes statue is removed from the University of Cape Town in 2015. The event was symbolic of a wider goal of decolonisation in tertiary education.

Anyone who is serious about decolonisation of tertiary education should start by nurturing indigenous languages as a medium of academic study, writes Antjie Krog

The quest for decolonisation is placing scrutiny on the role of universities. According to Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the process will always fail if it does not start with language.

Ngugi says that to establish the centrality of Africa, to remove the feeling of being de-centred at one's own institution, the use of a mother tongue is an important launching pad for coherence. From this starting point students can "radiate outwards to link with the heritage and struggles of other peoples in Africa, the Third-World peoples, Europe and the Americas". Taking it a step further, Achille Mbembe says: "Colonialism rhymes with monolingualism."

What goes for languages also goes for texts written in the indigenous languages. Recently, Professor Xolela Mangcu underlined the importance of these texts and pleaded for an embracing support to nourish and study them.


He referred, among others, to missionary/journalist Tiyo Soga, author Magema Fuze and poet/historian SEK Mqhayi, who reacted in their mother tongues to the political, economic and cultural impact of colonialism on African people, and he expressed the hope that many black students would find value in the writings of these historical figures instead of "always limiting themselves to the writings of Frantz Fanon ... as if black people had nothing to say.

 We need to push back against the notion that Africa has nothing to offer the world of scholarship ... white scholars and students at the University of Cape Town and other universities have more to gain than to lose by embracing African intellectual history."

Mangcu suggested that "universities should be leading the charge", not resisting it.

It is perhaps worthwhile, then, to return to an important document investigating the role of universities in terms of languages other than English - the Gerwel Report of 2002. Although the then minister of education Kader Asmal mainly wanted clarity on the issue of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University, Gerwel refused to be pinned down by parochial parameters and decided to investigate the state of languages at various universities.

The report pointed out that there was "the danger that languages (and other expressions of social diversity) could through benign neglect be subject to steady and eventually irreversible erosion. South African languages other than English are particularly in danger of this fate as English, through no malevolent designs, comfortably provides in the various needs, thus steadily supplanting the other languages."

In a staggeringly imaginative move, Gerwel then recommended that each university should get a specific language to take care of, fulfilling the various demands of its speakers. "We feel that the speakers of the different languages in South Africa have the right to say: we want a university to take care of our language.

We want to know it is being cherished and developed somewhere, that there are these supported roots of the language. We want to receive from them the terms they have coined for cyberspace, for retroviral drugs, for balance deficits."

This would mean that if speakers of Zulu want particular courses in their mother tongue, the university assigned to that language would have to provide that service.

The report's point of departure was "within the overall concern for the promotion of multilingualism as one of the foundational values of our post-apartheid society".

block_quotes_start [The report pointed out] the danger that languages (and other expressions of social diversity) could through benign neglect be subject to steady and eventually irreversible erosion

Asmal did not make use of the recommendations.

But would it not have been wonderful if each university had a well-endowed chair in a local language that could assist when students wanted to be taught in a mother tongue, where contemporary vocabulary, code-switching and the like were recorded, where one would find biographies, photographs, original texts and interviews with writers and poets such as CLS Nyembezi, OK Matsepe, BM Khaketla, HML Lentsoane and JJR Jolobe, as well as studies done on their work?

There is a need for a place where young writers could attend writing schools and young oral and rap poets can be trained by older ones. An advisory unit that could recommend to the various departments and faculties indigenous texts that engaged with law and traditional law, medicinal care, sociological strategies, post-colonial studies, and history in a true sense of multidisciplinarity.

A place whence trained interpreters could be sent to do translation for patients in hospitals and psychiatric wards; where translators and interpreters could be trained to participate in all social spheres; where those who speak more than one South African language are regarded as a financial asset to be well compensated.

Although the report was not made available, a recent translation project of texts from indigenous languages into English showed up a surprising fact: the University of Fort Hare has produced a remarkable and impressive set of Xhosa dictionaries; Rhodes University has a chair in Xhosa and produced a whole range of grammatical texts for speakers and non-speakers of Xhosa; the University of the Western Cape is exploring teaching some science courses in English and Xhosa; and the University of KwaZulu-Natal has a language planning and development office investigating teaching some modules in Zulu in a wide variety of subjects.


It seems that the government's language unit benchmarks regularly with other South African universities regarding languages that "originated in South Africa ... and include the African official languages and Afrikaans".

The universities it engages are North-West University, Stellenbosch University, the University of Limpopo, the University of the Free State and Rhodes University.

So, in a very important way, universities have begun to nurture different languages according to the pressure of the speakers, but it seems to be happening piecemeal.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has also pleaded for indigenous languages to be strengthened. Is it therefore too much to ask that universities, which have already taken on the task of assisting in much broader ways a mother tongue other than English, come together and devise a supporting, broadening and sustainable strategy on how this responsibility can be executed to the advantage of all?

This is not to smuggle the Afrikaans debate into the mix but to tie together the appeals of so many respected African individuals who regard multilingualism as a crucial pillar of decolonisation - an enabling tool to not only survive, but excel in a dominating neoliberal age.

"The African university of tomorrow will be multilingual," says Wa Thiong'o through Mbembe. "It will teach [in] Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Shona, Yoruba, Hausa, Lingala, Gikuyu and it will teach all those other African languages, French, Portuguese or Arabic" - and I also suggest Afrikaans - "while making space for Chinese and Hindu etcetera. It will turn these languages into a creative repository of concepts originating from the four corners of the earth."

If we do not grapple with the role of various languages at universities and the decisive value they can bring to our society, we are not serious about decolonisation.

Krog is a poet, journalist and academic at the University of the Western Cape