Africa's most informative media
by the South African singer-philosopher, Simphiwe Dana
The Department of Linguistics in the Norwegian University of Science and
Technology says – "If development is seen as the sustainable
socio-cultural, economic & technological transformation of society, then
language is important. Language is a granary, a repository of the
world-view of its speakers, it is this particular language that best
contains and expresses the indigenous belief systems of any society.
New belief systems are immediately related to these existing systems. Then
it goes without saying that a successful conceptualization and
implementation of the societal transformation that is development can only
be achieved through the use of the mother-tongues or the languages
indigenous to the society."
In other words the knowledge of how a people's world operates is contained
in their languages, thousands of years of innovation contained in something
as simple and unassuming as a language. Language permeates every sphere of
our existence; how we relate to each other, culture; how we understand the
divine within all of us and the unseeing eye, religion/spirituality, how we
innovate and evolve, philosophy/science/commerce/education.
MSC Okolo says – "The most virulent element working against the
repackaging of the Afrikan personality is the vision of Afrika in colonial
languages. Of all human inventions, language alone affects, structures,
defines, interprets all other aspects of human life. Beliefs, ideas,
ideologies, culture, knowledge, experience, values, prejudice are acquired
& conveyed through language"
Kwesi Kwaa Prah contends – "No society in the world has developed in a
sustained and democratic fashion on the basis of a borrowed colonial
language. Underdeveloped Afrika remains so partly on the account of
cultural alienation structured in the context of the use of colonial
In other words, the tragedy of Afrika is that it has thrown off its
identity and ideas in the pursuit of colonial excellence, discarding
thousands of years of crucial information without which Afrika is just a
dumping ground for the evolutionary ideas of others. Others who have no
idea of the Afrikan interpretation of our world and its value to said
And finally Ali Mazrui asks – "Can any country take off if it relies on
foreign languages for its discourse on development & transformation?"
I quote these scholars to give weight to my argument that the key to
African development and excellence lies in the knowledge systems contained
in our languages.
Western Culture has always had a superiority complex. If you do not fit
into it's definition of what intelligence is then you are deemed of
inferior intelligence. This has seen it play a paternal role and it is
responsible for the genocide of a lot of cultures, in Afrika and elsewhere.
The argument that English is the language of business globally does not
really hold water. China, the biggest economy in the world today, does just
fine without Anglicizing their society. In fact China has been able to
innovate because, even though it has assimilated ideas of other cultures,
it has remained steadfast in upholding Chinese language and thus culture. I
believe that even its political system, which has been criticized a lot, is
influenced by Chinese culture. What is important is that it works for them
and has boosted their economy tremendously.
The development of Afrika was curtailed by the advent of colonialism,
which brought and enforced new concepts of being and new knowledge systems
that were at odds with Afrikan knowledge systems.
This is not to say that Afrika should have rejected all foreign knowledge
– but I say Afrika should have rejected the wholesale cultural enforcement
whose sole intention was to replace her own – and she tried and failed. It
is difficult to say no when there's a gun pointed to your head.
Civilizing Afrika has been the excuse of many a colonialist as they raped
and plundered the continent, building monuments and leaving broken
societies in their wake. That is still the case today with regards to our
approach to education and specifically the languages of communication. We
are still civilizing Afrika, because we believe that Afrika on her own has
nothing of value to offer the world. This is the reason why we have not
built on Afrika's achievements. These achievements are confined in our
languages, our worldview. We are living on borrowed , supposedly superior
To kill a tree you must cut off it's roots, if you only cut off the
branches the tree will grow new branches come springtime. To kill a society
you must disassociate them from what informs their worldview – their
culture, their language, their identity. Then they shall forever be willing
slaves to your agenda.
Exploring Africa on their website says - A world-view can be thought of as
a system of values, attitudes, and beliefs, which provide people with a
mechanism to understand the world in which they live and everyday events
and occurrences. Maybe we can think of a world-view as being like a
language. Can you imagine how hard it would be to explain or understand
everyday events and occurrences if we did not have language-words? Words
are essential tools that help us explain and understand events and
occurrences. Words and their meanings help shape the way we see, and
therefore how we explain, events. Similarly, the world-view (values,
attitudes, beliefs) that an individual learns from the time she is a baby
provides a mechanism that influences how she understands all that happens
to her, her community and the world in which she lives.
What is meant when we speak of knowledge systems?
South Africa is the last Afrikan country to gain independence from
colonialism, albeit a compromise independence.
I say compromise independence because we had to concede that since we had
not won the battle, things could not go back to the way they were before
colonialism. In actual fact, we had to concede, amongst other things, our
identity to keep the peace. This is the reason why we are meeting today.
This arrangement is not working out for all of us. Our education system is
a defining case in point.
All the other Afrikan countries that gained independence before South
Afrika have not faired well. South Afrika might be the richest country in
Afrika but this is not because the previously disadvantaged have made
strides towards economic emancipation, but because of the compromise
agreements that made sure it was business as usual after 1994. The
compromise agreements more or less maintained the apartheid status quo. BEE
is crumbs off the table, crumbs are only accessible to the few.
The reason why Afrikan countries have, after independence, not done well
is because they have not done away with colonial culture. I put it to you
that Afrika has so internalized the inferiority complex inferred upon it by
colonialism that they have feared to break away from colonial knowledge
Those ones who had the capacity to lead us back to ourselves were
systematically cut out of the Afrikan discourse. Steve Bantu Biko, Patrice
Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Ken Saro-Wiwa to mention a few. That I'm mentioning
males only, does not in anyway prove that there were no female activists,
it merely proves that Afrika had its own problems even before colonialism.
Patriarchy; which is a global problematic phenomenon.
Can we blame Afrika for not trusting her own intelligence?
Psychologists say that if you've been abused for long enough, without
reprieve, you start to internalize the hate abuse comes with. You start to
believe it is for your own good. You indeed start to see your abuser as
saving you from yourself. You begin to distrust yourself and you lose
yourself. Losing yourself has psychological ramifications. You cannot run
away from yourself forever, the self-loathing will eventually catch up with
you. Xenophobia, or more correctly put, Afrophobia is a case in point.
So in Afrika, one by one countries are crumbling because they sought to
maintain colonial systems instead of redreaming Afrika. By colonial systems
I mean systems of governance, education systems, religious systems,
language systems, cultural systems. Of course all these can be encompassed
under language systems, as language is a repository of the way of being of
its speakers. The systems are crumbling because the knowledge systems they
are based on are foreign to the Afrikan landscape and thus the Afrikan
cannot innovate based on them. It is in this context that in South Afrika
those who benefited from apartheid can sometimes be heard complaining that
the Afrikan government is taking the country to the dogs. Not only are they
talking about corruption, I mean they were/are corrupt themselves, but
mainly the mismanagement of the perfect system that they handed over to the
Afrikan government. It should come as no surprise based on this why the
Western Cape would be the most well run province even as it marginalizes
Afrikans, Coloureds and Indians. The system can best be run by those whose
knowledge systems it stems out of - and the system best serves those who
know how to work it.
That in no ways makes the Afrikan incapable, but sadly enough, everyone,
including the Afrikan, believes it does.
Look at the issue of education in South Afrika for instance. Government
spends the most money on education, yet year after year the education
crisis deepens. Yes we understand that despite the huge budgets there are
still not enough resources to properly equip black schools that were
disadvantaged by apartheid. We understand that the changes in the
curriculum and their improper implementation have killed the morale of both
teacher and learner.
Here is something interesting though. Between 1953 and 1976 the apartheid
government slowly phased in mother tongue education and for 8 years in a
learner's life they were taught in their mother tongue. This improved the
matric pass rate significantly. The abolishment of mother tongue education
is what led to the Soweto Uprising. Thereafter the pass rate dropped to as
low as 44% (Heugh, 1999).
I believe that the introduction of mother tongue education alone would
drastically improve learner results. To be able to have, explained to you,
complex concepts in a language you understand and a language based on your
worldview gives you an advantage. Currently those who have an advantage in
our education systems are only those who are descendants of or have adopted
the colonial culture and language. This further entrenches inferiority and
Now you may say that Afrikan languages have not developed enough in the
past decades to carry complex concepts encompassed in our education. I
would agree with you; but would say it is an easily remedied problem if our
linguists are willing to play ball. For the development of language is not
merely Afrikanising European terms, but finding ways to explain them within
the world view of its speakers. For example you cannot translate television
by calling it ithelevizhin. You must explain it within the context of the
worldview of its speakers. Call it umabonakude, that which shows things
that are not in your immediate environment.
Coming to the Afrikan worldview. I believe that when Bantu Steve Biko
spoke of Afrika giving the world a more human face he was referring to the
harmonious, spiritual understanding and interaction of the Afrikan with her
world, the reverence given to nature and the social cohesiveness as
enshrined in the Ubuntu philosophy.
But to give a human face to the world Afrika must first rediscover her own
humanity. Biko spoke of this at length. That the aggressive dehumanization
that blacks, particularly Afrikans suffered had to be met with an equally
aggressive rehumanization, to infuse back life into the empty husk of the
What is this self-love he spoke of? Is it not the love for what makes an
Afrikan human? What informs the humanity of an Afrikan? Is it not her
worldview - her knowledge systems - her spirituality?
Would it then not be fair to say that the beginning of the emancipation of
an Afrikan starts with embracing her knowledge systems and her worldview?
If language is the repository of the worldview of it's speakers, let South
Afrika speak, be taught and do business in an Afrikan language. If
development is seen as the sustainable socio-cultural, economic &
technological transformation of society, let South Afrika speak, be taught
and do business in an Afrikan language.
If no society in the world has developed in a sustained and democratic
fashion on the basis of a borrowed colonial language, let South Afrika
speak, be taught and do business in an Afrikan language.
I believe that any Afrikan language carries the worldview of all Afrikan
ethnic groupings. It is the worldview that gave birth to language.
I say this because across the Afrikan landscape cultural practices, devoid
of colonial intrusion, are the same, of course give or take some slight
differences. This is not to say that Afrikans live and have always lived in
harmonious existence. It would be naïve to believe so. History belies the
fact that tribes across the globe have always had their conflicts. This
however does not dismiss the fact that tribes of Afrika, as with tribes of
Europe, have strong cultural ties that bind.
Our worldview as Afrika has given birth to our knowledge systems and our
culture. These are the ties that bind. To strengthen them is to strengthen
and fast track development.
Ethnocentricity will not help the development of South Africa. We need to
remember that we were Bantu way before we were Zulu, Venda, Tsonga, Sotho
etc. Deny it if you will, but English is what brings us together as the
people of South Africa – and English is eroding all the other languages and
eroding African culture.
We have a wealth of information that we are not tapping into. Afrika is a
rich continent yet its inhabitants are poor. It is poor because we want to
be importers of knowledge and innovation instead of exporters of such. This
is a sure path to neocolonialism, and this time we will have no one but
ourselves to blame if opportunists ransack and pillage our continent a
second time while we continue to have famine in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia.
While we continue to have majority of Afrikans living on R550 a month.
While we continue to have 500 000 unfilled vacancies because of a lack of
Ultimately education in Afrika can only be seen in this context for it to
have any real impact on our overall evolution. Education must teach Afrikan
Excellence in a language that has the ability to carry the worldview from
which stems thousands of years of Afrika's knowledge. At the World
Conference on Science held in Budapest, July 1999 - the acknowledgement and
endorsement by the global scientific community of the relevance of
indigenous knowledge speaks to this vacuum we have left in the global
community by our involuntary, and now increasingly voluntary, abandonment
of our knowledge systems.
Spiritually we do not know why we are here on earth. We do not know how or
why we developed in such diverse ways – but increasingly we are finding
that our individual cultural uniqueness puts us in a position to have
information that the other does not have. We are finding that to keep our
planet not only progressive; but healthy we all need to contribute to the
global information pool. We are finding that to keep humanity healthy of
mind and body we all need to contribute to the global spiritual pool.
The question then is, what does Afrika currently have to contribute to the
In conclusion; and bringing it home to South Afrika, the issue of language
has reached significant proportions of importance. Our education system is
in a mess because we insist on disadvantaging the majority of our children.
It is grossly unfair that we force English, and in some small instances
Afrikaans, down the throats of those to whom they are not mother tongues.
Any child from anywhere would suffer greatly were they to be educated in a
foreign language. Imagine that your English-speaking child were to be
thrown into an education system that was solely rigged around the Xhosa
culture and language. That child would feel very lost for the first few
years, thus developing an inferiority complex that would stay with them
into adulthood. I had the privilege of visiting a few black schools
countrywide. This is where and when the impact of foreign languages within
the schooling system was revealed to me. The learners could express
themselves openly and passionately in their mother tongues, because this is
the language of their birth. I would ask them a question in English and
they would all of a sudden be tongue tied and stupid. This of course
translates to their conduct as adults. We are voluntarily further
entrenching inferiority complexes and we don't need to. What surprises me
is that even the majority of teachers do not see English as the driving
force behind the spectacular scholastic failure of our children. We are all
so intoxicated by the perceived superiority of colonial languages even as
our children drown in it. The only way to have our children succeed within
this colonial culture is if from the very beginning we forfeit Afrikan
culture and language and raise them within a colonial culture. Already most
of us living in the cities are doing this. We're raising little European
But what of the thousands of years of knowledge and innovation locked in
our indigenous languages? Do we value this so much less that we are willing
for the world never to enjoy the fruits of our innovation? Do we really
believe that we have nothing to offer the world except within the confines
of colonial innovation?
Let's face it Afrikaans and English do nothing for Afrikan innovation, at
best they further entrench a colonial culture. This is not to say its
speakers don't deserve the right to speak their mother tongue. But
innovation through them contributes nothing new to the world knowledge
pool, it just regurgitates a European culture, a culture that has already
made its strides and can perhaps offer nothing of relevance in the Afrikan
context. Afrika must still have its moment, Afrika must still influence how
the world is shaped and the secret lies in how it innovates. The sciences
must still be understood from the perspective of Afrikan innovation. This
is the human face that Afrika must still exhibit to the world.
There is, indeed, an underlying psychological effect that has rendered
African academics incapacitated when it comes to pushing for African
innovations and excellence. There seems to be unwillingness on their part
to let go of Eurocentric ideas of excellence; an unwillingness to embrace
and build on African knowledge systems. This is evident in the failure to
implement a well-researched and well-known, ideology that mother tongue
education is best. This might be the biggest blunder that our education
system has made. Thus out of 1.4 million learners that enter the education
system only 100 000 come out equipped for the job market.
Again, Kwesi Kwaa Prah contends – "No society in the world has developed
in a sustained and democratic fashion on the basis of a borrowed colonial
language. Underdeveloped Afrika remains so partly on the account of
cultural alienation structured in the context of the use of colonial
I will now apologize for my address being in English, had I been able to
explain some of these complex philosophies in my own language I would have.
Alas the conditioning goes very deep. I await your questions and thank you
for your time.
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