The politics of language – who speaks what, to whom and for what end – has seldom been made clearer than on 16 June, 1976. On that fateful morning 32 years ago, thousands of black South African students walked out of their classrooms to protest being taught core subjects in Afrikaans, “the language of the oppressor,” as Desmond Tutu, the then Dean of Johannesburg called it. Marching through the streets of Soweto, their songs of rebellion and freedom were met with the sound of bullets from the brutal Apartheid state police. 65 people were killed that day, 14 of them children, though unofficial estimates run up into the hundreds. A 13-year-old schoolboy named Hector Pieterson forever came to symbolise the resistance movement thanks to Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying the slain child through the streets of Soweto, followed by Pieterson’s 17-year-old sister Antoinette. The people spoke, the government replied, and the touch paper that came to burn down the Apartheid apparatus was lit.
More than a quarter of a century on and the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising is now immortalised as Youth Day, and its memory still represents a crucial milestone in the anti-Apartheid movement. But the issue which started it all off still remains. As the recent wave of violence against black immigrants to South Africa (sometimes known by the local, derogatory term – makwerewkere) shows, language remains a hugely contentious issue. Reports of xenophobic violence across townships in South Africa tells stories of suspected black (African) foreigners being pulled off buses and attacked because they could not speak Zulu or Xhosa. Meanwhile, the privileged children of the 1976 generation learn French and Japanese at school and speak English at home. As the local is replaced by the global, the question of whether macro and micro cultures can co-exist becomes ever-urgent, particularly as the survival of indigenous languages is under threat from ‘languages of commerce’ such as English, French, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese.
Siphiwe Mokoena, an accountant from Johannesburg, sees the irony in the current situation. “Those of us who are lucky enough to send our children to private school,” he says, “are happy that they are taught to speak English and French because it gives them a place in the global economy. But on the other hand, people died so that their children could be taught in the language of their ancestors, but many of our children barely speak them.” As any philosopher will tell you, language is more than words. It’s history, self-definition, identity and sanctuary. But while it is true that many of Africa’s privileged few look westward, it may come as no surprise to learn that conversely, many Diasporan Africans are looking back, indicated by the uptake in so-called heritage languages. From Africa’s beyond-recent Word from Africa Festival at the British Museum which celebrated the music, literature, rhythms and history of African languages, to the opening of the African Languages School (www.theafricanlanguagesschool.com) in East London – the second biggest centre for African languages in the UK after the world famous SOAS – tongues hardened by a lifetime of English are beginning to be softened by the rich poetics of languages like Yoruba, Twi and Swahili.
At the African Languages School, students can choose from eight languages including Amharic and Wolof. Founded by Jamaican-born Londoner Colin Robinson, he believes that the spread of globalisation makes learning heritage languages even more important, not less. He states: “African people in the diaspora should be able to speak an African language. It’s about identity and heritage, and more and more people realise this. Look at the trouble facing our young people – guns, knives, drugs, daddy’s not there, mummy’s not there. Language lets our children know that they belong somewhere. It’s so important.”
Sandra Davidson certainly agrees. A primary school teacher of Jamaican and Guyanese extraction, she recently returned from Ghana where she has bought property and has learnt to speak Twi. “I decided to learn Twi because my husband and I have always wanted to live in Ghana but we didn’t want to move there and not be able to communicate with people in their own language. It wasn’t easy but it’s worthwhile. As a British person you don’t always recognise the politics of speaking English, especially in a country that was colonised by the British. Especially when you are from a people who were colonised by the British. But once I became aware, I wanted to change that. Speaking an African language has liberated me. I feel free.”
1st June 2008