Rhodes University Logo
Rhodes > School of Languages > Latest News

Vital that whites learn to speak African languages

Date Released: Thu, 6 September 2012 14:58 +0200

Bheki Sele. Tabo Ma-beki. Senzo Msunu. Kagalima Mokla-Ante. This is just an example of how African names are remorselessly butchered by people who clearly have no intention of learning a thing about African languages. So, Cele becomes “Sele” – dangerously close to “isela”, a thief in isiXhosa.

Mbeki is “Ma-beki” – a problematic word for a man as the prefix “Ma” denotes “Mom” in Nguni languages.

Mchunu is “Msunu” – often used as an insulting word when used in a particular context in siSwati. Only God knows what Mokla-Ante means. Even Google can’t hazard a guess.
That’s how Africans are generally insulted, unwittingly though, by their white compatriots on a daily basis.

We laugh about some of these pronunciations. But this is not a laughing matter. It’s a national cultural crisis.

It’s intriguing that white South Africans have been in this country for centuries and yet are unable to speak African languages.
In fact, many have never taken the trouble to try.

So bizarre is the situation that some white members and leaders of the ANC find it difficult, if not impossible, to sing the organisation’s songs composed in African languages.
It’s always embarrassing watching them in conferences raising their clenched fists with their mouths zipped.

You can rest assured they aren’t even humming the song.

Beyond the chant “Amandla!”, which is often mispronounced, they can barely construct a phrase, let alone a sentence, in any African language.

Was Joe Slovo – the SACP leader well known for belting out struggle songs in African languages – the last “black white” South African?

Also embarrassing is to see white South African journalists asking their black colleagues to interpret for them what Zuma says when addressing a rally in isiZulu.

You would expect this from European and Asian political tourists who have descended on the country to have a taste of our increasingly interesting and complex political story.

There are many reasons white South Africans do not learn African languages.

Firstly, it is economic power relations – what’s the point of learning an African language the economic value of which is insignificant?

The value is determined by the wealth the speaker of the language possesses.

Because Africans have for years been condemned to the extremes of poverty and asset theft, there is no material benefit to gain from speaking their language.
At its nascent stages, settler colonialism required that the settler had to understand the language of the soon-to-be oppressed.

No sooner had the wealth been taken than it became unnecessary to understand the language of the victim.

In addition to being forced to learn Afrikaans and English, many black people volunteered to do so, because it made economic sense.

The speakers of these languages were now in possession of the material wealth.

It was therefore logical for black people to chase after that wealth even as it came in the form of crumbs like exploitative jobs.

They could more easily get a job from the baas if they could at least show willingness to speak the language of the baas.

Many people are now keen to learn Mandarin because that’s what the citizens of the world’s second biggest economy speak.

I was once shocked to hear an otherwise very progressive Judge Belinda van Heerden of the Supreme Court of Appeal waxing lyrical at the Judicial Services Commission about her adventures in seeking to learn a European language.

So, changing economic power relations are crucial to change the position of African languages.

Secondly, there is the evil of prejudice.

The pure hatred that inspired apartheid still exists among those who see no need to learn a language of the people once regarded as sub-human.

Because language carries culture, as novelist Ngungi wa Thiong’o once remarked, to hate a language necessarily means to hate the culture of the speaker of the language.
The retort, “some of my friends are black” no longer makes sense.

Thirdly, there is the liberal notion of choice: people have a right to speak a language of their choice.

True. But this minimalist approach does not help give African languages the space they deserve in an African society.

Admittedly, it would be foolish to blame only whites for their lack of interest in African languages.

To a great extent, African language speakers themselves are to blame.

Do we really make an effort to correct our fellow citizens whenever they pronounce our names incorrectly?

Quite frankly, it seems some black people are happy to hear their names pronounced in a twanging English version.

So, how do we fix the problem?

The national development plan released by National Planning Minister Trevor Manuel encourages “all South Africans” to learn at least one indigenous African language.

The use of the word “encourages” is important in that there does not seem to be a plan to make it compulsory.

The commission appears to genuinely believe in the willingness of citizens to build bridges in the national interest.

If the commission is correct, the word “encourage” will indeed encourage the proliferation of enrolments in African languages – from pre-school to university.

  • Mpumelelo Mkhabela is the editor of the Sowetan.

Source: