Quest for a new engaged intellectualism

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

It struck me the other day that black South Africans use the term ukuzabalaza and the word Umzabalazo almost exclusively in relation to the fight against apartheid and colonialism.

I’m no linguist, but I am, like most South Africans multilingual. My focus here is not so much on multilingualism, but on the way in which language can either refine or narrow one’s political lens.

More broadly, I am interested in conveying to an emerging generation of politically interested students, engaged scholars and community activists the importance of being adept with language if we want to encourage a robust civic culture.

The realisation of the almost singular historical meaning of ukuzabalaza came to me as I engaged peers on the subject of youth politics and community struggles – in this context “struggles” is defined as “collective political acts to address political and social concerns”.

In switching between English and Zulu, it dawned on me that I could not translate the term “community struggles” into a precise equivalent in Nguni.

The best I could approximate were words that mean “protests” ( uqhankqalazo) or “complaints” ( izikhalazo) or the slang ukutoyitoya.

I even went as far as googling the possible plural imizabalazo’, and Google asked me if I meant Umzabazalo – the singular denoting “The Struggle”.

Moreover, I realised that even when Nguni speakers use English to talk about their “struggles”, they tend to mean their day-to-day struggles – ukusokola – caused by socio-economic circumstance.

Being multilingual, I can hear the different emphases or the spin Nguni speakers put on English words in different contexts. The conceptual implications of this “untranslatability” have preoccupied me for over a week now.

When the English term “struggles” is used, it invokes an image of nascent political consciousness within a marginalised class or constituency which not only protests collectively, but actively and deliberately defies the status quo with some medium to long-term strategy in mind.

If the conversation happens in Nguni and one speaks of uqhankqalazo, the conception is one of a community that accepts the broad status quo, but has grievances of the immediate and shortterm kind.

It was in noting these different meanings that I realised that ukuzabalaza emerged historically as a term to denote a form of struggle to overthrow white minority rule over Africans.

However, in the post-liberation context ukuqhankqalaza is the more common conception of what people do against a government that fails to meet their expectations.

Thus “to struggle” or to zabalaza is what one does to acquire fundamental freedoms, while ukuqhankqalaza implies that the needs can be met within the status quo.

Perhaps, then, to use the English term “community struggles”, as a catch-all to describe a range of dissenting political activities in communities, may result in some conceptual elision.

If my premise has merit, it seems to me there is a need to be keenly aware of how language subtly frames the direction of our debates on the nature of what kind of active citizenship many of us desire to see today and what we must bear in mind in promoting such a citizenship.

The ability to discern fine linguistic nuances is an asset in a diverse society, but it is a nonnegotiable imperative for the politically active. I believe this nuance is often missing in Englishdominant spaces such as academia and the mainstream media public sphere.

While I’ve mused over this linguistic issue, I have also been engaging students and peers across South Africa on the need for a new political culture to emerge from the youth, a politics that can grapple both intellectually and socially with the complicated politics of an unequal democracy.

In engaging young people, I have taken quite a hard line. I put forward the idea that far from being politically vibrant and independent, the youth across the board offer no new or vibrant intellectual insights into our democratic milieu.

This is either because the elite educated segment (former Model C/private schools) tends to participate in insular political discussion as fed through English-language media and social networks, or because the larger segment of youth tends to engage in a mish-mash of populist rhetoric of the kind advanced by the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).

Simplified though this description of youth engagement may seem, the response I received from young people was that this was an accurate picture of how they currently experience the political scene. Many felt there was little room to be heard outside the “insulated suburban chatterings” or the “populist narratives”.

My argument in response to this fatalism they conveyed was that language is the ladder out of this binary political space.

Language, in the first instance, helps you to understand exactly what people are saying.

In the second instance, language helps you to have an ear for conceptual differences in the way people are articulating their political views in different contexts eg in which moment “struggle” means collective action and in which it means protest or simply day-to-day hardship.

Thirdly, you need a shared understanding of concepts to participate in meaningful debate with people you may not share a social reality with.

At a fourth and deeper level, language can often colour how you perceive social realities different than your own.

These four layers are critical to grasp, especially in South Africa where those who were oppressed and many of whom continue to experience some kind of suppression, often have their political situations mediated onto wider public platforms through professionals in media, NGO-advocacy and research institutions.

To understand the way political engagement plays out in communities where conversations are usually not constructed in suburban English, we need to be confident we share a frame of reference.

Beyond that, if we want to interrogate those in power, then we need to be aware of how they use language differently in different contexts.

I have heard Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi provide different explanations for “Nkandlagate” on Radio 702 and Ukhozi FM on the same day simply because he spoke to different audiences in different languages.

I often hear ex-activists and public commentators blame the erosion of robust intellectualism on the ANCs “paranoia” and turn to populism. But the problem is actually wider. Public intellectuals, scholars, political analysts and commentators seem very happy to remain in their English language and information enclaves, so long as it means someone will publish or quote our views.

In the past, the ANC and United Democratic Front fostered the organic intellectual environment which developed a political language understood by a wide spectrum of people.

To reclaim that culture of engaged intellectualisms for a new era, we need to re-learn the ability to hear nuances across our various public spaces. This will enable us to speak a credible truth and advance a relevant intellectualism.

By Nomalanga Mkhize

Dr Nomalanga Mkhize is a lecturer in the history department at Rhodes University

Source: Daily Dispatch