Celebrating isiXhosa as an official language in South Africa

Professor Ncedile Saule was honored by SADiLaR
Professor Ncedile Saule was honored by SADiLaR

By Lindeka Namba, School of Journalism and Media Studies student

On Friday the 20 September, the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature was abuzz with people from all walks of life who gathered to celebrate IsiXhosa as one of South Africa’s official languages. Vibrant colours of traditional Xhosa attire were seen on display, as proud delegates mingled in anticipation of what was to be a wonderful day. 

The main purpose of the event was to celebrate an indigenous language (isiXhosa) spoken primarily by 8 million mother tongue speakers in South Africa. In addition, the event aimed to celebrate the work of and contributions of Rhodes University’s Professor Ncedile Saule, who has done magnificent work towards the development of isiXhosa through his literary works.

In attendance were academics, government officials, language practitioners, university students, high scholars and people from all walks of life, who are interested in the development and preservation of isiXhosa. The event was hosted as part of an ongoing initiative by the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR) in collaboration with the South African National Lexicographic Units to celebrate the 11 official languages of South Africa. Organisers also took advantage of the timing, as 2019 was declared to be the International Year of Indigenous Languages by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The theme for the event was ‘Social Cohesion through Literature’ with the purpose of entertaining, educating and celebrating matters dealing with isiXhosa.

Popular Umhlobo Wenene FM’s famed radio personality and programme director for the day, Mr Mafa Bavuma, opened the event by inviting the local Makhanda Choir to sing a song of praise. The auditorium was filled with jubilation and dancing, as delegates in their traditional Xhosa wear moved to the rhythm of the beat. Bavuma also called on a variety of speakers to share on the theme of the day and to look at the career possibilities that come with studying isiXhosa as an indigenous language.  

Organiser of the event and isiXhosa researcher at SADiLaR, Ms Andiswa Bukula, shared her delight to have the opportunity and platform to celebrate her mother tongue while also honouring a living legend, Professor Saule. “SADiLaR’s mandate is to develop indigenous languages in South Africa. We saw this as an opportunity to develop our indigenous languages by creating exposure around our languages and creating a platform where people can actually celebrate and be proud of their indigenous languages,” she said.

When the time came to honour Professor Saule, many of his students expressed gratitude for his mentorship and guidance throughout their academic careers. They honoured him with gifts of traditional Xhosa attire and a plaque containing all of his achievements thus far.  When he was making a speech, Professor Saule touched on topics such as the influence that language has on culture, one’s identity, upbringing and development.  He said: “As South Africans, we cannot truly claim to be free until our indigenous languages are taught, spoken, read and seen on all societal and governmental platforms.” He thanked the people who have been instrumental in his journey and his success, noting that he would love nothing more than to see many young authors follow in his footsteps.

Various Xhosa poets (iimbongi) and Xhosa traditional dancers were also present to celebrate the great day. The afternoon ended in high spirits, ahead of National Heritage Day on 24 September.