by Keorapetse William Kgositsile
Some years back, when writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka started arguing about the necessity of African writers writing in African languages, I was one of those who did not consider the issue serious enough to even be interested in participating in the debate as a practicing writer. I even believed that the question was of no relevance to the South African. My argument went further: most African literatures in South Africa were in African languages anyway. Those of us who wrote in English were an insignificant perhaps finally an irrelevant minority. So according to my thinking then, the major task, the mission, of the writer was to write, always aiming to achieve at least a modicum of artistic excellence and to remain, at all times, socially relevant. What language we wrote in was not as important as our being productive as literary artists, the good and the beautiful always inseparable. In the ANC community in exile, except for Manzi Kunene and the late Joe Bulane, we mainly used English to communicate and to create our literature.
Perhaps if I point out that at our historic Culture and Resistance Symposium/ Festival in Botswana in 1982, the language question was not even part of our agenda, you will realise how far it was from our everyday national concerns and preoccupations. However, I take the defense and promotion of English or any other language, at the expense of my language, or any other language as an act of aggression, a declaration of war. In 1984, at the University of Botswana a young Motswana author, Andrew Sesenyi, who had published one not-so-impressive no in English, took advantage of the platform of a mini-writers conference to advise the aspirant writers among the university students to forget about writing in Setswana. They should produce their national literature in English. If they wrote in English, he argued, they would have a much larger audience than if they wrote in Setswana. Note that in Botswana all the nationals speak Setswana except the paper ones, as the naturalised one are contemptuously referred to if they are seen to behave as though they thought themselves to be more-Tswana-than-thou.
Also, here oral literature is as alive as the blues in Chicago in this latter part of the twentieth century, no matter what any lying tourist guide or guidebook or expert expatriate might want the unsuspecting visitor to believe. As a Motswana (we did not create the colonial fence that separates us) and a practicing writer I felt strongly that Sesenyi’s argument was preposterous. My sense of duty and responsibility, artistically, socially and intellectually, would not allow me to let this kind of obscurantism, whether done with calculated intent or unwittingly, go on unchallenged. Mind you I am not and I have never been really, opposed to the development and promotion of any language, English included. But at the expense of my own language! So, Mayiblome! to arms!
Unfortunately, right after I had made an intervention, our young worthy of English letters left the conference without a single word in response, in English or any other language spoken in the region, and was never to be seen again for the rest of the conference. As the schoolteacher in Ngema’s Satafina says: It’s a pity! In 1988 – it might have been ’89, things have been happening so fast these past few years – the ANC Department of Education held a language seminar in Harare. It was the first of its kind to be held by the ANC community outside the country. It was attended by cadres ofthe Movement from different countries, various departments and structures. There was also a contingent from inside the country – COSATU, COSAW, a few ‘educationists’ and so on. And because Gorbachev had not yet in his insane pursuit of capitalist solutions for socialist problems, driven his final nail into the Soviet Union coffin, there was an observer from the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee. A few of us argued that in a post-apartheid South Africa – strange as it might sound there was already a committee or some kind of structure by that name. Post-Apartheid South Africa (PASA) which did not have a corresponding material reality – every South African did should grow up speaking at least one indigenous language fluently. Therefore the indigenous languages should be made an integral part of the curriculum from the first year of school. This should be made compulsory, though the choice of the language itself should be left to the pupil or student.
Perhaps not so strangely the strongest and most vociferous opposition to this recommendation came from our ‘educationist’ compatriots. They did not think it an insult to refer to our languages as vernaculars either. Those at the forefront of this opposition were non-African. You see, there is this stubborn little paradox: there are South Africans who would feel very insulted or scandalized if they were thought to be, or referred to as Africans. Of course they were joined by some Africans who must harbour a very low opinion of their languages (or should I say vernaculars?) and, consequently, of their cultures and it follows without saying it seems, themselves. That was year ago. And I was in exile.
In 1990, after almost thirty years, I returned home. The internal debate on the language question was a few years old and gaining momentum. For some of us the centrality of language to culture has become a burning issue. How did this come about? I think if I retraced the path to where I stand now, I might make a little contribution to this debate. I grew up in a home in which English was a tacit taboo. One of the most painfully rending elitism no, condemnation rendered with a brutal calmness by my maternal grandmother whenever I blundered limp-mindedly into a violation of that taboo, without intent to be defiant in any of my lip marathons, mind you, was a simple: ‘Hnh, okare re sets re na le makgoanyana mono’ (it seems like we already have some Junior Europeans here). I grew up on Setswana literature; I carried my classics with me everywhere I went. As I still do, to keep up with my contemporaries who write in my language.
In spite of all the English I spoke and read everyday and wrote in five days a week, I always dreamed in Setswana and usually the first thing I would say in the morning, if I said anything before I was fully awake, would be in Setswana. As part of my political development, I tried to study the national question: Stalin, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, and so on. Neruda wrote about being frustrated by being exiled from his language as a diplomat in Asia; I understood that clearly, I thought. But it remained cerebral, intellectual; it lacked the immediacy of emotional and psychological identification. It did not hit me and apply to me there-and-then, at-the-moment-of, in the gut.
Until my first daughter was born in exile – Ipeleng was born in New York in 1969- the language question had never disturbed my mind enough, with an uncompromising demand to be confronted. Since mid-December 1991, I have been to and out of South Africa in an unsettled, or even somewhat unsettling mission-accomplished-back-to-rear-base, sort of way. In traveling around the country meeting and meeting with predominantly younger writers in COSAW Creative Writing workshops, I often encounter disturbing problems in connection with language and the production of literature. There are many younger would be poets, for instance, who cannot really handle English competency enough to write poetry in it. Now these younger writers are usually well-grounded in one or several of our indigenous languages. But they insist on writing in English because they have been duped into believing that to be a serious writer is synonymous with writing in English. They don’t always trust my advising them to abandon English and to write in the indigenous language they are most competent and comfortable in, like Mangoaela for instance, a Mosotha who makes his poetry in Xhosa and is out there with the best of the practitioners in that language. When in despair I try to point out correctly that our languages are much older, much more compact, poetically much richer than English, which is an admirably advanced fanagalo in spite of its imperialist sexist racist and class biases, my advice tends to remain suspect because: ‘But, don’t I say, Bra Willie writes in English himself mos, so how come then?’
Another disturbing thing is what goes on in the schools. Schools are the institutions where learning and education are supposed to take place in a formal organised manner – the responsibility being that of the institutions and not the burden of the despairing individual teacher with a sense of accountability, a sense of mission – then seriously speaking, there are no schools in the townships, and in the rural communities as well thanks to Verwoerd, the perverse architect at this hideous nightmare, and all his descendants, including the junior. semi-slick neo-apartheid wonderboy De Klerk. And the schools in ‘white South Africa’, where now supposedly all of our children can go and learn and be educated remain stubbornly Eurocentric. Add to that the institutions of higher learning and research and the native-servicing Vista so-called universities.
My youngest son Neo goes to Sacred Heart in Yeoville. Sacred Heart is expensive – remember it was not built with the freedom Chatter Education and Culture clause in mind; it is supposedly a good school and also supposedly, relatively progressive. That is, in the context of the real everyday, bucket-of-black-blood South Africa. One evening a few months after he started going to Sacred Heart, Neo asked me why they, the pupils, were not allowed to speak their languages at school. Nothing new in that, we all suffered that violence and cultural humiliation. No Boer regime lied to us about ‘human rights’, non-racialism concern about ‘all our people intention to ‘redress imbalances, as Njabulo Ndebele has already clearly pointed out. Kaffir was Kaffir and white was arrogantly, unapologetically, silently white. And white was right and might, and white was the law. A few more months later the puzzled child asked me: ‘Papa, why do we speak so much English here at home (meaning in South Africa)!’ But now when I speak to him in Setswana, or Zulu, more often than not he responds in English.
I could go on and on with examples of what I think clearly indicates the existence of a serious national problem demanding us to confront it. Remember the National Question in South Africa has not been resolved yet. As the song says about other sites of our struggle for national liberation: Unzi ma lowasira (his heavy this load)! Recently (October 1592), there was a conference of African and Asian writers in Japan. Gcina Mhlophe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Said M Khamis, Denis Brutus and I were among the few African writers invited who managed to attend. There was a contingent of Korean writers and, of course our hosts the Japanese. On the language panel, we teamed from the Korean writers how they were engaged in a serious strategy of resistance against the Japanese authorities. The Japanese authorities demanded that Korean literature written and published in Japan must be in Japanese. There is a sizeable oiled Korean community resident in Japan. Their residence in Japan does not make them Japanese. Abandoning their language in the production of their literature, some argued, would be tantamount to abandoning their culture. And I understood them to be clearly arguing that this demand by the Japanese authorities was an art of aggression, an act of cultural Imperialism. And right there and then I understood why at times in my young years I would hate my fluency in English without even thought to it. Why I would argue with my friends at times that I spoke this damned language much too well for my own good. I understood clearly why I stubbornly refused to speak English with my children until they were fluent in one or two African languages first; it didn’t matter which African language since, though they were born and brought up in different parts of the world, the stubborn little arguable fact is that they are African.
In his contribution, Dennis Brutus argued, essentially that we were about to enter the twenty-first century; that English would be the language of the twenty-first century and that, therefore, we should be well, advised to accept that and be ready to enter the twenty-first century through the English language. This advice made me wild. My arm shot up in readiness for an intervention even before he was through with his promotion of English. I could vividly remember the crack of a ruler on the knuckles of some African school child who, because s/he could not cope with the drills in the Student’s Companion, was betraying her or his duty as a citizen (of the British Empire): loyalty to the queen’. Remembering The Royal Reader, I pointed out that the majority of the people on this planet did not speak English out of choice; that we were victims and casualties of English cultural imperialism; that at no point should we be advised to allow our languages to suffers the aggression of the ‘civilising mission’ of English cultural imperialism with resignation; that some of us were hostile to the notion of being advised to obtain English language visas to enter the twenty-first century. Ngugi also responded, more calmly than I did; remember he has argued the centrality of language to the process of decolonising the mind for years on innumerable platforms internationally and in his writing, his response was in Kikuyu. Said Khamis also responded to Brutus’s advice, perhaps more heatedly than I did, in Kiswahili. The Japanese expressed their solidarity with the Korean writers’ resistance against Japanese cultural imperialism.
It also seemed ironic, or like some neurosis of history, that the only people who participated in English were Dennis Brutus, Gcina Mhlophe and I, the South Africans. One of the questions that set my mind on fire and kept fanning the flames, forcing me to write this article, was: Does Dennis Brutus realise that his argument is in support of English cultural Imperialism? Of course, I know that Brutus does not, would not intendedly promote or defend imperialism, cultural or any other kind, at any level. But I think what he overlooks is that every language embodies and projects, propagates, the cultural values of its users; that the distribution and uses of English are dialectically related to the uses and abuses of power – economic, military, political. I concede that we could speak of a South African English in the same way that we could speak of an Australian English or wherever English. Wherever they have plundered, butchered, and conquered in pursuit of their ruthless ‘civilising mission’. But then again even if we spoke of a South Milan English, how many users would we be speaking of? For instance, in any township or rural area? How would it sound if a Vietnamese or Korean, German, Libyan, Greek or whatever writer advised other writers on any platform anywhere to abandon writing in their languages because we are on the threshold of the twenty-first century and we must enter it through English?
We are now talking about a new South Africa, hopefully post- not neo-apartheid; about free elections, one-person-one-vote about a non-racial, non-sexist democratic South Ahica. Cutting through all that excess verbiage, we are finally, rationally talking about majority rule. And FACE the majority of South Africans do not speak English. Are they doomed to remain this side of the twenty-first century? Ngugi and I pursued this discussion for a while as he was getting ready to leave Japan the day after the language panel. He maintained that no matter how much I could ‘tame English into my language’, as I used to argue I would, I would finally be enriching English and not Setswana. How could I possibly argue against that level of clarity? As the blues singer says ‘Hit me in the eye! Maybe then, maybe then I’d see better’. Yevtushenko used to ask me with intense concern, almost childlike, how I could settle for writing in a backward language like English when I had a rich poetic language. I now find the ready answers I used to have embarrassingly arrogant and ignorant.
Keorapetse William Kgositsile, also known as “Bra Willie”, is a South African poet and political activist.
This story was first featured in Chimurenga 03: Biko In Parliament (November ’02). Buy back copies and digital editions of of Chimurenga Magazine in the Chimurenga Shop.