Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Decolonizing the language in our Universities

The fifth and the last of the Decolonization panels series was on: What should happen to English and Afrikaans: Decolonization and the language use in our universities
The panel comprised of Munene Mwaniki (UFS), Terblanche Delport (UNISA), Sikhumbuzo Mngadi (UJ), Kees van der Waal (SU) and Mokgweetsi Keikabile (UJ student) and Nyasha Mboti chaired the session.
Nyasha opened the debate by asking why is it that the Afrikaans language is hated so much yet the English is dearly loved. He asked what is “decolonization” in South African languages? He spoke of how as schoolchildren we were punished for not speaking English.
Munene Mwaniki 

The panel was kick-started by Munene Mwaniki who argued that we are in a contested territory where something is wrong with our education system generally and  higher education specifically. He reminded the audience that section 29 of the SA constitution stipulates that everyone has the right to receive education in a language of their choice. He further asked social justice questions: What exactly are we decolonising? Who should drive these interventions? Can we entrust the decolonization to people that we know are racists? What exactly do we want to achieve out of these debates?
He concluded by saying that the entire colonial project is based on a lie. He referred to the book titled “The history of inequality in SA” to argue that the superiority of the West is a lie!! Because Africa existed before the West. The book is about what needs to happen in order to move forward. He also said that we need transformative remedies to redress the inequalities of the past.
Kees van der Waal 

The second panellist was Kees who argued that language is very linked to the issues of social justice. He said that black education is underdeveloped because of the inequalities of the past in SA. He further alluded to a few authors and their understanding of decolonization. Ngugi Wa Thiongo in decolonizing the mind explains decolonization as claiming self-ownership, seeing ourselves clearly in relation to others. However Vinita Vaish argues that English is a tool of decolonisation which gives the poor access to the global economy. Edouard Glissant says decolonisation should be balanced by relation. He further cited Bourdieu on language, highlighting that language has power, status (others regarded it as higher and others as lower), standard and hegemony. (For more of Kees' ideas about the work of Glissant, see the blog posting of 28 May 2015). 

He argued that in practice people are using multiple languages and these languages influence one another. At Stellenbosch University, the Xhosa language is being developed as an academic language, but where to from there? He also stressed that African languages at school level need to be strengthened. He indicated that institutions will need financial support from the government in order to promote disadvantaged languages.
Terblanche Delport

Terblanche continued from where Kees left off and asked a question “Who burnt UJ? Was the burning reactionary or revolutionary?” He said colonialism is about taking the land and constructing something that did not exist before.
The history of the SA University was established in 1873 by the Cape of Good Hope act. A group of Afrikaans-speaking intellectuals in 1975 decided that Afrikaans should be formalised as a language.
He asked why white Afrikaaners bad are and the English not? White supremacy does not discriminate in terms of language. Asked why are we making a pragmatic argument saying Afrikaans should go and English should stay? What can the university do about decolonisation?
SA was established in 1909 so the country itself is a consolidation of Boer and British republics and therefore it is a colonial construct. To speak about a University in SA is talking about a colonial university. We need to address the issues that gave rise to the problems we are facing right now.
What is the role of the university in Africa?
The university needs to push the issues of social justice. He concluded by asking, what do we want to do as a University? He argued that we need to train people to be pragmatic human rights specialists who can speak English. At the moment, it is clear that the university management is standing on the side of the state and not willing to change or decolonize anything. They are protecting the one thing that has caused racism in this country. It looks like we need a new constitution.
Keikabile Mokgweetsi

Keikabile started by saying that the University of Johannesburg is Afropean in the sense that it proclaims to be an epicentre of Pan-Africanist thought yet on the contrary the Afrikaans language is being used in lectures. There are still lecturers who are arrogant and tell the students that the learning activities will be provided in Afrikaans and it is the responsibility of the students to find means of translating the texts. He argued that the Afrikaans speaking students are advantaged over the students who are speaking SA languages other than English and Afrikaans.  
He cited Louis Gordon on Fanon saying that “ … language is a construction that has a force of forming reality … “ We need to change certain things and be careful who talks to us on decolonisation issues as it only affects those who have been directly affected by decolonization".
He asked how on earth Terblanche can give a talk on Robert Sobukwe (referring to a talk he did last year at UJ). Robert Sobukwe himself did not allow any settlers to join the Pan Africanist Congress, so where does Terblanche get the legitimacy to talk to black students about Sobukwe.
He further argued about some authors who are writing on Fanon and distorting the original text. He further accused Munene of talking about constitutional democracy and decolonization at the same time. He claimed that that is a contradiction as decolonization is not about peacemaking but a violent process whereby something must die in order for something new to be born. The constitution as mentioned by Munene is not helpful in the sense that the system needs to be challenged as it continues to perpetuate the injustices in our country.
Keikabile concluded by reading a poem he wrote in Tswana: Ke nna mang? Who am I? The poem is about how African have lost their dignity and humanity to colonization.
Sikhumbuzo Mngadi
Skhumbuzo maintained that English occupies a very prominent position in our times. He questioned why other languages are left out of the academy yet they widely were spoken. Ngugi in decolonizing the mind talks about the issues of language.
He cited an English scholar, Collin McKay, who noted that English was a socially despised language. But it occupies a very prominent position in our times. Both English and Afrikaans came from a history of being the language of slavery. How then did they become dominant in our context if they originate from such humble origins?
Someone wrote that we need to invent slavery in Africa in order to gain that kind of power that the West gained through slavery. He asked, how do we begin to address the history of violence, the prominence of English and Afrikaans, which were (and still are) the languages of oppression? We had to learn these languages in order to address the authority. The poem titled “The South African dialogue” addresses the issues of the servant communicating with his boss. How do we then transform these languages of slavery to be the languages of teaching and learning?
The English language has always been understood to be a universal language, but how universal it is? To what extent are our universities responsive to the communities that they serve? He argued that the languages are part of our symbolic cultures and our languages also carry our critical tools with which we produce our knowledge.
The issue of decolonisation is nothing new. The 1990’s texts were about decolonisation, or else there would be no texts around the topic. Where do we draw the line between what is African and what is not? We speak of the mobility of languages, which are able to carry the dynamics of change. Languages are not self-enclosed, they carry the burden of violence.
Ngugi generated a number of studies on how Africa came about through the process of colonisation. Similarly, Eskia Mphahlele wrote about how one could read the idea of human vitality. We have cross-pollination between languages, but how do we account for the fact that some languages are regarded as superior to the others? African languages have continued to be inferior despite the fact that they are spoken widely. Afrikaans and English have become African languages, but in what sense?This is a question that is hardly asked. African languages have not made any effort to influence Africa at all.
Have we had any cross-translation, where those who speak English have to translate it to an African language? Are we prepared to share the wealth of the languages around us? Or do we still want to call English and Afrikaans African languages when it is convenient to do so? In conclusion, he referred to a Nigerian writer who responded to Ngugi in his book “Season of migration to the South”. He emphasised that this is a good read in addressing the issues of decolonization.
Instead of having a question and answer session, the speakers joined the groups and moved from one group to the other.

Feel free to add your comments from the various groups to the blog. 

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