Farewell to Heritage Month, remain with us in spirit

Photo by Scott Webb

As we bid farewell to Heritage month, it is imperative to take stock of how our traditions, customs and practices to advance or retard our national development agenda.

South Africa is a multicultural society with eleven languages recognised as official. What this means nominally is that all eleven South African languages enjoy equal status recognition on the statute books. In practice, however, indigenous African languages are highly marginalised with English enjoying dominance over our languages. 

To an extent, Afrikaans has developed and does enjoy some level of prominence within the national linguistic landscape. This is mainly due to the efforts of the Afrikaner community to ensure that their language is not rendered obsolete. 

The continued side-lining of African languages is a sad indictment on the democratic government which has done little or nothing to advance the development of African languages. What is most disheartening is that instead of the growth and development of these languages, the reverse has occurred with the progressive diminishing use of African language even by the indigenous people. 

The irony is that during the apartheid era, African languages were studied at a higher level with English and Afrikaans as compulsory subjects. With the democratic dispensation, African children are seen opting out of studying their own languages and display a preference for English as a Home Language. This is mainly due to the attitude by parents towards African Languages which are regarded as inferior to English. Such an attitude is linked to the perception of equating the mastery of English with intelligence.

Such an attitude smacks of an inferiority complex which the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo calls “the fallacious notion of the unassailable position of English in our languages.” It defies logic that 26 years after democracy, we still do not have African languages as compulsory subjects for every learner at South African public schools to facilitate their development. As vehicles of cultural transmission, our languages are important to ensure such transmission across generations. The alternative to this is that we can end up as a culturally captured nation. Depriving our children of the opportunity to learn and speak their languages with all its imagery, symbols and nuances, is to rob them of their heritage. Posterity will judge such parents harshly.

Another area which needs attention and review is with some of our imageries and proverbs. Certain proverbs in the Sesotho language need to be placed under the scope of the magnifying glass. For example “monna ke nku ha a lle”, is a proverb which encourages boys to suppress their feeling as it translates to “a boy is sheep, he does not cry.” Such a proverb is dangerous and may lead to permanent affective damage in boys. Another one goes, “ntwa ke ya madulammoho.” This one seeks to normalise violent confrontation as it means “fighting is par for the cause for those who live together.” 

War is not something that can be romanticised or glorified as it can only lead to unpalatable consequences. It should be avoided like the plaque whenever possible. Proverbs are meant to advise and teach and should therefore serve to guide the younger generation towards becoming ideal citizens. A proverb such as “ntjapedi ha e hlolwe ke sebata” contains a truism that when two or more people work together, then the work becomes easier as they share the burden. This one should be retained and practised.

It is well known that singing is the fulcrum of African ritual observations. We sing when we celebrate, worship and even when we mourn. We even have names for different occasions. There is this wedding song that goes by the name Gabi Gabi. This song pours scorn and ridicule on a woman who cannot bear children. It taunts her to come and witness the carnivals of someone’s daughter getting married with her not being able to have children of her own. 

This is a cruel song as not being able to bear children, especially when married is no laughing matter. There is this other one Ba kae baloi?, which enquires on the whereabouts of the resident witches who apparently cannot come out and witness the festivities due to their preoccupation with nefarious shenanigans. Such a sarcastic song has no place at a wedding and should not be sung. These two songs should be struck from the wedding songs’ repertoire. 

Our languages, images and songs should become symbols of our national pride that should advance our cause as African people with no aspirations to become African English men or women.