The government is urged to create more opportunities for South Africans to learn and use indigenous languages as a means of improving social cohesion in local communities. Recent inquiries looking into obstacles to social integration in the Western Cape Province have highlighted the importance of all population groups learning English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa to enable them to integrate and engage fully in society. These are the three languages that have enjoyed official status in the province over many years.
As chairperson of the Western Cape Language Committee I am encouraged by the groundswell of activism calling for people in the province to be encouraged to promote multilingualism by learning languages such as seSotho, the SA Sign Language, Khoekhoegowab and kiSwahili – particularly in areas where there are high numbers of residents who speak these languages, so that there is some mutual effort in understanding the others’ language and culture in efforts to build social cohesion. Each year in interactions with the Portfolio Committee on Cultural Affairs and Sport in the provincial legislature, we highlight that this activism creates a new wave of activities during the month of December, when South Africa observe the National Day of Reconciliation as well the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children Campaign.
In order to achieve broad impact, our collective efforts to promote multilingualism must be informed by the realisation that, rather than putting the onus solely on mother-tongue speakers of indigenous languages to learn other languages, we should all be multilingual so that social integration can be seen as a two-way street. When considering the issue from the point of view of language learning, we rightly expect all in this province to learn English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa but, as a society, we often don’t see the need ourselves to learn and use another language, and consider it to be something difficult and only for the intellectual elite.
There is a general lack of awareness of the value of languages in our society. While there has been a marked improvement in the take-up in schools of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, indigenous languages are still undervalued both in government and by the general public. This situation continues even though a basic knowledge of some indigenous languages could be beneficial to social cohesion and could be taught either formally or through joint community initiatives.
As a society, we undervalue multilingualism and the positive impact it has on individuals, their health and their wellbeing as well as on our economy. One of the reasons most bilinguals find language learning difficult is because they don’t tend to have the same exposure to other languages outside the classroom and workplace, so that they generally hear the language they are learning relatively little compared with what happens in their homes, where notably English and Afrikaans are present on the TV, in pop songs and so on.
That is why we must also promote SA Sign Language so as to boost confidence of deaf people to participate meaningfully in everyday activities in our society. Bad communication means deaf people have to bear the burden of obtaining reliable information on various aspects of their daily lives than their hearing peers. We can see that deafness has a profound impact on people’s wellbeing and general contribution to society and this is significantly worse than other groups of people with disabilities.
We must also commend and support various initiatives to promote multilingualism, including the introduction of short courses on Khoekhoegowab, the indigenous Khoisan language, through the University of Cape Town’s Multilingualism Education Project. The bigger plan is for Khoekhoegowab to become a fourth language at the university. Also, the establishment of kiSwahili Language Board has been another remarkable milestone in the province, thanks to the support provided by the isiXhosa Department in the University of the Western Cape.
Efforts to promote multilingualism can benefit from the popular use of the preamble of the Constitution, as a succinct expressionary statement that captures the essential principles by which we the people seek to build social cohesion. It opens with a significant phrase “we the people of South Africa”, to signify our collective resolve to build a united South Africa premised on democratic values and human rights. It proclaims that we recognise the fractured character of our community and set about transforming our society towards a goal that unequivocally repudiates inter-racial and tribal hostility. This is important so that we may build a nation upon a consensus that every South African deserves dignity and that our whole community, through sharing resources and through respect for one another, can experience social cohesion.
Human dignity functions both as a value and as a human right and affords protection of each individual’s inherent human dignity, treatment with dignity by others, and treatment with dignity by the state in the form of provision of minimum living conditions though realisation of socio-economic rights.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng once described the preamble as “such a crucial part of our Constitution that, if only every citizen were to internalise it and live according to its terms, our aspirations would most likely be expeditiously realised.” This is true in relation to how we can use multilingualism constructively to end discrimination and promote social cohesion. Firstly, to dispel all forms of prejudice in the mind and the resultant acts of intolerance we display in our everyday use of non-verbal communication. Secondly, to desist from acts of intimidation we display in our everyday utterances of derogatory words towards those we consider to be outsiders. Thirdly, to desist from acts of violence in the form of attacks on persons and property, including women, children, and foreign nationals.
In this regard we must remain mindful that an important objective of our constitutional democracy is to be “united in our diversity”. It is inspired by the values and rights such as dignity and equality and non-discrimination. In its desire to promote social cohesion, our Constitution protects and celebrates difference by going far enough in guaranteeing cultural, religious and language practices in generous terms, provided that they are consistent with entrenched rights. Our highest and hardest task in promoting social cohesion and a human rights culture through multilingualism, twenty five years in our democracy, is to make ourselves people on whom nothing is lost.
Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi is a Policy Analyst and Chairperson of the Western Cape Language Committee.