The next South African government should protect indigenous languages


Calls to make Khelobedu, one of South Africa’s indigenous languages, into an official language has for years coincided with electioneering by the ruling party with no practical action that follow despite those who have made calls being persons of power and authority within government.

In 2016 before the local government elections Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Desmond van Rooyen visited to the Modjadji Tribal Authority to inform the royal house of the government’s decision to restores the Modjadji Queenship, which was nullified by the apartheid government in 1972. During the visit Mr Van Rooyen announced intentions to make the Khelobedu language South Africa’s 12th official language. This year in February President Cyril Ramaphosa made the same promise in front of Balobedu.

The intentions are noble but without any plans on how government aims to achieve this, it remains campaign rhetoric. President Ramaphosa cannot forgo protocol to declare languages official. First government needs to assist in developing the capacity to manage heritage knowledge because there are people who have archived and elaborated Khelobedu in a variety of ways. This is available at national and private archives like those of anthropologists and family notebooks wait to be tapped into. Lack of factual information about the language and culture, in general, has resulted in a lot of misinformation about Khelobedu including a perpetual notion that is a dialect of Sepedi with TshiVenda phonological influences. 

This idea of the language being a dialect can be traced to a recommendation by colonial ethnologist Nicholas Van Warmelo’s advise to a generation of anthropologists of the then ‘bantu studies’ seminar in 1925 which has now replaced all prior idea of Khelobedu as a language. Van Warmelo suggested that to deal with their difficulty of writing Khelobedu, which included sound that did not exist in Sepedi, they should write Khelobedu with Venda consonants and Pedi vowels (or visa versa). 

This idea was further entranced by an irresponsible made by ally of apartheid architect, Hendrick Verwoerd, Dr. Max Eislen, who wrote in a 1939 essay on the Northern Sotho under “Bantu tribes of Southern Africa” series, that the Balobedus where a small inconsequential tribe that would be absorbed by Bapedi, further entrenching Balobedu and Khelobedu as a subsection of the world. Another confusion has been into the exact number of how many people truly speak the language.

The undoing of indigenous languages and cultures are as a result of the colonial practices like those mentioned in the last paragraph and reversing their impact will take years and efforts. The year 2019 presents an opportunity for the new government to show that it is serious about providing leadership for those who have dedicated time to preserving context and unique knowledge that presents itself through indigenous languages. In February the United Nations declared this as the International Year of Indigenous Languages and indigenous languages such as Khelobedu are a symbol of historical treasures nations possess. Loss of any indigenous language is a loss of knowledge on other possible ways of being in the world.

The UN’s declaration on rights of indigenous people states that indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their languages, oral traditions, writing systems and literature. Further, it provides that governments shall take effective measures to protect this right, including through interpretation in political, legal and administrative proceedings.

In recent times Khelobedu speaking people have progressively taken steps to ensure that their language does not go down the trenches. Famed Khelobedu artists Candy Tsa Mandebele and King Monada are two well-known examples today. More awareness is still needed on the literature that exists on the Lobedu the language. Furthermore, Bolobedu itself is a hub that needs proper heritage management so that new material being produced about Khelobedu by Balobedu can be widely shared. The Kara Institute founded by Dr Mathole Motshekga has for years worked on leveraging Africa’s indigenous knowledge by bringing the ethos of Africa’s heritage into modern society. The organization has shown that there is a need for different cultural groups to assert themselves and create a standard to protect their indigenous languages.

This year a Khelobedu dictionary compiled by Kgothatso Seshayi was introduced to a group of Balobedu under the “Balobedu Think Tank” banner which took steps to have the dictionary printed and distributed in Bolobedu. There has been Subsequent discussion with the Pan South African Language Board and the South African National Lexicography Units who are advising and encouraging further development of Khelobedu reading material. This has demonstrated a willingness of the Balobedu to take the government on its word to officialize the language. President Ramaphosa and his next cabinet should support these efforts and prove that it is not just about getting votes.


Masutane is a member of the Balobedu Think Tank, a group made up of Khelobedu speaking young professionals and academics based in Johannesburg.