What remains of a stolen tongue?


What becomes of a land without the languages that defined it for thousands of years? The languages that guided it, provided it with care, understanding, nurture, nourishment and gave it spiritual healing? Who are we when we can no longer speak, breathe and live the languages of our ancestors?

Languages are dying every day. In South Africa, it is the Khoe languages that are most at risk. Once spoken by all Khoekhoe groups in South Africa (and responsible for place names including Knynsa, Goudini, Prieska and Homtini), Khoekhoe is now rarely spoken, with devastating effects. Khoekhoe groups included the Inqua, Outeniqua, Hessequa, Attaqua, Namaqua, Chainoqua, Cocohoqua, Sonoqua and Griqua. Qua in Khoekhoe means people.

Research among indigenous communities internationally shows that people who have lost their languages ​​through colonialism can be more violent, suffer more psychological challenges, show increased levels of alcohol and drug addiction, and are at higher risk of suicide. This is due to a significant part of their cultural identify and sense of belonging being taken away from them.

Many of the Cape’s coloured communities are Khoe communities and are suffering from these ills. Could language restoration be the antidote to provide some healing?  For some first-nation communities, learning to speak their ancestors’ languages has become part of their journey to sobriety. Surely this speaks to the enormity of language reclamation? Today, after 25 years of “freedom”, we still do not have an official Khoe language. Can we call ourselves free when our languages ​​are not free? And, if our languages ​​are not recognised, are we not also unrecognised?

New Zealand and countries in Europe and North America have clear guidelines and laws that promote the deployment and revival of native languages. South Africa, like Botswana, has an “assimilative policy” that says all African languages ​​are indigenous and Khoe languages do not differ from the other languages. Yet we are still to see a single Khoe language recognised as official, despite having nine official Bantu languages.

More needs to be done if we are to see language equality, the survival of our ancestral languages and healing for our people. For example, the N|uu language, now the oldest language in South Africa, has only four fluent speakers left and they are all in their eighties! Fortunately, Khoekhoe survives in the Nama dialect and is spoken by the Namaqua, Damara and Hai||om people in Namibia.

These people fled to Namibia from South Africa hoping to escape colonial violence. And while they unfortunately suffered the same fate in the new country, they retained a form of the language. Perhaps not the same rich and varied version once spoken across South Africa, but Khoekhoe nonetheless.

Hillwood Primary School on the Cape Flats, an under-resourced school in one of the most violent communities in the Western Cape, asked me to be part of their extra-mural activity programme. It was exciting to be invited to teach the learners some Khoekhoe over an eight-week period as I have asked the Western Cape Education MEC about offering Khoekhoe as an additional language and nothing has yet come of this.

In his state of the nation address, President Ramaphosa said that he wants two years of compulsory early childhood development for all children. Imagine if Khoekhoe could be introduced in that early foundation phase. What a difference it would make to the emotional wellbeing of the millions of Khoe who remain linguistically disadvantaged in South Africa! Imagine the wealth of cultural and historical knowledge we would retain.

Despite the scarcity of funding, the work will continue with partners such as Nal’ibali. One of my favourite Khoekhoe phrases is: “Toa Tama!Khams ge”, which means the struggle continues, we are here and we will not deny our next generation that which was denied to us.


Denver Toroxa Breda is a first-nation Khoe language, cultural kuwiri, activist and writer. He is determined to fight for the recognition and reclamation of the first languages of South Africa.