Let's ensure Africa doesn't get lost in translation
The question of language and the role that indigenous languages play in learning remains a significant point of contestation in our education and political landscape.
At the heart of it is the critique of the late Ali Mazrui, a scholar and prolific author.
In fact, the uprising by Soweto students against Afrikaans resonates with the struggle for use of indigenous language, something which actually makes profound business sense, particularly in relation to the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
The trigger of what came to be known as June 16, was a skilfully organised protest by students against being taught in Afrikaans, in particular.
However, more generally it was part of the broad Struggle against apartheid oppression.
To mark the 43rd anniversary of the Soweto Uprisings, a session was held at the Morrison Isaacs High School in Soweto, where the vice-chancellors of the University of Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town provided reflective lectures.
Many other leaders of the milestone 1976 Soweto protests were present.
This is an important moment, as the university leadership of today is taking a step back asking the question, what happened to our Struggle?
The question of the position and role of indigenous languages in the decolonisation programme of Africa is not only being asked in South Africa. In another city on the continent, Nairobi, in Kenya, the International Publishers Association (IPA) met and deliberated on the subject.
UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s address resonated with the IPA’s discussion in Nairobi, confirming that the Soweto Struggle was not only for this country, but was a typically African struggle. How then can you explain the profound coincidence of arguments?
In Nairobi, the key issue was how do African writers advance indigenous languages and what systems have to be put in place in order to have a sustainable case for such?
Phakeng’s point that indigenous languages have to be part of the tuition would have received a standing ovation in Nairobi by luminaries such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
The award-winning writer stopped publishing his works in English and decided to publish only in the indigenous languages of Kenya. By doing so, he was able to remain true to the unique content and context of the Kenyan situation.
In a business sense, the writer retained a unique proposition and a competitive advantage. However, he was keenly aware that the readership of his themes reached far and wide like his novel, The River Between.
The demand for his works expanded and translations were demanded and he provided the translated works. Since then he has never looked back from his mission of first and foremost publishing in his indigenous language.
Take this strategy and juxtapose it with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.
In this context, an African would first and foremost recognise that producing for his/her own market is crucial and delivers the competitive advantage he/she needs to compete in the global market.
Language as a culture and as an artefact of exchange is a clear vehicle for ensuring that trade is equitable and economic engagements are sustainable.
The uprising of Soweto will not be in vain as the professors of our universities in South Africa and African publishers on the continent embrace and answer the question of language.
Ngugi has demonstrated that a working business model is one where you are on terra firma and each nation’s gift of language provides this crucial attribute.
More broadly, and in relation to Africa, the trade agreement, the Soweto uprisings and Ngugi wa Thiong’o provide indigenous intellect that African policymakers and technocrats should embrace.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Arica. Meet him at www.pie.org.za and @PaliLehohla