OPINION: I don’t mind my language



To my fellow English speaking South Africans, English is not my mother tongue. So no, I don’t speak my African languages to only skinner about you.  My language is way more sophisticated than that. It is bold, descriptive, romantic and fierce.

It seems to me that there is a taboo around speaking vernacular languages in academic spaces. If you don’t speak with a Model C accent, you are viewed as a not so intelligent sub human species with a primitive understanding of the world. Its been 39 years since black students protested against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools, yet we have academic institutions like Stellenbosch University who blatantly refuse to welcome and facilitate language diversity among students.

I used to chuckle whenever I’d hear students say, “I go to Virrts”. But now it makes me sad to hear it. Sad to see my fellow African Witsies morph their speech to fit into a nonsensical and uniform mould of what an educated black person should sound like. Language should be a tool to communicate with a diverse people not a weapon used to exclude students from academic discourse.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting the author of the Sesotho dictionary, Zulumathabo Zulu. I was going to write articles in the seSotho language for the first time and he was going to be my guide through it. I was in awe of the man’s accomplishments but at the same time I was intimidated by him for two reasons. Firstly, the seSotho I speak  has been infused with the other five languages that I use, so it’s not as sophisticated as his. Secondly, the man has written a whole seSotho dictionary and its focus is on my long time nemesis- MATHEMATICS!

The first question I asked him was how I as a young journalist could effectively use his book to write human interest stories? He smiled and eloquently explained that, “in seSotho, mathematics is derived from the ordinary and mundane concepts that people already understand.” He flipped through a copy of his book and randomly stopped on a page with the word ‘motshetshe’ listed on it. “As in the crease that is ironed down a pair of formal trousers?,” I naively asked. “Exactly, the angle that is formed by the crease is used in our language to explain the mathematical concept of angles and arches.” he replied.

He explained that African people have mathematical knowledge which is integrated as part of their lives, unlike the Western communities, where mathematics is more abstract. I experienced pure enlightenment and joy as I came to realise  how beautifully simple and complex my language is. It became so vividly apparent to me in that moment, that my language transcends barriers, it is versatile and far more refined than society gives it credit for.

Nasal speech does not make you sound more intelligent and speaking your mother tongue doesn’t make you stupid. Our language is an important part of our heritage, something that comes or belongs to one by reason of birth. If we are not able to speak it and learn in our native tongues, I fear it may end up on the endangered species list.

So no, I don’t speak my mother tongue to just skinner about you. I choose to speak the languages that I do to be more imaginative, passionate and practical than that. 

New Rhodes vice-chancellor contributes salary to “needy” students

Rhodes University vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela had his inauguration last Friday., and dedicated his speech to the Biko and Mxenge families. Photo: Provided

Rhodes University’s newly inaugurated vice-chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, has vowed that no academically talented – but financially needy – young person will be turned away from Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

“It is a bit aspirational,” he told Wits Vuvuzela. “But we have to make a point that we will raise funds. I will make it my personal mission.”

When Mabizela became deputy vice-chancellor in 2008, he made a “salary sacrifice” and contributed part of his salary towards a bursary fund that assists financially needy students who are academically talented, mostly from poor and rural families.

As vice-chancellor, he said that he will increase this contribution, to about R300 000 in total. He will also continue to encourage community members and university staff to contribute.

“In fact, I encourage every young person in this country to make a contribution,” he said.

Mabizela is the first black African vice-chancellor at Rhodes University in over 100 years, but does not want people to “get hung up on this”.

“That I happen to be black and African is simply an accident of history from which we have just emerged. I don’t want this to be elevated above any and everything else, because I would be deeply troubled if I was appointed simply because of that.”

He said that when he accepted, he made it very clear that he was not motivated by personal glory or material and financial gain, but rather by a commitment to serve the university and wider South Africa.

Rhodes had to turn away approximately 130 students at the start of the year, because they were denied National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds and were unable to register. Mabizela described the experience of having to deny qualifying students an education as “painful”.

Under Sizwe’s leadership as a part of senior management for over six years, Rhodes has matched NSFAS’ contribution of R32-million by spending approximately R34-million on assisting “desperately poor” but academically strong students.

One of Sizwe’s aims is to make the university more socially aware and one that “tackles local problems and challenges facing Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape”.

The university plans to make it a centre of academic excellence, improving primary school education, all the way to tertiary education.

“We have to brighten this corner where we find ourselves.”