When 80-year-old white-haired Professor Kwesi Kwaah Prah made his way to the podium dressed in the Kente cloth of his birth country, Ghana, a ripple went through the University of Pretoria’s Senate Hall in Hatfield. His reputation as a wise, hard-hitting truth-teller had senior academics at the 2nd Vice-Chancellors’ (VC) Consultative Language Colloquium sitting up straight, eager to hear his keynote address.
Emeritus Professor Prah (right), who is the founder and former Director of the Cape Town-based Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, got straight to the point: he was there to raise questions and be provocative. “Africans face tremendous difficulties in the world today,” he began. “It’s obvious that we are the least developed (in global terms), the least culturally empowered to deal with the problems we face as Africans; and the least respected – partly because of our inability to be able to do anything about our problems.
“So, the task I have is to provoke your minds to think more seriously. We tend, in Africa, to skirt around a problem, go round decade after decade, saying the correct things we should say superficially but succeed in doing little that corrects the situation.”
The dialogue was hosted by Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) in partnership with University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Vice Chancellor and Principal. Themed Taking the Conversation Forward, the dialogue was aimed at unlocking the resources required to fully implement multilingualism in higher education, in keeping with the spirit and intent of the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. This Policy Framework came into effect in January 2022.
The problem of inaction was not limited to South Africa, but was continent-wide, the octogenarian said. “When we talk about our languages – the Sotho/Tswana group is all over southern Africa; in Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia – we know our languages have no respect for the colonial borders imposed on us 120, 130 years ago. These languages have been with us for thousands of years; they’ve shaped our character, our values, our history. These languages carry our memory as Africans. They are the instruments and the foundational structures on which the whole idea of advancement and development is built.”
Humans, Professor Prah says, live in cultures. “I’m weary of the current fashion of talking in endless circles about coloniality. I’m 80 – I’ve seen a lot of these intellectual fashions, intellectual swear words, from the end of the 50s. Most of them are created in a social and cultural milieu that have nothing to do with Africans. They are therefore only limited in applicability to our reality.”
He talked about post modernism: In 1960s Latin America, neo-Marxian ideas of centre- periphery emerged; birthing thinkers like Gunder Frank, Hélio Jaguaribe and Samir Amin.
“I’m asking you to be original – the problems we face in Africa require originality. We are intellectuals in our own right; we stand on our own feet. Nobody in the world is better than us. I work with enough people to know that we have all the manpower we need to transform the society in the way that we want to. The question is, why are we not doing it? Why are we not mobilising? We have the resources to be able to achieve this. We also have a unique advantage in the world.”
In Africa, he said, South Africa has a unique position with regards to the experience of using a language as the language of development to transform society.
Get serious; draw from these three linguistic miracles
Then he mentioned three linguistic miracles witnessed in the world in the last 120 years:
- Modern Hebrew of Israel. Lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, in late 19th century Israel, developed a version of modern Hebrew for the people of Israel. “Within 25 years, from rudiments, they succeeded in creating a version of Hebrew and a course to be able to teach any scientific work at a tertiary level. That is a serious people. People who know what they want, who take a decision and implement it.
- South Africa’s Afrikaans. It was in the 1870s that the national aspirations and realisation of the Afrikaner group as a Dutch derivative –started. “The 1870s was not so long ago. The wars they fought with the British at a cultural level were wars to assert their distinct cultural nature and history. From small beginnings they started creating a version of their language. After the Treaty of Vereeniging (that ended the Second Boer War), work began on the first spelling system for their language. In 1913 they produced the first standardised orthography: the rules of spelling were written. That same year they introduced it to primary schools. These people were serious, not people who gather once a year or make long speeches in Parliament over nothing. Five years later, Afrikaans was in universities. In 1925, it was in parliament. In 1933, they produced their first bible in Afrikaans. Within 25 years you could study anything in the world in their language. How many years has it been since we put apartheid behind us? These are people who realise the value of their language.
One of the more difficult men, Prime Minister D F Malan said: ‘lift the language and you lift the people.’ Do we want to lift the African people? Are we paying lip service, or, are we serious? I believe this gathering of intellectuals has the capacity to change the equation, to make enough noise to tell the politicians to get their act straight. If we don’t do that, we are complicit in the processes that keep our people down. We come and make beautiful speeches in French and Portuguese and English. But we are not serious people. We don’t deserve respect.
- Bahasa Melayu, from the Malay Archipelago. In 1928, when the nationalist movement of Indonesians was beginning, the students – after 300 years of Dutch colonialism – announced that when they got their independence, Bahasa would be their language, not Dutch. In 1948, three years after the defeat of Japan, they announced the use of Bahasa. Malaysia got its independence in 1957, some months after Ghana. Today, you can go to university in Malaysia in Bahasa. In Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in that part of the world, people do everything in Bahasa; They don’t use Dutch. These are serious people who understand their interests; who want to create everything that can be created and manufacture everything in their own language.
“The people are empowered with knowledge that lifts them up. If we can use our languages completely in education, within 10/15 years we will transform our villages and our rural areas. Knowledge will be owned by the masses of the people. Maybe we don’t want that, which is why we have these small meetings, talking to ourselves. Competing with Shakespeare –that is our problem.”
When people lose their language, they become other people
Professor Prah believes that when a language dies, those people become other people, first adopting their language, then their religion. “There is no difference in people in terms of biology. We are different only in as far as our cultures are different. You can’t mix biology with culture – they are opposites,” he told an enthralled audience.
“Therefore, we can say that everywhere in the world where historically you see a minority language being used by the people, you have imperialism, colonialism as an imposition from outside. Or internal colonialism of one group in the society imposing on the others. This has nothing to do with colour.” He cited wars in Ethiopia, where one group imposed its language on others, and narrated how the English imposed their language on the Irish and nearly wiped out their language.
“Only after the 1916 Easter rising and civil war that followed, did the Irish reintroduce their language. Today you can study in Irish.”
The challenge in South Africa, he said, was that the problem could not be solved solely from within, since the Nguni languages are found in Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and eSwatini. He told the academics: “People here have been instrumental in producing harmonised orthographies. Nobody talks about that… but we still want to talk about a university framework.
It is time to get serious about languages that carry the memory of Africans
“The starting point is that you must have an orthographic system. Why don’t you get on with it? The same is true for Sotho/Tswana. We’ve done that for Venda, Tsonga, Shangaan and Ronga [of Mozambique]… for 85% of the whole of Africa. In 22 years, we’ve done this work, which is where we must start. Let’s make it available everywhere. Send it to primary schools; give a few prizes for people to write, using the language.
“These harmonised orthographies were done by the best linguists in Africa; the scientific standards are so high and universal – there’s no doubt about their scientific quality.”
The professor said that universities also needed monolingual dictionaries. “Not English/isiZulu. Let the English people do that. We need Nguni/Nguni/ Zulu/Zulu dictionaries.
“Don’t waste time telling me about resources that are required. We don’t need more than R200/300 000 to do this work, so let’s not tell ourselves lies. We need more determination, resolution, steadfastness and diligence to do this work. The task is not insurmountable, if we are serious.”
Professor Prah’s keynote address made a huge impression, with most subsequent speakers, referring in some way to the contents of his speech. Almost all acknowledged that the time for talking was over and the time for action is now.
He was addressing an audience of about 130, 50 of whom were attending the Colloquium in person.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa