Address by Deputy Minister Ntombazana Botha on the occasion of the launch of the Greater dictionary of Isixhosa

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22 Sep 2006


Honourable Premier, Mrs Nosimo Balindlela,
Minister for Education, Honourable Dr Naledi Pandor,
Vice Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Prof Derrick Swartz
MECs of Arts and Culture,
Speaker of National Parliament, Ms Baleka Mbete,
Speaker of Parliament in the Eastern Cape Provincial Government, Ms Kiviet,
Acting Chairperson of Portfolio Committee for Arts, Culture, Language, Science and Technology, Mrs Pam Tshwete
Chairperson of Eastern Cape Standing Committee for Arts and Culture, Mr Suka,
Chief Executive Officer of Freedom Part Trust, Dr Willie Serote,
Chairperson of SACAR, Prof Thami Mazwai
Chairperson of CRL Commission, Dr Guma,
Group CEO of SABC, Advocate Dali Mpofu,
CEO of GCIS, Mr Maseko,
Member of the Provincial House of Traditional Leaders, Prince Zolile Burns-Ncamashe,
Judge of the Cape High Court, Advocate Ntsebeza,

I greet you all.


African Renaissance begins with a renaissance in African languages and literatures, I think it would be helpful, for the sake of all the speakers and users of African languages to note the Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures which was the outcome of a call for a renaissance in African Languages and Literatures at a conference of African writers and scholars held in Asmara, Eritrea in 2000.

A 10 point programme adopted at this conference articulates the Declaration very succinctly and I would prefer to recap:

  1. African languages must take on the duty, the responsibility and the challenge of speaking for the continent.
  1. The variability and equality of African languages must be recognized as a basis for the future empowerment of African peoples.
  1. The diversity of African languages reflects the rich cultural heritage of Africa and must be used as an instrument of African unity.
  1. Dialogue among African languages is essential: African languages must use the instrument of translation and terminology development to advance communication among all people, including the disabled.
  1. All African children have the inalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongues. Every effort should be made to develop African languages at all levels of education.
  1. Promoting research on African languages is vital for their development, while the advancement of African research and documentation will be best served by the use of African languages.
  1. The effective and rapid development of science and technology in Africa depends on the use of African languages and modern technology must be used for the development of African languages.
  1. Democracy is essential for the equal development of African languages and African languages are vital for the development of democracy based on equality and social justice
  1. African languages are essential for the decolonization of African minds and for the African renaissance.
We are undoubtedly indebted to the XNLU for this achievement and must congratulate the members of this unit for completing this edition of the Greater Dictionary of Xhosa, which is the first step toward the realization of the objectives of the Asmara Declaration.

The theory of lexicography is a fairly new concept for the African languages. I want to believe that the writing of the GDX forms part of the pioneer work of lexicography in African languages. The length of time it took to finalize all three (3) volumes of the GDX clearly implies the meticulous effort in ensuring that definitions and example sentences given in the dictionary were accurate, and the amount of time spent in researching the words and concepts ensured that research was the backbone of the compilation of the dictionary. I have been told that most of the research output that went into the work of the dictionary came from the ordinary people from all the villages of the Eastern Cape, starting in the former Transkei region, the Border area and all the other places where isiXhosa and other variants of it are spoken. The structure of the dictionary, which comprises three columns, for isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans, is a sophisticated one, and it easily conforms to the norms and standards applicable to the new lexicography theory and practice. For example, Gouws, in his article Idioms and Collocations in Bilingual Dictionaries and their Afrikaans Translation Equivalents, points out that since idioms constitute a subsection of the lexicon of any language, they need to be a target of the lexicographical treatment, and they should be presented in the dictionary systematically as fully-fledged lexical items. The GDX has done this in its treatment of isiXhosa idioms, with all the elements of the idioms fully referenced alphabetically throughout the dictionary. All of these, ladies and gentlemen, attest to the high quality and standard of the dictionary we are launching today.

Wiegand (1989:251) had observed that lexicography is a practice that seeks to establish dictionaries so that the cultural practice of dictionary use can come into play. Furthermore, many lexicographers, have, over the years, observed that it is critical for dictionary makers to produce dictionaries that can be used as practical instruments. In order to produce such useful dictionaries, the needs of the target users have to be taken into account and that that in-depth research into those needs is critical. One hopes that as a result of the involvement of ordinary people for so many years, in the compilation of the GDX, this dictionary will be much useful in fulfilling the needs of the people who have been so instrumental in its compilation.


The development of writing and literature in African languages could be located within different eras in the history of South Africa. The era of the traditional literature seem to have been vibrant, live and fulfilling for the development of literature. In his PhD thesis, Zotwana observes that this era was good in that it captured all the elements that have to be found in literature, namely:

  • national aspirations to establish stability
  • reflection on the history of a society
  • entertainment and education
  • celebration of achievements, extolation of human virtues, and having courage to be critical of vices within the society; and
  • the promotion and defending of human rights.

The era that followed this one was that of the missionaries and settlers, the era of the modern languages and literature, which was almost dialectically opposed to the traditional and oral literature era. Zotwana argues that the modern languages and literature era inhibited the wonderful ideals of the traditional literature era, and promoted literature that was in conflict with the national aspirations of amaXhosa, as it sought to appease British imperialism. Since the literary industry and the publishing houses were, and still are dominated by whites, the ideas and aspirations reflected in the African literature of this era reflected those of the oppressors. Steward Readers represented this kind of literature. This was an era characterized by religious writings, including translation of the Bible, hymn books, and other stories of a religious nature. In that way, the literature produced in the African languages was therefore more functional than it was for the enjoyment of literature on account of its aesthetic beauty. It had a fundamental purpose, namely, to create more disciples out of the African people. The apartheid era that followed this era aggravated and compounded this problem.

It stands to reason therefore that, the protest literature that gained momentum during the British imperialist period and the apartheid era were an attempt to respond to the cultural onslaught brought about and portrayed in the dull and oppressive literature of the modern era. The protest literature had to be subtle and very discreet in its attempt at raising the levels of people’s sociopolitical consciousness because otherwise, it would be met with utmost brutality by the authorities. In many instances though, it still was countered with brutality.

Nonetheless, African literature was subtly used as a weapon against the apartheid ideology and other forms of oppression. However, most of them had to use analogies, metaphors and the like to couch the meaning in order not to attract the authorities’ attention and invite the wrath of the oppressors. Just to cite a few examples from isiXhosa protest literature of the twentieth century:

The epic poem of the great Xhosa poet, iMbongi Yesizwe, S.E.K. Mqhayi, AA! Zweliyazuza!ITshawe laseBhritani attests to this idea. In the epic poem Mqhayi takes issue with Great Britain for her looting of Africa with resulting conflicts that were brought to bear upon the African people:

When Mqhayi says:
“Hay’ kodw’ iBhritan’ eNkulu,-
Yeza nebhotile neBhayibhile;
Yeza nomfundis’exhag’ijoni;
Yeza nerhuluwa nesinandile;
Yeza nenkanunu nemfakadolo.
Tarhu bawo, sive yiphi na?
Gqithela phambili Thole lesilo!
Ndlalifa yelakowethu.

Mqhayi points out the contradictions that Great Britain communicated to the Africans, the fact that Great Britain was now “heir” and benefactor to the wealth and resources of the African people, “Ndlalifa yelakowethu!”

Ukwenziwa komkhonzi, a poem by JJR Jolobe, also protests against the oppression and domination of the African people by other nations. Jolobe uses the analogy of a cow that has to be put under a yoke, is forced into that yoke even though it was born free. Some of the things he says include the following:

“Yabigudile intle, izelelw’inkululo
Ingaceli nto mntwini izingca ngobunkomo
Uthe umntu mayibanjwe iqeqeshe ithambe

In these stanzas, substituting “inkomo” with “UmAfrika” one can easily see that the poet intended the meaning of the oppression of Africans.

The endeavours of the Africans to protest, and how those protests were crushed as the oppression and domination continued unabated is lamented by the poet:

“Inge ingamangala ikhusel’ilungelo,
Yangqingwa yabiyelwa ngobulumko namava
Irhintyelwe ngeentambo zayidla ebuntloko,
Yangxoliswa yakhatywa, kwaphathwa kulelezwa,
Injongo yona inye mayithwale idyokhwe.
Ime bhuxe kudinwa kungekho luvelwano,
Yasitsho esikrakra isililo ibhonga.
Kunyenyiswe kancinci ukuba iphefumle
Kwabuya kwaqiniswa ibulawa umoya.

Ndiyibone inyuka iminqantsa yomendo
Ithwele imithwalo enzima ixelenga,
Iludaka kubila ingenisela omnye.

The pain is portrayed of the Africans who have worked hard producing for others and the futility of that hard labour where the fruit thereof was being enjoyed by others. “Ithwele imithwal enzima ixelenga, Iludaka kubila ingenisela omnye”.

  • The novel written by R Siyongwana, Ubulumko Bezinja, bordering on the lines of George Owell’s Animal Farm in the European context, calls for African people to revolt against their oppressors using the analogy of dogs revolting against their oppression by humans. The story ends with the reconciliation of the two sides, the dogs and human beings, coming together and settling for a negotiated future together. Although the novel was written several decades before the miraculous negotiated democracy, it has been very accurate in its prediction and depiction of the political events of the recent years.

There are so many other examples of this kind of protest literature that we have encountered in the recent years. One can therefore safely argue that African literature, especially poetry and the novel, has been the terrain of struggle for domination and emancipation, between the dominant classes and the oppressed people, between the good and the evil. Even though today we have attained our freedom, there is still need for the restoration of the cultural heritage of the African people.


The dictionary that is being launched today, as a way of standardizing isiXhosa, will go a long way in ensuring the restoration of this dignity to the African majority. It has taken almost 40 years to complete the three volumes of the Greater Dictionary of Xhosa (GDX), from the middle of the twentieth century ending in the early years of the twenty first century. Many years of toiling and working under difficult conditions have finally paid off, as we today witness the fruit of the labour of our hands for these many years. I am told that some of the people who contributed immensely towards the publication of GDX have since passed on, these people include Mr. TA Ndungane, Mr Fihla, Chief Burns-Ncamashe, Rev Pienaar, and last but not least, Prof Pahl, the very first editor-in-chief of GDX. May their souls rest in peace.

GDX embodies the richness of the cultural heritage of the African people, and specifically, amaXhosa, as it does not only comprise the entries and secondary meanings and definitions of words and terms, with example sentences to enhance the meanings, but also having a wealth of cultural and anthropological information, including isiXhosa idioms and expressions, customs and traditions, and all these translated into English and Afrikaans, for access by other South Africans and people from other nations who cannot speak isiXhosa. In other words, the preservation of the cultural heritage of amaXhosa does not only enrich the people of the Eastern Cape, but enriches also the people of South Africa and the world. It is therefore truly a national treasure through which many generations will benefit for many many years to come.

The writing of the dictionary creates the much needed language infrastructure that is invaluable for implementation of the National Language Policy Framework, the multilingual policy of the current government. In the past there have been complaints about the lack of technical vocabulary in indigenous languages, and how these languages cannot be utilized for high profile communication encounters, and how these languages lack standardization in general. With the publication of this dictionary, all those complaints should be a thing of the past, as people will be able to use isiXhosa to express even the most technical and abstract concepts, ideas and phenomena. The education authorities and school going children should be encouraged to use the dictionary, as it contains very old meanings of words lost to the modern lexicon, words like “iqabane” the meaning of which must be preserved for its etymological value in a dictionary. The challenge we all face today is the lack of dictionary culture among the African people. It is something that we need to cultivate and inculcate among children and the young people so that the value of language is understood and appreciated through the dictionary.

I should as well add that my Department has a large corpus of technical vocabulary that it has developed collaboratively with language stakeholders and universities around South Africa over the last few years. These terminologies are available in all 11 official languages, in different fields and domains, and attempts are currently underway to have them accessed by relevant stakeholders and language workers, via a web-enabled computer system.

One of the key challenges facing the policy of multilingualism is the question: is our promotion of the many languages of SA not in conflict with the promotion of social cohesion and nation-building? Are we not promoting these languages at the risk of polarizing the SA society and planting seeds of ethnicism and cultural supremacy among the cultural groupings of SA? The answer to these questions is a bold “NO!” Promotion of multilingualism should be seen in the light of our newly found democracy, as one of the requirements of a democratic state. It should be viewed as another way of strengthening our young democracy as we begin to appreciate the cultural diversity we have, in the form of the indigenous languages of South Africa, eleven of which have attained official status.

Over and above that, government would like to promote functional multilingualism, that is, multilingualism that could be put into use for the benefit of the people of SA who speak different languages. As recently as 2001, research showed that only about 22% of the people in SA can fully function in English. This is despite the fact that most people would claim their knowledge and insight into, and undying love for the King George’s tongue. For the 78% who cannot fully function in English, the different indigenous languages could be very much useful in assisting them to ensure that they communicate effectively, thus improving their lives as a result. It is absolutely important that the indigenous languages be developed, nurtured and put to good use. Thus multilingualism is a resource, for the benefit of our people, and not a liability.

The other challenge concerns the area of language in the schools system. This is one of the key challenges facing SA today – how the 11 official languages could be used in the school system. Research has indeed shown that children educated through their mother tongue for a minimum of six (6) years in their primary education have a greater chance of scholastic success than those who did not have such a privilege. There is now consensus that mother tongue tuition combined with another language is most beneficial, especially for children who are still cognitively developing.

Scholars like Eyamba G. Bokamba (Arguments for Multilingual Policies in Africa) point out that African languages represent invaluable linguistic capital that must be fully invested in all key domains lest Africa loses these languages and the cultures they encode. He further claims, and I quote:

“Exclusive use of the former colonial languages as official media of instruction and administration is counter-benefactive toeducational and socio-economic developments.” (end quote)

Bokamba believes that multilingual policies, involving the African languages and a European language, (and in our case English), tend to be cost-effective in the long-run, not expensive as it is usually claimed by many in the African continent.

In the South African context, Bokamba’s ideas are beginning to be put into practice, as some attempts which are very much encouraging have been taking place, in some areas. The Western Cape Province, for example, has just launched a mother-tongue-based bilingual education in schools, (during their celebration of International mother-tongue Day this year).

It is clear that the Western Cape model of mother-tongue based bilingual tuition for school-going children is an ideal one that needs to be studied carefully, adapted and adopted by other provinces, taking into account their own circumstances on the ground. Mother-tongue based bilingual education, in most cases, taking English and an African language, would go a long way in allaying the fears of those who believe that tuition in the mother tongue (in African languages) only is actually detrimental to the children, it is a backward step, and English, being an international language of business and communication, is superior. . By adopting mother-tongue based bilingualism, we would be taking advantage of the benefits associated with mother-tongue education whilst at the same time we would allow our children to be in touch with the real world, using English or any other international language of their choice. For me this would be a win-win situation particularly with such tools at our disposal, as the dictionaries we are launching today.

It is clear that if we begin to teach the young ones about the value of their languages, the importance of respect and tolerance for others’ cultures and ways of living, we are likely to have a better future as South Africans. There is an isiXhosa idiom that says, “Bagotywa bebatsha!”. Let us train them whilst they are still young and pliable.

The one other area where the National Language Policy Framework needs to be promoted is at the political level. Politicians, executive and senior government officials ought to understand the value of African languages. For these are the people in possession of influence and means to effect meaningful and positive attitudes towards African languages. The use of language facilitation tools like interpreting, translation and terminologies ought to be encouraged in Parliament, legislatures, government departments and other domains whenever government interacts with the citizens of the country.

One other area that needs the attention of the language experts and scholars is the way in which we develop and draft legislation in South Africa. For example, our legislation is drafted in English and translated into all the other official languages. Most of the time, the translated versions of legislation do not take into consideration the cultural and socio-political context in which the legislation has to be applied. More importantly, the translators of the legislation are mostly people who are linguists and not necessarily schooled in legal matters. This poses several problems, as these people might not have the necessary insight to have the legislation translated accurately. The question we need to ask ourselves is this one: why can’t we develop legislation using the African languages, like isiXhosa? Why can’t the African languages be used in the legislative environment, with the legislation drafted in African languages, the courts deliberating using the African languages as the languages of the court, and judgment delivered through the use of the African languages?

 The availability of a dictionary, as comprehensive as the GDX, will go a long way in addressing some of the challenges and questions raised in this presentation. I have no doubt in my mind that the more we develop the African languages like isiXhosa, through such efforts as compiling meaningful dictionaries, and other corporate actions that government, the institutions of higher learning and civic organizations engage in, we will gradually restore the dignity of the African people, and in the end, we shall attain the better life for all.


Once more, we congratulate the University of Fort Hare, the members of staff in the isiXhosa National Lexicography Unit, the members of the Board of Directors governing the Unit, the Pan South African Language Board and the provincial and national government for the sterling work and effort that has gone into the work of the GDX.

Our government, in particular my Department as the lead Department for language policy development and implementation, is committed to multilingualism. The national infrastructure it has begun to put into place like the Language Research and Development Centres, one for each of the official African Languages, the telephone interpreting service for South Africa (TISSA) that it is rolling out services throughout South Africa, the Human Language Technologies (HLT), the Translation Agency, envisaged SA Language Practitioners’ Council – are all bold steps proving once and for all our commitment to the development of the languages of the people of the South.

GDX must be made available to all government departments in the Province and the Western Cape, and in all the provincial departments of Arts and Culture, legislatures, and national Parliament.

For the promotion and publicizing the GDX let us not be shy to launch it all the time, and encourage others to launch it as well.

Thank you