Minister Pallo Jordan’s keynote address at the Acalan Conference, Woodmead

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05 Mar 2008

Siyabulela Programme Director,
Distinguished guests,
 Ladies and gentlemen –
 Bon jou!
Bom dia!
Ndi matshiloni!
Lotjhani! Good morning!

With these few greetings I trust I have embraced a great number of you, but for those I’ve inadvertently omitted from my greeting, please know that you are warmly and sincerely saluted as a delegate to this important conference, which is most appropriately being held in 2008, the year that has been declared the Year of Languages by the United Nations Organisation.

Two weeks ago we celebrated International Mother Tongue Day, once again as a token of Africa’s participation, acknowledgement and commitment to the promotion and development of our diverse languages.

Your presence here today on this auspicious occasion is an acknowledgement of the milestone we have reached since the Academy of African Languages (ACALAN) was first mooted. This came about through a Pan-African initiative to promote our African languages begun by the President of Mali at the OAU Council of Ministers meeting in Lusaka in July 2001. There have been a number of ACALAN conferences that have taken place throughout Africa, the last one notably being the Central African Regional Symposium in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Today we are now in the Southern African region, hosting the 3rd meeting and our message is not a very different one.

Across Africa a recurrent theme that dominates the agendas of the language debate relates to the revalorisation of the indigenous languages of Africa. After all, let us remind ourselves, human language originated in Africa. So Africa and her people have every right to keep a watchful eye on our heritage and to foreground language issues. We have chosen, at this Southern African regional conference to limit ourselves, focusing on National Policies: The role of cross-border languages and the place of lesser used languages.

Language is a means by which we communicate, and humans are compulsive communicators! It is the means by which we express all our emotions, our thoughts, our beliefs, values, our desires, our objectives and share these with other humans. It also is the medium through which we transmit from generation to generation the fund of human knowledge we have accumulated over the ages, including societal norms and beliefs. The one attribute that makes cooperation among people possible is our ability to speak. Our ability to record, store and preserve, recall and communicate extremely complex ideas and concepts not only within our own communities but amongst diverse communities, we owe to language.

Language is amongst nature’s greatest gifts to humankind. Because we can speak, as a species we have, since time immemorial, had the ability to work together, pooling our efforts to achieve agreed goals. Language, in turn gave us the capacity to transfer information, knowledge and experience from one generation to the next, and to transfer it from one place to another. It is probably the facility that has made our species the most successful on earth.

Yet, this shared and distinctly human capacity has also been at the centre of numerous human conflicts. According to the biblical story, the human race sought to reach heaven by building a tall tower. The Almighty thwarted this ambitious plan, according to the story, by putting different languages in people’s mouths. Unable to communicate with each other, cooperation amongst the builders of the tower broke down, and in the end the entire project had to be abandoned.

If we regard the Biblical tale as an allegory, what it suggests is that people who speak different languages find mutual cooperation rather difficult. While we might all acknowledge that “I am the language I speak” and that recognising my right to use my language is being respectful and accords me dignity, we should also be mindful of the Babel allegory. Hence the importance of languages spoken and used  across borders.

While it is important to promote our indigenous languages in particular, this Conference focuses on cross border vehicular languages. All the nation states represented at this conference are part of the global village. We participate not only on the technological E-highway, we also function along the more mundane highway of our roads and railways, crossing borders as we interact with our neighbours. So our lives are inextricably intertwined with language communities  in countries beyond our borders.

The colonial and apartheid language policies of the past sought not only to isolate the different indigenous language communities of South Africa from each other, but also to isolate them from their sister language communities in other parts of the continent. The exciting prospect of working together with citizens of neighbouring countries to develop and enrich our shared languages is something democratic South Africa welcomes.  For example, languages such as Setswana, Nama, Sesotho, Xitsonga, siNdebele and Tshivenda are also spoken in Botswana (Tswana and Nama), Lesotho (Sotho), Mozambique (Tsonga) and Zimbabwe (Ndebele and Venda) respectively. We are calling for closer cooperation and the adoption of a Pan African approach to the development of the African languages across colonial borders. This approach will not only result in the adoption of common strategies in the development of languages, but will also result in a more efficient use of resources. The systematic development of the Nguni languages for example, which are spoken in several countries though they are called by different names, would stimulate closer cooperation between South Africa and countries such as Tanzania, Zambia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe where Nyamwezi, Ngoni, Swati  and Ndebele are spoken.

The use of an African language in the cognitive learning process has been widely recorded and discussed in educational institutions. How we acknowledge this fact in the construction of our educational curricula requires our careful consideration and the commitment of resources. The integration of indigenous languages into the political, economic and social discourse of African countries is at its core an issue of empowerment. In South Africa, for instance, our Constitution unequivocally states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes

  1. freedom of the Press and other media;
  2. freedom to receive or impart information and ideas;
  3. freedom of artistic creativity; and
  4. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

Yet to millions of South Africans these rights remain aspirational because their languages do not enjoy a status equal to English and Afrikaans, despite being recognised as official languages. It is a matter of deep concern that in an African country it is virtually impossible to find a bookshop in any of our shopping malls that distributes literature in the indigenous African languages.

It is easier to find a book in French, German or Portuguese than it is to find a book written in sePedi or xiTsonga, seTswana, isiZulu or isiXhosa in the bookstores of this African country. The effect is that those of our people who speak these as their home languages cannot fully realise their right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is meaningless in the absence of the right of “everyone to use a language of their choice”. The capacity to both write and read in one’s home language gives real meaning to freedom of expression.

At the Cape Town International Book Fair in July 2007, we launched the South African Book Development Council to forge a partnership with the publishing industry to, amongst other things, encourage and stimulate publication in the African languages. I seize this occasion to once again invite South African publishers to rise to this challenge.

The  effective exclusion of millions of African people is encapsulated in their inability to express themselves in their mother-tongues because mainstream business and, even the public service, continue to conduct their work primarily in imported lingua francas – English, Arabic, Portuguese, French.

The right of people to use the language of their choice and equality amongst  languages are inextricably linked. Large segments of our populations are unable to participate in national discourse and debate because the languages employed usually are not their own. These excluded thoughts, views and aspirations have an equal claim on the national and international dialogue. Historically, the cross border languages of this region fostered a pan-African vision. Publishers in Lesotho, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe all sold to cross-border  markets. Closer cooperation between scholars in South Africa and those in other parts of the continent will enable African scholars to work together to establish  language development strategies, procedures and models that can help launch the indigenous languages on a journey to join other on the information highway. Hopefully this will also foster cross border publishing, perhaps even the consolidation of new and existing publishing initiatives.  One such exciting initiative concerns a strategy for the development of a Human Language Technologies (HLT) industry in South Africa.

HLT can facilitate multilingualism and fast track the development of previously marginalised indigenous languages. These enabling technologies may range from sophisticated high-level machine translation systems, to voice activated educational and/or commercial systems which can be used by non-literate people. These technologies have applications in education and training, in the public service (e-governance) and  in commerce. The private sector,employing these technologies has already made substantial progress in facilitating easy access to information. The Telephonic Interpretation Service of South Africa, or TISSA project, was an attempt to extend their use to give the ordinary citizen greater and easier access to government. The establishment of an electronic dictionary library will make our languages more accessible to language practitioners and translators. This will also facilitate the use of our lesser known languages as well . I understand that even TV soapies are assisting our minority language groups to be better and more widely known. How many have learnt new words and phrases from an episode of Muvhango?!
While actively promoting our indigenous languages, the naturalised colonial languages still remain relevant. Despite the often oppressive and reprehensible means by which they came to our shores, these languages remain crucial international partner languages that Africans will continue to employ alongside indigenous languages. Arabic, English, French and Portuguese like the indigenous kiSwahili, are today cross border languages on the African continent, thanks to empire. 

The significance of this gathering cannot be over-estimated.
This Conference’s aims include arriving at strategies to pool our resources, both human and technological, so as to translate our common commitment to developing, promoting and maintaining our linguistic heritage into concrete policies.  It will also formalise the working structures of ACALAN in the region. We need resolutions at the end of this conference that will keep the cogs of this Academy turning.
 The living reality of many of South Africa’s urban areas today is that they are a veritable towers of babel, on whose streets one can hear a multitude of indigenous languages happily used together with imports from Europe and Asia. Ironically, contrary to the ancient Hebrew myth, this humming variety of tongues, represents not a threat to communication, but is its direct effect. The globalisation of Africa’s own cities as a result of swifter and more reliable communications among African states, has transformed many of our cities into pan-African microcosms.

I once again underscore the significance of this conference for the future of Africa’s languages and for the empowerment of the ordinary African; empowerment to play a more effective role in the governing of our continent.
I wish you every success in your deliberations.
Ke a leboga!
Ke a leboha!
Ndza khensa!
Thank you!
Ndi a livhuha!