Kenyan author Ngugi wa ThiongÕo, Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature at UC Irvine, is on the short list for the 2010 Nobel Prize in literature, for xxx(add phrase or blurb here from award announcement; 

Chancellor quote? Christine writing and getting approved quote).

Ngugi, whose name is pronounced ÒGoogyÓ and means Òwork,Ó is a prolific writer of novels, plays, essays and childrenÕs literature. Many of these have skewered the harsh sociopolitical conditions of post-Colonial Kenya, where he was born, imprisoned by the government and forced into exile.

His recent works have been among his most highly acclaimed and include what some consider his finest novel, ÒMurogi wa KagogoÓ (ÒWizard of the CrowÓ), a sweeping 2006 satire about globalization that he wrote in his native Gikuyu language. In his 2009 book ÒSomething Torn & New: An African Renaissance,Ó Ngugi argues that a resurgence of African languages is necessary to the restoration of African wholeness.

ÒI use the novel form to explore issues of wealth, power and values in society and how their production and organization in society impinge on the quality of a peopleÕs spiritual life,Ó he has said.

In his seminal non-fiction work Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o evaluates the complicit role of language in literature and elsewhere in consolidating some of the ongoing contradictions in post-colonial Africa. Likewise, the present essay, although brief, follows in that tradition – with the hope to recast language dynamics as an equally relevant site of analysis in the dialogue around the idea of a ‘post’-apartheid South Africa.

There is no universally accepted definition of ‘imperialism’ in political science. But there is a general consensus among academics that stresses its multidimensional nature – it is not only political and economic but cultural and, more importantly for present purposes, linguistic as well. The imperialist advances into South Africa from the second half of the 17th century diminished the use and status of African indigenous languages and this persisted right up to the mid-1990s, at least formally.

Against the backdrop of the historical marginalisation of indigenous languages and the cultural subordination attendant to it, the new Constitution has provisions that seek to correct this. Section 6 provides for the equal status and use of all the official languages in South Africa, the majority of which are indigenous. Over two decades into the new dispensation, however, it is interesting to note that little has changed with regard to language dynamics in South Arica – not only as they relate to official and administrative functions but even in personal spaces that may not be regulated through the agency of the law.

South Africa is multilingual and although the different languages in principle have equal status, an adequate command of the English language is largely an important prerequisite for success in one’s academic and professional endeavours. Moreover, it enables one to be accepted into exclusive social circles and participate in activities that one would otherwise not have access to. For these and other benefits that attach to having a facility of expression in English, it is the only language that is offered as a compulsory learning area at the pre-tertiary schooling level in South Africa.

By contrast, African indigenous languages occupy a relatively subordinate position to English. They are optional in the pre-tertiary curricula and in schools where they are offered, it is predominantly black students that are enrolled. The effect this has is that although the majority of black people can speak and understand at least some basic English, their white counterparts are largely unable to express themselves in any of the indigenous languages. This does not only reflect indifference on the part of most white people to integrate into the indigenous cultures but it is an index of socio-economic polarisation in ‘post’-apartheid South Africa.

The black majority, as a result of the political compromises made at the negotiating tables, bears the brunt of structural inequality, dispossession, unemployment, skewed spatial arrangements as well as the other material contradictions in ‘post’-apartheid South Africa. White people, however, generally have access to, and control over, the economy and other important institutions in society, such as universities, which in their totality enables them to wield their dominance with a sledgehammer. Because of these asymmetries, black people generally have to be able to express themselves in English so that they could be accepted into white spaces and advance financially and otherwise. However, white people have no incentive to learn indigenous languages because they often never have to appeal to black establishments for employment, education and any other benefit that is bound up with social mobility.

A possible counterargument that I anticipate is one that suggests that the pervasive use of English is alright to the extent that it acts as a lingua franca – facilitating communication among people from diverse cultural, geographic and linguistic backgrounds. From an entirely functionalist perspective, this argument is sound. However, the assumption it is built on is problematic. The choice of a common language is not random nor based within the moral framework of common consent, but instead ought to be understood as a deliberate outcome of historical processes, in our case colonialism. Therefore, any argument that assumes that the status quo is unchangeable is not only misplaced but even takes away from our efforts as black people to self-organise and assert ourselves in a world that is least favourable to us.

It is therefore obvious from the above discussion that language dynamics – in addition to other sites of analysis – undermine the idea of a ‘post’-apartheid South Africa to the extent that unequal power relations between the different racial groups persist.

By Bhekumuzi Abdul Shabalala
The writer is a second year Law student at the University of the Witwatersrand.


  • Michael Graaf

    Your diagnosis is correct. Let’s focus on ways forward. Coming from a history of “Whiteness” I suggest that one of the first steps is to highlight that not speaking/understanding the majority language/s spoken where you live is a disability rare in the history of humankind, and that it should be regarded as such. Moving on, the late Neville Alexander had some interesting proposals for reducing the number of official languages by instituting a standard Nguni, standard Sotho/Tswana and so on. My own crazy proposal is for all children to learn sign language early in their schooling. This has the added advantage of creating jobs for deaf people.


    This is absolutely correct. Recognise, of course, that colonialism, first British and then American, made it necessary for english to be used internationally too; so, whilst the general idea that it’s not by consensus is correct, raw pragmatism takes over in the international space. Recall that up till the 1800s, French and Latin were the lingua francas; indeed, Latin dominated for about 2000 years. Also because of colonialism.

    In our own case, part of the problem is 11 languages: which to choose? One can choose a language geographically close by, e.g. Pedi, Tswana, Zulu, etc. in Gauteng, or Xhosa, !Xam, in the Cape, but… how about a common language, or creole? No one talks about that option.

%d bloggers like this: