College of Human Sciences

Africa Speaks interrogates the study and uses of African languages in higher education

“There has been a decline in the black learning tradition in this country,” said Prof Nomalanga Mkhize, when she delivered the recent Africa Speaks lecturer held by the College of Human Sciences. The senior lecturer from the Nelson Mandela University said as an education activist, she has had to ask herself why are black communities no longer valuing their prized schools and why is it difficult to get into education activism successfully and see schools turn around.

Through this self-reflection and journey, she realised that there is a need to have colloquia that focus on conceptual development around key questions and actively redesign seminaring to use African languages as a conceptual key to African knowledge systems. Her experience made her aware that it is not about the intellectualisation of African languages, but rather it is about the epistemic institutionalisation of African languages.

“In our universities there has been this move of producing new glossaries, where they are taking scientific English words and converting them to isiXhosa, but the African child does not understand the term because naturally it is not that they do not understand isiXhosa, they do not understand the concept.” She further argued that we need to enable an explosion of writing for consumption in universities before trying to make up scientific terms.

She said the role of missionary scribing African languages was to civilize a “good Christian Bantu” and not to explore African creativity. She elaborated that the tribal codification of the Verwoerdian system for African languages put languages under the Verwoerdian tribal ideology. Radio, schools and all structures were codified along tribal lines versus the multilingual African universe and this tradition was carried on to the post-apartheid era. African nationalists soon defied missionary intentions with prolific writing, but was soon killed. “In the infrastructure, our education system is codified”.

She believes that the struggle and failure of the indigenous language is not simply a problem of capacity, structure and finances – the failure to develop African languages is a failure of imagination and this should further motivate us to move out of the traditional conservative box. “We should re-imagine African languages as dynamic epistemic systems, representing que social and scientific issues.”

Prof Mkhize said that we need to produce more literature in African languages. African language books have limited genre, because history has been focused on “disciplining the native” and by doing so it has caused African writers to be self-censored because they were taught to avoid bad language. The commercialisation of the book market is didactic and focused on school curriculum and not genuine creativity. She called for books to incorporate black characters which African children can relate to.

She ended her lecture by stating that Africans must never compromise on their Africanity.

About Africa Speaks:

One of the most promising projects started in 2008 in the College of Human Sciences was the African Visiting Scholar Lecture Series. This innovative series was established by the College under the leadership of its then Executive Dean, Prof Rosemary Moeketsi to achieve a number of objectives aimed at improving the research capacity of the College and enhancing a critical discourse by its academics with African intellectuals on the African continent and in the diaspora. 

Currently overseen by Prof Puleng Segalo (Head: Research and Graduate Studies, CHS), the vision of Africa Speaks is to nurture, develop and sustain a vibrant community of researchers and intellectuals in the College connected to the African continent and diaspora so that we can continue to be innovative in our quest for truth and our contributions to universal knowledge and the transformative needs of a developmental African state. 

Pictured are Dr Britta Zawada (Deputy Executive Dean: CHS), Prof Puleng Segalo (Head: CHS Research and Graduate Studies, CHS), Dr Nokuthula Hlabangane (Department of Anthropology and Archeology), Prof Nomalanga Mkhize (Nelson Mandela University), and Stephan van Wyk (Department of Anthropology and Archaeology).

*By Nomshado Lubisi (CHS communications & marketing)