The language of politics in South Africa

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Carolyn Holmes tells us about her work exploring how print cultures service different language communities and how they fuel nationalisms that are not synonymous with the nation state. Carolyn’s research has recently been published in African Affairs. Carolyn is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bucknell University, and a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pretoria.

‘The queen (Mantsebo Moshweshwe of then Basotholand) took special notice of me and at one point addressed me directly, but she spoke in Sesotho, a language in which I knew few words…She looked at me with incredulity, and then said in English, “What kind of lawyer and leader will you be who cannot speak the language of your own people?” I had no response. The question embarrassed and sobered me…Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savor their songs’ A Long Walk to Freedom, 1995, page 84.[1]

It is, of course, somewhat trite, as a student of South African politics, to begin an analysis of the politics of language with an epigraph from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. Yet, the point he makes in recounting this story early on in his narrative account is one well taken by scholars, as well as future leaders. In South Africa, as elsewhere on the continent and around the world, much of the subtlety and texture of life—what Mandela identifies as history and hopes, aspirations and songs—occurs in languages that are closer to home. Although he and Moshweshwe shared a language, English, Mandela still claims a lack of understanding, which is deeper in this formulation than simple, instrumental communication.

My article in the April 2015 issue of African Affairs examines one particular instance in which, I argue, the social divisions around language, and the ways that they obscure understanding, can be observed. Famously, Benedict Anderson argued that there is a link between mass print media and the ‘imagined community’ of the nation. With this in mind, my work explores the violence that occurred during industrial action at the Marikana Platinum mine in the North West Province in 2012 through a study of print media in multiple languages. The violence, which reached its apogee in a clash between police and striking mine workers on 16 August 2012, resulted in thirty-four people being killed, and at least another 78 wounded. This aggression is the single most lethal policing action in the post-apartheid era. Given how widely the violence was covered, the goal of this article was to understand how different language communities were first presented with the story of the Marikana violence, based on the language of the news media they consumed.

To this end, the article examines the first ten days of newspaper coverage in all daily newspapers in Afrikaans and isiZulu (two of the largest South African languages, and the only languages other than English that produce daily print media), as well as two of the largest English-language daily newspapers. What emerged from these narrative recountings were vastly different stories. While the Zulu-language press used forceful language and human interest stories to evoke empathy for the striking workers and to place blame on the police, the Afrikaans-language press presented a much more ambivalent story, in which individual police officers were sympathetic figures, and there was mutual culpability for the violence among workers and police. The English-language newspapers, which have historically been racially and class-segregated, largely reflected the narratives presented by their counterparts in the ‘vernacular’ press, with The Sowetan largely confirming the narrative of the isiZulu newspaper, while The Star, with a historically white and affluent readership, seemed to agree with the Afrikaans press.

In the 1940’s, when Mandela’s interaction took place, as well as now, English was an important tool of communication in South Africa. For the foreign traveller to the country, it is easy to conduct business in the cities, and indeed to travel to the more elite safari locations without ever encountering trouble communicating in English. It is easy to forget, therefore, that only about 10% of South Africans claim English as their first language, and almost 48% of South Africans are monolingual, as of the 2011 census. Monolingualism and low socio-economic status also go hand-in-hand, with 39 percent of a 2011 census sample being both monolingual and in the lowest one-third of income earners.

The vast majority of South Africans, even those who have facility in English, choose to use their mother tongues in private settings. When enacting the daily communion of reading and digesting the news that Anderson discusses in his book, ‘Imagined Communities’, they are doing so within monolingual spaces that defy simple translation because of both incommensurable accounts of key national events and lack of language facility on the part of the participants. In public, leading political parties, like the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, in addition to the ruling African National Congress are conducting campaigns and holding rallies in isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho and Sepedi. This public, political use of ‘vernacular’ languages indicates how important they are as emotional and practical appeals in increasingly competitive elections.

To understand the composition of life in South Africa requires immersion in languages of the place and of the people. While English can potentially serve as a medium of communication, it can also fail to elucidate the more complex ways in which the nature of the post-apartheid, democratic space is being negotiated in private. Although English is the language of the relatively affluent, the urbane and the connected, the persistence of monolingualism, especially among the poorest South Africans, indicates a real need to delve into the ways in which democratic politics and praxis are carried out in the so-called vernacular. If we, as scholars, want to ‘talk to people and understand them’ in Mandela’s words, then we must recognize the importance of our medium.

[1] It bears mentioning that Mandela’s first language is isiXhosa, a language spoken by 16% of the current South African population. IsiXhosa comes from a different language cluster (Nguni) than Sesotho (Sotho-Tswana). They share little vocabulary and have different grammatical structures. Sesotho would be, for Mandela, a foreign and separate language.

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