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The Biggest Band-Aid

by Xoliswa Ben-Mazwi / Illustration by Alastair Laird / 20.02.2014

Remember the 10th of December 2013, the day the world gathered to pay homage to former president Nelson Mandela? Also the day, our national government managed to embarrass us in front of the entire deaf community and the rest of the world. In case you’ve already forgotten, or there’s no room for a television in that rock you’re living under, let me fill you in. Our beloved government employed a sign language interpreter, Thamsanqa “Bompi” Dantyi, who stood beside several heads of state convincingly throwing gang signs for one of two reasons:

a) He struggles with schizophrenia and experienced an episode during the five-hour memorial.

b) He is quite simply a faux interpreter.

The jury is still out on which explanation holds true.

In other news, the annual State of the Nation address was held last Thursday evening where our president gave a “Report Of The Past Five Years In Particular And The Past 20 Years In General.” He even included a bit about combating corruption which certainly got 50 shades of awkward. Hearing Zuma address corruption is like listening to the Grinch speak about the -itis he gets after Christmas lunch. I digress. After boasting about the improved matric pass rate, Zuma went on to announce that a sign language curriculum would be offered at schools as of 2015. True to form, parliament erupted into murmurs and laughter. Rightfully so. Jacob Zuma basically announced that the government had manufactured the biggest band-aid in the history of civilisation. A simple apology for their blunder would have sufficed. Hear me out.

We are 20 years into our democracy, we have elected, ousted and booed many black presidents… yet many of our children (who have the privilege of education), are forced to learn Afrikaans as a second language. Of the 1,396 single-medium Afrikaans schools there were in SA circa 1993, a significant 839 of them still exist post-apartheid. Yet English medium schools still offer Afrikaans as the primary second language, our indigenous black languages come second but our government thinks introducing sign language to our school curriculum is what our system is missing?

If you ever come across a black man with greasy relaxed hair, typically from a private school, there is a 90% chance that his vernacular vocabulary is limited to “Molo. Unjani?” This is science. My point is this – a rise in the standard of living has led to a drop in the number of middle to upper class black children who are fluent in their home language. While I don’t dispute that the onus to teach children their first languages lies with the parents and should start at home, children spend most of their time at school. A wider range of our 11 official languages should be taught at our schools to ensure that our native languages do not die out along with bunny ear aerials and hairlines.

While we twiddle our thumbs (#NoBompi), sit back and watch black parents engage their toddlers in English, adolescents get Afrikaans shoved down their throats and our generation loses their roots. All over South Africa, Afrikaans families are nurturing their language and culture. “Isiqhelo siyayoyisa ingqondo“, a Xhosa proverb (which I found on Google because I never studied Xhosa at school), translates in English as  “habit defeats the mind“. For as long as we leech off western culture, speak English to prove our intelligence and neglect our native tongues, we are setting a precedent that future generations will have trouble shaking off. Introducing a sign language curriculum to our schools before we have addressed the virtual non-existence of a black native language curriculum is like handing Boity a pair of pants… It’s not what we as a nation need right now.

Illustration ©Alastair Laird

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