Language policy and African language publishing in
Phaswane Mpe is a lecturer in the Department of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand,
PO Wits 2050, Witwatersrand, South Africa. Tel +27 11 7164078, fax +27
11 7162999, e-mail: 142PSM3@muse.arts.wits.ac.za
South African language policy has become much
more democratic since the end of apartheid, which recognised only
English and Afrikaans as official languages of the country. The new
language policy recognises in addition nine indigenous African languages.
From the Nguni language group are IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, IsiNdebele and
Siswati. The Sotho group is represented by Sepedi, Sesotho and Setswana.
Tshivenda and Xitsonga are also official languages. Education policies
allow these indigenous languages as mediums of instruction in schools.
However, both language and education policies
also acknowledge the almost impossible task of translating policy
into practice. Given the complex demographics across the nine provinces
that make up South Africa how does one ensure, for example, that all
languages are represented fairly within each region, both in education
and in provincial governments' everyday activities? One way to get
round the problem has been to let each region identify which of the
languages would be official for that particular region. So, for example,
Gauteng, where Johannesburg is situated, has English, Afrikaans, IsiZulu
and Sepedi, while Northern Province boasts English, Afrikaans, Sepedi,
Xitsonga and Tshivenda as its official languages. In education, schools
can choose as mediums of instruction the languages they find most
suitable to their individual contexts.
This impressive range of possibilities is, in
theory, good for the publishing industry, especially for those publishing
in the historically disadvantaged African languages. However, as any
number of publishers will report, practice is stifled by other factors.
Surveys have shown that many parents still prefer their children to
be instructed in English as they see this as a language that gives
access to economic and other privileges. For the same reason as their
parents, pupils also prefer to learn in English - with their first
African language as an additional subject. This is not surprising,
since blacks have mostly come to see their languages, in education,
as agents of separatist ideology that our new dispensation cannot
afford to promote. So in practice the somewhat anticipated expansion
in markets has not taken off and the range of titles that publishers
can choose to publish remains limited.
In order to understand this serious limitation,
one needs to remember that while African language publishing had,
before apartheid was institutionalised in 1948, developed and flourished
under the care of various missionary houses, afterwards political
and educational changes seriously constrained what missionaries could
do. Two systems of education - Christian National Education (CNE)
and Bantu Education - were introduced for white and black South Africans
respectively. CNE was intended to ensure a wholesome intellectual
development of white pupils in order to make them suitable future
leaders in politics, the economy and in other fields, while Bantu
Education impeded the intellectual development of black pupils. The
main idea was to force them, through inferior education, to remain
servants to their white counterparts. Those who got highly qualified
would become suitable civil servants serving black bantustans - in
other words, they would become handy agents of separatist ideology
Bantu Education used first languages as the
medium of instruction, while simultaneously narrowing the scope of
what could be taught in schools. It led to censorship on critical
political and religious issues, so although first-language instruction
allowed for the proliferation of African language titles, this abundance
was characterised by intellectual, critical and imaginative mediocrity.
This was further compounded by the fact that high levels of illiteracy
and poverty among blacks meant that there was hardly any book market
for African language titles outside the school markets. Thus African
language publishing was taken up by educational publishers who could
not afford to upset the government, on which they depended for curriculum
design and prescription criteria as well as book purchasing.
The new publishing dispensation and book promotion
strategies therefore carry with them the hangover from the previous
political and educational conditions, hence the wholesale preference
for English at the expense of all other languages in the country.
Another seriously limiting factor is that in seven provinces, provincial
departments still have a school prescription committee. Any title
that fails to impress the board is unlikely to be recommended for
school reading, so publishers are reluctant to be as adventurous as
they should be. Only in Gauteng and the Western Cape are prescription
methods less rigid. Western Cape leaves schools to decide on the titles
they prefer, while Gauteng has both this open system and a prescription
one for schools that might need the comfort of being provided with
recommended book lists. The problem with the recommended lists lies
in the fact that most of the members of the selection committees previously
worked for the apartheid language boards which served a similar purpose
- to the detriment of creativity and the critical development of many
African language readers. Can we suddenly expect them to change their
outlook? It is no wonder that intellectually, linguistically and stylistically
challenging writers are still under pressure from publishers and publishers'
readers to tone down their language, their thoughts and their styles
in order to make their titles more palatable to the still conservative
taste buds of educational authorities.
In book promotion African languages suffer yet
another setback, where the languages themselves are treated differentially.
For example, the M-Net Book Prize offers R50,000 to a winning novel
in each of four language categories: English, Afrikaans, Nguni and
Sotho. That is, only one novel wins in the four-language Nguni category,
and only one in the three-language Sotho category, while English and
Afrikaans are categories in their own right. Tshivenda and Xitsonga
categories get a merit prize of R16000 each. The Sanlam Literary Award,
which has just been extended to include African languages, offers
R8000 each for English, Afrikaans, Nguni and Sotho categories. Tshivenda
and Xitsonga are not mentioned. This may have something to do with
the fact that the two language groups have very few speakers, which
in publishing terms means that they do not form big enough markets.
As long as education departments are happy to
remain prescriptive, publishers and their readers are too scared to
take unconventional titles, and book promoters are prepared to continue
with discriminatory practices based on languages - even though acknowledging
that M-Net Book Prize and Sanlam Literary Award have done well to
extend the awards to African languages - writers will also remain
complacent. All this to the detriment of proper educational developments,
cultural endeavour and healthy publishing practice.
Phaswane Mpe's Sepedi short story anthology Maru
a Maso (Brooding Clouds), is due for publication by Heinemann Publishers,
Johannesburg. [end] [BPN, no 25, 1999, p 12]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 25, 1999>>