Tribalism, language and the national question in post-apartheid SA

David Masondo examines the resurgence of ethnic consciousness across the country

Paper presented by David Masondo to the Anthony Lembede (Ward 81); ANC Branch Tshwane Region, Gauteng on March 19 2015

Post-Apartheid South Africa: Tribalism, Language and the National Question


The recent demand for their own municipality by the people at Malamulele, which is predominately a Shangaan/Xitsonga speaking area in Limpopo province, has been prominent in the public discourse. Often, the debate has been reduced to whether a municipality at Malamulele is viable given the size of the population and revenue potential. Framed in this way, the matter has been turned into a technocratic institutional issue, which ostensibly requires institutional-boundary designs devoid of politics.

In certain circles the issue has been simply understood as a tribal[i] conflict between Vendas and Vatsonga/Shangaans.  To reduce the demand for a municipality to tribalism is to over-simplify the issues. In the same vein, to deny the existence of tribal consciousness is to ignore how economic class interests are mediated through tribal and other identities.

The demand for a municipality by the people in Malamulele is essentially borne out of economic demands articulated in ethnic terms. Put differently, this is a reflection of inter and intra class struggles for basic services, jobs and other economic needs mediated and interpreted through tribal lenses.  These economic demands also provide tribal entrepreneurs with raw materials to use tribal identities to mobilize tribalised mass power to gain political and economic power. These tribal phenomena have brought back into focus the question of how to build a nation in a democratic South Africa.

In this article, I show that the articulation of economic demands through Shangaan tribal consciousness is also nourished by the resurgence of ethnic consciousness throughout South Africa. The resurrection of different forms of ethnic consciousness do not just demonstrate our ANC government's failure to resolve our economic problems, but it is also a manifestation of our inability as the ANC-led movement and all spheres of government, to provide revolutionary answers to these seminal national questions in post-apartheid South Africa.

To put this in Marxist abstract terms, this shows that our ANC has not only failed to transform the post-apartheid economic base, but many features of the colonial apartheid superstructure. In making this argument, I use issues such as language, renaming of geographic areas and tribal authorities to validate the claim that our movement has not yet provided revolutionary solutions to the post-apartheid national question. Instead, our ANC is unintentionally re-tribalising South Africa in different ways; and this has set the conditions for a re-awakening of, but politically regressive tribal consciousness, which will not only impede the rise of national consciousness, but more importantly - class consciousness.

The ANC-Alliance's clarion call for a ‘more radical second phase' of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) provides an opportune moment for thinking, not just about radical economic transformation, but also about questions of nation building. In fact, in the discussion of the content of the ‘second phase', there is huge exaggeration of the political achievements since 1994; and the focus has been largely on economic radical transformation.

Whilst it is important to deal with the material conditions (land redistribution, access to basic services, change of apartheid human settlement patterns etc.) that set a conducive environment for tribalism, it is also important to pay attention to issues such as language as part of nation building that facilitates better conditions for class-consciousness. Language can be an important instrument in fragmenting or constructing a nation and a working class. 

In fact, language plays a key role in identity formation, collective action and class-consciousness. Part of nation building should include the adoption of two or three official languages (i.e. lingua francas), which should include English; and one or two African official languages, which could be spoken by all South Africans; and potentially in Africa as a whole.

The argument for the adoption of these official languages should be clarified, lest it be misunderstood.  This is not to suggest the resolution of the national question simply lies in the adoption of the suggested official languages. Neither do I argue for the banning of ethnic languages. I simply state that, adopting two or three languages as our South African lingua francas could set the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for common national identity and nation-building.

Other ethnic languages should continue to exist as national languages, but not as official languages. The difference between a national and official language is this: the latter is formally recognized and used in formal government communications and commerce - it is the language of the dominant political economy; and the former is recognized but not used as a government and trade communication language. For instance, Khilobedu[ii], Khoi and Nam are national languages, but not official languages. In the context of this argument, Afrikaans would be a national language, but not an official language just like all other existing ethnic languages.

To place the centrality of language in nation building, I start by laying out a brief historical European experience on how language was used to answer the national question. This is followed by how colonial power answered the national question in the colonial context. I then show the pitfalls of our ANC-led ‘nation-building' project in post-Apartheid South Africa. Finally, I argue for common lingua francas for South Africa and potentially for Africa.

Non-linguistic and linguistic nationalisms

Before we get into the historical context on the role of language in nation-building and destruction, it is worth mentioning that language as an instrument of nation-building has to be located within the political economy of a given social formation. Language has its material roots in the material production and reproduction of human beings. In order to produce, human beings need to co-operate, which in turn requires the generation of meaning through a language as the main mechanism of communication. 

Language can serve as a source of power for those who master the dominant language of production, exchange and distribution; and those who cannot grasp the language are automatically disempowered and excluded from the dominant forms of production, distribution and exchange. It is for this reason in post-colonial societies, including in Africa, the ability to speak the erstwhile colonizer's language (i.e. Spanish, English, Portuguese and French) catapulted the oppressed native middle classes into better social positions in their particular colony and post-colony.

The question in the national question is who belongs to a country. That is, who is part of the nation? It is only in the mid-19th century that a nation was defined in terms of one's language, race, and geographic origins.  The 1789 French and 1776 American Revolutions defined a nation as a group of citizens living together under one sovereign power.  During this period, the definition of a nation was based on population size and economic viability (e.g. endowed resources)[iii]

So, here the nation-building project was expansionist, incorporating smaller geographic areas into larger polities to establish viable economic communities. So, national movements were movements for national unification.  Until the mid-19th century, there was no connection between language and belonging to a nation. ‘Who belongs' to a nation was not determined by an ethnicity or language, rather by a willingness to live under the same government - rules and laws.

Of course, in the post-revolutionary France in the late 18th century, the Jacobins treated non-French speaking citizens in France with suspicion ostensibly on the grounds of potential foreign invasion. Hence, ethno-linguistics was also often used as a criterion to define who belonged to the French nation, but it was not the determinant criterion; and people could become French citizens by learning French as a language.

Hence, there was an insistence that willingness to learn French was a conditional requirement to full French citizenship just as acquiring English was a condition for American citizenship.  Furthermore, learning French was also for the administrative convenience of the state and massfying education.

But overall, these nations were political communities based on a set of values such as the United States Declaration of Independence (albeit to the exclusion of black people) and the French revolutionary traditions. Here people were bound together not by culture (language), but by shared citizenship. So, individuals could always become part of a nation.

It was only in the mid-19th century that human communities began to organize themselves into nations defined in linguistic and ethnic terms.  Between1880-1914, nationalism became a movement not of unification but of separation from the nation states in which linguistic nationalists sought nation-state security based on ethnicity and language. Therefore, individuals that considered themselves as a nation on cultural and linguistic grounds could form a nation. This affirmed the right to self-national determination, which also entailed the right to secede from an existing state. This meant a community could form its own nation and state and break away from an established nation state. Ethnicity and language became the criteria for forming new nations. Language became critical as the criterion to determine who would belong to which new nation. This was characterized by internal ethnic secessionist struggles.

Linguistic nationalism required the state to standardize languages. Its primary focus was also directed at capturing or creating a nation state. Here the rising bourgeoisie imposed a ‘national' language over linguistically different communities. Mechanisms to build nations included genocide, assimilation, and racist bigotry. The process of nation building was also developed through assimilation, physical integration (by roads and railways), market expansion, and military service. The pseudo-theories of genetic descent provided ideological justification for racism, including fascism, which claimed that the racially ‘purified' should constitute separate and superior nations.  

The national question in colonial context

As mentioned earlier, the national question is largely about who belongs: that is, who is a citizen. The colonial strategy to solve the national question was largely determined by specific class interests of the colonial power and the internal strength of the native population. Where their material needs was land only and the natives were weak, the outcome was genocide (e.g. genocide of indigenous people in the USA and Australia).

Where the object of desire was both land and labor; and the natives were relatively stronger; the outcome of colonialism was semi-proletarianisation or full- proletarianisation. Here the indigenous nationalities were forcefully separated from the land and were left with no meaningful choice but to sell their ability to work for wages.  It is for this reason that in our South African context, the working class has been largely black, and the bourgeoisie have been white. Both the working class and bourgeoisie have been internally differentiated by ethnicity. To illustrate, there is a Xhosa working class and a Tswana working class, and an Afrikaner working class.

Before the Indian anti-colonial uprising in 1857 led by the ‘civilised' Indian nationalists, the stated justification for colonizing was in terms of the civilization of the natives in the entire colonial world. Of course the reality was ownership and control of the economic resources such as land and markets. Ownership of property and levels of education amongst the natives were measures of civilization to determine or set the criteria for access to a limited political and civil liberties. The colonial project was to assimilate native elites through Western-type education, a monotheistic religion of Judeo-Christian origin, nuclear family and European clothing and language (English, French, Portuguese etc.) based on capitalist economic relations. This strategy produced a counter-colonial, hegemonic, educated, native middle- class (i.e. priests, lawyers, journalists, school teachers etc.), who in turn used English to fight for freedom, enfranchisement and democracy with their white counterparts and equality in all aspects of life. It was this ‘civilized' black elite which became the founders of the nationalist resistance movements, including the ANC in our South African context.

In the aftermath of the 1857 Indian uprising against the British Empire, the colonial power redefined ‘belonging to' colonial nations in terms of colour and culture (i.e. ethnicity) in trying to deal with the rising and militant nationalist movement[iv]. Whites, and blacks, particularly Africans were subjects of their tribal authorities. The colonial power, constituted colonizers (i.e. whites) and the colonized (blacks) differently. Whites belonged to the nations and were rights-bearing individuals in colonies; and the colonized Africans belonged to the tribal land (homelands) governed by a chief through a traditional authority.

Under this colonial strategy all whites i.e. non-indigenous, regardless of their glaring religious, cultural, linguistic differences, were governed under the same law - civil law; and were also rights-bearing individuals. Whereas indigenous Africans were classified in terms of tribes based on their linguistic differences. In the same way that race determined the distribution of economic resources (i.e. land, jobs, etc.), tribal identity amongst indigenous Africans also defined who got   access to land and governance structures in their respective tribal areas[v].

Just as in other colonialized countries, under Apartheid, ethnic groups were allocated ethnic rights and privileges under their respective traditional authorities to the exclusion of other ethnic groups. One could not become a member of a tribal group, except by birth. Members of the tribe were supposed to have rights in their respective homelands. Anyone outside of the homeland or tribe had no rights.

The path to language formation in colonial Africa was different from Europe. As mentioned earlier, the rising bourgeoisie led the formation of linguistic nationalism to facilitate communication within its national markets. In colonial Africa, missionaries played a key role in the standardization of ethnic languages in order to civilize and evangelize the natives; and save their souls using their ethnic languages in different missionary stations[vi]

Standardized African ethnic languages were used to facilitate the spread of Christianity; and enabled the petty bourgeoisie natives to read the Christian gospel without the aid of the missionaries. Linguistic literacy also provided interpreting, teaching and preaching career opportunities for the natives.  Just like the spread of printing in Europe, the rise of common linguistic morphology and syntax set the necessary conditions for common ethnic identity amongst Africans, which was also crystalized under apartheid.

Geographic boundaries also coincided with ethnicity amongst Africans legalized by the 1959 Bantu Self-Government Act.  Under the South African homeland system consolidated by the 1970 Bantu Homelands Act, Tswanas lived in Bophuthatswana, Vatsonga/Shangaan people lived in Gazankulu, Vendas in the Venda ‘Republic', Zulus in Kwazulu' and Xhosas were designated to live both in Ciskei and Transkei. In townships such as Soweto and Soshanguve, Africans were grouped according to their linguistic ethnic identities. Furthermore, single-sex  migrant-worker compounds and hostels, which carried within themselves the quasi-feudal-rural modes of governance (e.g. traditional leadership - induna systems); and peasant mythology were also segregated along ethnic lines.

In fact the IFP, and other Bantustan political parties, mastered the art of using ethnic identity to divide the nationally oppressed and working class in urban and rural areas, thereby diminishing the national and working class' consciousness.

The above-mentioned Apartheid ethnic legislative acts also disrupted a process of new identity formation; which was emerging amongst blacks.  In many parts of what later became Venda and Gazankulu, there was a new identity emerging amongst Vendas and the Vatsonga/Shangaan, known as ‘Venture', signifying the mixture of Venda and Shangaan languages and cultures. This was a spontaneous resistance to Apartheid and the remaking of identities from below. But the Apartheid central state with the support of the Bantustan ethnic-nationalists entrenched ethnic differences for linguistic and cultural ‘purity' reasons between the two ethnic groups.

Language and anti-colonial resistance

Colonialism produced organized anti-colonial nationalism, which was not based on linguistic identity, but on the common experience of racial and national oppression. It sought self-national determination.   Just like many versions of anti-colonialist nationalisms, it was not language and culture that led to the formation of the ANC; but common experience of oppression and the demand for political national sovereignty. Understandably, the nationalist movements have never adopted an overarching African language as a language of resistance, which could also be potentially used as a post-colonial language. Instead they appropriated their colonizers' languages to articulate their demands. English in South Africa became the language of the resistance, revolution and empowerment.

Furthermore, the ANC-led liberation movement tended to discourage discussion on ethnicity in order to maximize the unity of the racially oppressed; and to undermine Apartheid colonial identities.  However the language question was acknowledged, but not fully resolved. For instance, Moses Kotane in 1931 pointed out that:

The language question would form one of the main difficulties. There is no one language, which is sufficiently known and spoken by a majority of the people in South Africa.  Zulu is mainly spoken in Natal, Xhosa in the Eastern Cape, Sotho in Basutoland, and some parts of Free State, Tswana in Bechuanaland, Western and North-Western Transvaal, as Sepedi, Tshivenda and Shangaan in Eastern and Northern Transvaal. Neither English nor Afrikaans is widely spoken among Africans. So, while in each republic or national area everything would be conducted in the language of its people, there still remains the problem of the official language to be solved. Nevertheless, this could be settled by the common consent of all'[vii]

In trying to solve the language question, one of the ANC leading members, Jacob Nhlapo in the 1950s, suggested that Nguni (i.e. Zulu, Ndebele, Xitsonga (Shangaan), Swazi and Xhosa) and Sotho (Sipedi, Setswana, Kgatla and South Sotho) languages should be synchronized and standardized to create two national languages to promote national unity[viii]. At the same time; Nhlapho further argued that English should also be an official language. Another leading member of the ANC, Peter Raboroko argued for Swahili to be a lingua franca for South Africa and Africa as whole; and English as optional for international communication[ix].

The 1955 Freedom Charter, which visualized a South African nation in which all who live in it regardless of color, belonged to it; stated that ‘All people shall have equal right to use their own languages, and to develop their own folk culture and customs'. We argue that this was incomplete in that it did not specify if all these languages shall be official. The Freedom Charter should have also called for the establishment of an overarching African language along the lines suggested by Nhlapho and Raboroko.

Post-Apartheid naming and renaming

Apartheid geo-political boundaries coincided with language, which has been a social marker of ethnicity. Geographic spaces were given ethnic names and identities. Apartheid also enforced territorial ethnicity through the creation of Bantustan states. Put differently, the spatial patterns coincided with the ethnic group populating each Bantustan.  Unfortunately, this is largely being reinforced in the post-Apartheid era. That is to say, geographic spatial names such as Sekhukhune, Giyani, Malamulele and Zululand in post-Apartheid South Africa still coincide with the tribal identities of the inhabitants.

Even some institutions of higher learning such as the University of Venda and the University of Zululand have retained their tribal identities. These names and boundaries undermine the sense of national unity and identity.  Retaining the apartheid names and renaming geographic spaces in this way deepens Apartheid ethnic consciousness and sets necessary conditions for demands for ethnic geographic belonging.  In this way, people consider themselves as part of an ethnic group before they are part of the nation. 

Of course post-Apartheid renaming must recognize local heroes, but there is also a worrying tendency to reduce national icons to tribal geographic locations. Here national leaders who have become our national heritage get provincialized and tribalised. For example, the Peter Mokoba Stadium in Limpopo and the Moses Mabhida stadium in Kwazulu Natal. Naming a province Kwazulu Natal in itself is very problematic in that it reproduces ethnic geographic symbolism.  Almost all of the municipalities in the Eastern Cape are named after the national icons that are originally from there. Just like the Mandela name, names like Moses Mabhida, Moses Kotane and Thabo Mofutsanyane should not be provincialized and assigned to the geographic areas they come from.   Provinces should name some of their public institutions after heroes who do not necessarily come from those provinces; and national key heritage sites.

No doubt, post-apartheid spatial renaming has been done without tribal intentions; but the unintended outcome has been a dominant correlation between the inhabitants' ethnic identity and spatial naming, thus reproducing territorial tribalism.  Furthermore, there have been instances in which the renaming of certain geographic areas was met with tribal opposition. In 2002, there was strong tribal opposition to the renaming of the Limpopo town of Tzaneen after Mark Shope, who was one of the key leaders of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and the ANC in the 1950s.

Equally worrying, are instances where national icons like Nelson Mandela, Moses Mabhida and Moses Kotane are being (re) buried in their respective birth lands, instead of creating national heroes and heroines' burial sites. Furthermore, we have even become too South African and racial in the naming of our geographic areas. Except for a few streets and squatter camps there is no single municipality named after white South African revolutionaries (e.g. Joe Slovo, Bettie Du Toit, Harold Wolpe, Ray Alexander etc.). With few exceptions such as Kenneth Kauda Municipality in the North West, there are also very few places in South Africa that are named after African and world revolutionaries such as Franz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel, Ché Guevara and Lenin.

Traditional authorities and ethnic civil society in post-Apartheid

As mentioned earlier, the traditional authorities under colonialism were also meant to generate and reproduce tribalism and colonial despotism. Within the national liberation movement guided by the Freedom Charter it has always been understood that traditional tribal leadership is not compatible with the principles of democracy. Therefore, the end of apartheid will also mark the end of the system of traditional leadership. This was not to ignore certain roles that some traditional leaders played in the fight against colonialism.  In the same vein, it was understood traditional leaders' participation in the struggle would mean the end of black African feudal privilege; in the same way as the participation of white individuals in the struggle against apartheid would also mean the end of racialised white privilege.

The way in which the ANC approached the concept of traditional authority and its associated powers and functions during the CODESA negotiations and in post-apartheid South Africa; was not guided by the Freedom Charters principles, but largely by its reading of the balance of power in which the traditional leaders were considered powerful in certain parts of the country. In the mid-1980s and late 1980s in the period of ‘un-governability', there was a sense of dual power in that in many parts of the country the traditional authorities were de facto overthrown and were replaced by people's committees. Traditional authorities only regained their feudal power during the constitutional negotiations through the IFP, which had projected itself as a vanguard of traditional leaders and other Bantustan ethnic political leaders.

Since 1994, traditional authorities have been strengthened through amongst others things, real ownership of land, salaries and political power.  These traditional authorities still preside over significant portions of land, which tends to be allocated on the basis of ethnicity and along gender lines, thus reproducing sexism and homophobia. Instead of strengthening the tribal authorities through misconceived pieces of legislation such as the 2003 Traditional Leadership and Governance Act[x], the Communal Land Act and Traditional Courts Bill, ending tribalism will require the dismantling of the tribal authorities, including kingdoms; and the nationalization of land and the placing of it under the control of people's village councils; and withdrawal of government funding for tribal authorities, these should be the first steps towards obliterating these ethnic institutions.

In the recent past, there has been a proliferation of ethnic students organizations in institutions of higher learning. Linked to this, there is also the rise of ethnic affirmation through T-shirts, car stickers and other ethnic paraphernalia. There is also the rise of ostensibly clan-based groups, which also have annual and cultural activities. These acts of ethno-nationalism seem to suggest that whilst the defeat of ethnic nationalism has been defeated in its Bantustan state forms, it has now developed a life in civil society. For example Venda ethno-nationalism, which was officially promoted through the former Venda Bantustan state is now being promoted in civil society through amongst other things, car stickers written - Shumela Venda (loosely translated - work for Venda).

Similarly, Xitsonga ethno-nationalism and its institutional carrier - the then Gazankulu Bantustan state have been defeated, but it is being revived through a demand for a Shangaan king and demand for a municipality. Put differently, in the context of the Malamulele issue, it would seem Venda ethno-nationalism seeks to consolidate its ethno-nationalist revival through its tribal authorities. On the other hand, Shangaan ethnic nationalism seeks to create a local modern state - a municipality and its own kingdom in order to extract and redistribute resources to its own subjects in the light of the perceived or real Venda ethno-nationalism and other ethno-nationalisms.

Indeed, these forms of tribal nationalism (i.e. Shangaan/Xitsonga and Venda) are also enunciated or encouraged by the mere existence of other ethnic Kings and Queens such as the Zulu King, Bafokeng King; Pedi King and Balobedu Queen. That is to say, the continuous existence of other ethnic kings serves as a model for other groups to establish their own ethnic kingdoms. Hence, other ethnic groups are now demanding their own ethnic kings in order to belong to their tribes  - in order to express tribal pride.

Yearning for ethnic belonging also enables ethnic political entrepreneurs in our ANC-led movement to make demands for representation in public institutions. They start by supporting or joining ethnic based civil society movements. Then, just like the way the IFP[xi] evolved first as a cultural civil society organization, the post-apartheid ethnic political entrepreneurs in our ANC movement and society in general, translate power accumulated within their ethnicised civil society environment into a political society and demand ethnic representation in the name of an ethnic balancing act and addressing the ‘national question'. Consequently, nation building simply gets reduced to an ethnic numerical equation.  

In the absence of a transformative nation-building project, indeed this ethnic balancing act in our public institutions is understandable.  But this cannot be the preferred method of addressing the deficiencies within our nation building vision, not only because it reinforces Apartheid ethnic identities. But because it is also a recipe for political disaster, in that it sets enabling conditions for political elites to mobilize along ethnic lines for incorporation into mainstream centers of power at the expense of the working class in whose name they claim, to get into power.

Language policy in post-apartheid schools and university  

Tribal consciousness is also enabled by some universities post-Apartheid language policies. It is compulsory for all undergraduate students at the University of Kwazulu-Natal (supposedly an official and national university) to pass a prescribed isiZulu language module before they can graduate. This language policy is justified on the basis of culture and tradition; and that isiZulu is a provincial language; therefore it will enable students to communicate with the KZN population. Does this mean Eastern Cape Province should also adopt isiXhosa; and universities in the Free State adopt Sesotho? I am not sure what provincial language the University of Limpopo would adopt given Limpopo's linguistic diversity. But more importantly, will this not reproduce a modernized Bantustan consciousness in our democratic South Africa?

The recognition of 11 languages as official in the South African Constitution has also enabled Schools Governing Bodies (SGBs) through the South African Schools Act (No 84 of 1996) to largely determine school language policies. In many instances, particularly in white-owned private schools located in predominately white residential areas such as Gauteng, Western Cape and former small white towns throughout the country, SGBs have tried with varied levels of success to adopt languages that do not empower white learners to communicate with their fellow South Africans. Furthermore, some, if not many, of these SGBs have adopted Afrikaans as a medium of instruction to exclude or alienate non-Afrikaner speaking South Africans; thus perpetuating apartheid exclusionary educational policies. For instance, Danie Malan primary school SGB in Tshwane attempted without success to change and make Afrikaans a medium of instruction for the school[xii].

There are historically white private schools, which are introducing African ethnic languages at schools. However, they tend to be faced with some dilemmas on which of the African ethnic languages they should choose to teach African learners from different ethnic linguistic backgrounds. In the next section of this article I argue that instead of promoting ethnic languages, universities can play a key role in developing a new non-ethnic and transformative national language, drawing from the insights of the Nhlapho-Raboroko debates in the 1950s.

Towards South African common languages

Flowing from the Freedom Charter the ANC correctly argues that, the nation should not be defined in cultural and linguistic terms. Instead the concept of nationhood should signify a population residing in a given independent state in which language, religion, race and other social attributes are not criteria for belonging to a nation. Whilst appreciating South Africa's ethnic diversity, the 1997 and 2005 ANC policy documents argued that different ethnic identities could easily be mobilized to divide the country, thereby undermining national unity. Post-apartheid ANC documents further argue that the main thrust of our revolution is to promote a ‘common South Africa identity'.

Except for our Constitution, our national currency, national flag, anthem, Identity Documents (IDs), common territorial geographic boundary, common experience of oppression (as black people) and the same voting roll, what else do we commonly share as South Africans? Asked differently, what makes a typical South African typical regardless of her/his color of skin, religion, culture, gender and class? In addition to the core values entailed in the Constitution; we argue that language as one of the critical nation-building mechanisms has a huge potential to build the South African common identity.

The post-apartheid language policy formally treats all languages as being equal. But in reality, English is the language of the South African dominant political economy. The other constitutionally recognized languages are generally only spoken in certain geographic areas in South Africa, thus making it difficult for all South Africans to share a common linguistic identity and communicate with ease. It is highly improbable for a rural peasant from deep   Kwazulu Natal or the Eastern Cape to be able to communicate with a Pedi peasant in Sekhukhune; or a Venda peasant in the Mutale area. Furthermore, even the urban middle classes in cosmopolitan cities such as Johannesburg have to second-guess which language to use in communicating with fellow black people. At least, with whites it is easy.  They tend to use English.

By earlier invoking the European nation-building experience in which language also played an important part in nation-formation, it was not to suggest that national unity necessarily depends on linguistic commonality. Instead it was to point out that common national language(s) could be very useful in nation-building projects. In South Africa, languages(s) can play a key role in forging a South African national identity and enhancing the ability of South Africans to communicate with each other regardless of our geographic location in South Africa. I take the point that people have more than one identity even in mono-linguistic societies. Furthermore, it should be obvious that building a nation through common languages does not mean that class inequality will disappear. However, I argue that a common linguistic identity helps in so far as setting better conditions for working class consciousness, which tends to be trumped by linguistic ethnic consciousness.

The reduction of South African languages to two or three official languages must be based on the ANC's revolutionary nationalism, which has transcended a typical reactionary nationalism- based abhorrence of out-groups (as expressed in xenophobic attacks, genocide, etc.) and affection for the inside-group (linguistically defined or otherwise). Our nation building should be based on the notion that everyone can be a South African.  South African identity should not be anchored in linguistic exclusivity or other social identities.  Anyone can become a South African. Here, being a typical South African is not a color thing, but posits an ability to speak the two or three South African lingua francas which enables one to communicate with ease across South Africa through these languages.  One or two native black African languages and English should constitute these South African lingua francas.

Why English? Firstly, despite its colonial origins in South Africa, English has been the language of the national liberation struggle, albeit concentrated amongst a few elites. Its use is rapidly growing amongst the black middle class. Furthermore, whilst it is not spoken in all parts of world, it is used in significant parts of the globe. Many of the revolutionary post-colonial African countries such as Tanzania also adopted their erstwhile colonizers' languages as their official languages with varying degrees of success.

The possibility of English being the language of a tiny elite, thus excluding the majority of our people is real. The solution is not to maintain narrow tribal languages. Instead it is to make access to education, including these languages free and compulsory. In actual fact, the South African nation can only be forged through working class struggles supported by linguistic commonalities and education. This will also require massive educational campaigns.

In addition to English, we should develop one or two African black languages to set conditions for overcoming tribal identities. This could start with what Jacob Nhlapo suggested, that Nguni (e.g. IsiZulu, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, Xitsonga, SiSwati, etc.) and Sotho (e.g. Sepedi, Setswana, Sesotho), etc.) languages should each be harmonized and standardized to produce two African languages since there are a lot of similarities amongst the Nguni languages; and the same applies to the Sotho languages. I would add that Tshivenda and Khilobedu should form part of the synchronized Sotho language. In the final analysis, South Africa would have two native African black languages.

Alternatively, South Africa could develop either a new African language to be developed at the continental level; or adopt Swahili, which is widely spoken in almost sixteen African countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, DRC, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda, Somalia, Zambia and Mozambique. Africa should bring together her social historians, terminologists, lexicographers, translators, and sociolinguists together to carry out this project.  The development of an African language could be led by the African Union for all African countries' adoption and implementation.

The above-mentioned proposals have the potential to set conditions for a new South African and continental Africa-wide identity, but there will be obstacles standing in the way of this nation-building project. The project will require a lot of time (approximately 50 years) and resources to be fully completed. Another real obstacle will be resistance from white and black linguistic ethnic nationalists. Furthermore, educationists who specialize in these ethnic languages as well as tribal traditional leaders, who profit out of the ethnic linguistic nationalism will mount a fight against these ideas. Politics and change is not just the art of the possible, it is about political will and struggle. Nation building is a struggle. The task is how to organize and mobilize the progressive forces towards a transformative nation-building project.

David Masondo is a former Young Communist League National Chairperson


[i] Even though in the nineteenth century many of the African communities had evolved beyond being tribes, but colonial Europe still classified them as tribes. In this article we still call refer to these African communities as tribes since this has become the dominant understanding of these African communities. Furthermore, ethnicity and tribe are used interchangeably.

[ii] Khilobedu is a language, which shares grammatical similarities with both Northern Sotho and Tshivenda language spoken by Balobedu in Limpopo under Queen Modjadji.

[iii] See Smith. A. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: Penguin.

[iv] Mamdani; M. 2012. Define and Rule, Native as Political Identity. London: Harvard University Press.

[v] See Mamdani, M. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press

[vi] See Harries, P. ‘The Roots of Ethnicity: Discourse and the Politics of Language Construction in South-East Africa', African Affairs, Vo. 87. No. 346

[vii]  Brian Bunting, 1975: Moses Kotare, South African Revolutionary, Chapter 2, The National Question Part 4 of 4: Native Republic Slogan

[viii] Nhlapo, J. 1944. Bantu Babel: Will Bantu Languages Live? Cape Town: The African Bookman.

[ix] Raboroko, P.N. ‘The Linguistic Revolution', Liberation, No.5, September 1953.

[x] The 2003 Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act; which is largely similar to the 1951 Bantu Authorities Act. The Communal Land Rights Act gives tribal authorities power to allocate communal land.

[xi] See Southall, R. ‘Buthelezi, Inkatha and Politics of Compromise' in African Affairs, 80 (320), 198; and Nxumalo, J. (‘Mzala'). 1988.  Gatsha Buthelezi, Chief with a Double Agenda. London: Zed Books.  These readings show how Buthelezi transformed the IFP was transformed from being a cultural movement using Zulu ethnic identity for political purposes. 

[xii] See ‘School Becoming Afrikaans' Pretoria North Record, 14 August 2014.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter