PROF MS MAKHANYA, PRINCIPAL AND VICE CHANCELLOR
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH AFRICA
THE 8TH INTERNATIONAL AFRICAN WRITERS DAY LECTURE
DITSONG NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CULTURAL HISTORY, TSHWANE
07 NOVEMBER 2019
The best place to start off this contribution is to revisit the debate that
has once again arisen around what constitutes African literature. This
is a debate that took place in Makerere University some fifty-seven
years ago. Today the same arguments that were raised then are still
being raised, of course informed by new research and a completely
different political landscape. The texture of the debate is therefore
also influenced by the context within which it is taking place.
Reflecting on the Makerere debate Ngugi wa Thiong’o noted how his
own resolve to abandon English was shaped at that time.1 He also
1 wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ (1986) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth,
recalls how Chinua Achebe admitted how writing in English felt like
self-betrayal and the betrayal of his own people, but how he (Achebe)
had no other choice but to continue writing in English.2 Ever since then
the debate around what language to write in for literature from the
African continent, to be regarded as African Literature, has been
shaped by reference to either Ngugi or Achebe.3
It is not my intention to be trapped, and by extension to narrow this
contribution to a dichotomy between the Ngugi’s thought or the
Achebe option. What I intend to do though is to briefly look at the
complexities of the debate and the related nuances, and proceed to
examine the implications thus far of the marginalisation of African
languages, what promoting them might mean, and what might be
done to elevate these languages. In that way, I hope, the debate may
move from binary thinking towards a progressive concern.
Makerere and after
The 1962 African Writers Conference held at Makerere University
remains an important event in the debate around the nature and
content of African literature. With its inherent weakness being the
focus on English-speaking Africa, thus dividing Africa along colonial
3 Adejunmobi, Moradewun (1999) Rotes: Language and Identity of African Literature, The Journal of Modern
African Studies, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp. 581-596
linguistic lines, the conference did succeed to highlight the importance
of language in literature.
It is now common knowledge that one of the legacies of the
conference was the ongoing (to this day) debate on whether African
literature qualifies as such only if written in an African language. And
what actually constitutes African literature? The language question
was therefore the defining feature of the conference.
Writing years later and reflecting on the conference and the
implications for the language of African literature, Ngugi posed a
critical question that we must continue reflecting on:
How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble towards the
claims of our languages on us and so aggressive in our claims on
other languages, particularly the languages of our colonisation?
In my view language was the most important vehicle through
which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The
bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was
the means of the spiritual subjugation.4
4 wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ (1986) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth,
With this Ngugi was responding to Achebe, who had argued forcefully
that African writers could write in English in a way that assisted them
to communicate the same message that they intend communicating,
which is to talk about the aspirations of their people. Achebe wrote:
The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings
out his message best without altering the language to the extent
that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost.
He should aim at fashioning an English which is at once universal
and able to carry his peculiar experience. I have in mind here the
writer who has something new, something different to say. The
nondescript writer has little to tell us, anyway, so he might as
well tell it in conventional language and get it over with. If I may
use an extravagant simile, he is like a man offering a small,
nondescript routine sacrifice for which a chick, or less, will do. A
serious writer must look for an animal whose blood can match
the power of his offering.5
For Achebe, therefore, what is important is not so much the form but
the content of what is being communicated.
5 Achebe, Chinua (1975) The African Writer and the English Language. Accessed from
http://wrightinglanguage.weebly.com/uploads/2/4/0/5/24059962/achebe_englishandafricanwriter.pdf, on 06
One can speculate that Achebe would have fallen into a category of
critics who argue against any form of nativism, an approach that
reduces the nature of a phenomenon to its basic elements without
looking at the whole dynamism that shape such a phenomenon.
There is some merit to what Achebe says. One of the achievements of
the Makerere conference was its ability to serve as a ‘launch pad’ for
progressive post-colonial African literature. It was after the
conference that the continent experienced an explosion, in a literal
sense, of ‘new’ writing under the aegis of the African Writers Series,
which was launched in the very year of the conference, 1962.
What the African Writers Series achieved was to go beyond the Anglo
focus of the Makerere conference and facilitate the translation of
some works into Acholi, Afrikaans, Arabic, French, IsiZulu, Luganda,
Portuguese, Sesotho, and Swahili.6 Thus was born a platform that
allowed African writers to express their views, mostly in English, on
recently decolonised, and still to be decolonised, countries on the
Following on the non-fiction reflections of Kwame Nkrumah and
Frantz Fanon, reflecting on the emerging weaknesses and pitfalls of
See the archive of the African Writers Series at
https://web.archive.org/web/20150429153937/http://www.ascleiden.nl/content/acquisitionhighlights/heinemann-african-writers-series, accessed on 06 November 2019
the recently ‘decolonised’ countries,7 a number of fiction writers
began to highlight some of the tensions that were emerging in these
states. For Mazrui et al there were seven themes that emerged in
post-colonial African literature, coming out in the form of dialectics.
The dialectics centred around: Africa’s past and present; tradition and
modernity; indigenousness and foreignness; individualism that was
emerging with the embracing of Western capitalism and the sense of
community; debates around socialism and capitalism; development
aid and self-reliance; and, Africanity and humanity in general.8
Despite the achievements of the African Writers Series, and
subsequent initiatives that provided African writers with platforms to
express their crafts, the issue of language has remained unresolved.
Hence this very conference itself.
7 Nkrumah, Kwame ( 1987) Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Colonialism. London: Panaf Books; Fanon,
Frantz ( 2001) The Wretched of the Earth. London, Penguin Classics
8 Mazrui, Ali et al (1993) The development of modern literature since 1935, in Mazrui, Ali & Wondji, C (1993)
General History of Africa, Volume VIII: Africa since 1935. Paris and Oxford, UNESCO and Heinemann
Educational, accessed from
D%2Cnull%2Cnull%2C0%5D, on 06 November 2019
Culturecides and Linguicides
While those who may agree with Achebe may have a point that
English, or any other non-African language, may still be used to
express the aspirations of African people, and therefore the product
thereof qualifying as African literature, the arguments raised by Ngugi
What Achebe and others fail to recognise is that English, and any nonAfrican language, is not just a means of communication. As Ngugi
argues: “Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a
means of communication and a carrier of culture”.9 This suggests
therefore that while it may be possible to communicate the existential
material conditions faced by African people, for example highlighting
the dialectics between individualism and a sense of community as
postulated by Mazrui et al, doing so in English might mean that it is
done within an English cultural realm or lens.
Let us take an imaginary yet realistic message in a novel that seeks to
articulate the tension between selfishness and the African philosophy
of ubuntu. It will be difficult for the novelist to adequately dramatize
the notions of umuntu/motho, ubuntu/botho, isintu/setho in their
richness in English, than when writing in any of the African languages,
9 wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ (1986) Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth,
where the richness of meaning can be easily expressed. For instance,
English would have ubuntu/botho and isintu/setho as simply
humanness. We will agree that that fails to capture the essence of the
At a sociological and psychological levels humanism or humanness
respectively fails to capture the essence and depth of ubuntu/botho.
Hence, it can be argued that the cultural depth in messages being
transmitted suffers dilution and ultimate eradication through the use
of languages other than African languages when attempts are made
to communicate and capture concepts that have a deeper meaning
but cannot be adequately addressed through translation.
Ngugi presents a dynamic interfacing between culture and language.
Language, he writes, is a means processing culture, which is then
handed over between generations. The values of a particular people
are transmitted and shared through languages and they form the
broad rubric of culture.
Language as a transmitter of culture shapes history and heritage. It is
an “image-forming agent in the mind of a child”. It also enables human
beings to make sense of and communicate about their environment.
Marginalisation, and therefore lack of development of a language
does not only lead to such a language dying (linguicide). It may also
lead to the culture that is transmitted, promoted and shaped by that
language also dying – culturecide. The struggle to promote African
languages in literature is and should therefore be understood to be a
struggle to preserve the cultures of the people. These languages must
therefore be developed, promoted and protected.
The need to develop African languages
In his 1989 book, Language Policy and National Unity in South
Africa/Azania, Neville Alexander proposed what may be termed a
phased-in introduction of African languages as lingua franca for a free
Alexander proposed that English could be retained as a lingua franca
for a defined period, while a generic standardised Nguni (combining
IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SiSwati, and IsiNdebele) or Sotho (combining
SeSotho, Setswana and Northern Sotho), or both, was/were
developed and phased in as the lingua franca. Other ‘smaller
languages’ like Afrikaans, TshiVenda and XiTsonga, could also be used
as ‘secondary languages’. Of course, Alexander’s proposal could easily
10 Alexander, Neville (1989) Language Policy and National Unity in South Africa/Azania. Cape Town, Buchu
fall into the trap of promoting some languages, while undermining
It has now been thirty years since Alexander posited his proposals. The
current languages policy and practice that we have, with the
recognition of nine African languages, plus Afrikaans and English as
official languages, and with English as the de facto lingua franca, is far
from the ideal that Alexander had proposed.
It is beyond this paper to consider in detail what Alexander had
proposed. In a somehow related development the Minister of Basic
Education, Minister Angie Motshekga, recently announced that
Kiswahili would be introduced into South African schools.11
We know the benefits that Kiswahili has had in serving as a common
medium of communication in East Africa. But, as linguists would
agree, the use of Kiswahili in East Africa, and its possible use in South
Africa, will serve as a medium of communication and not necessarily
as a transmitter of culture. What is still required is a discussion on the
use of African languages as transmitters of culture.
11 Ndlendle, Songeza (2019) Schools set to embrace Kiswahili, says Minister, Pretoria News, 17 July 2019
It would seem to me that there is a need to develop African languages
as transmitters of culture if we are to arrest the culturecide that
accompanies the absence of these languages in literature. It is
however unclear to me, and that is what I wish to submit as a
problematic to be discussed in this forum, whether the possibility of a
standardised Nguni or Sotho as proposed by Alexander in the form of
a lingua franca should also serve as a proposal for the development of
Would standardised Nguni and Sotho be transmitters of culture, a new
culture that has the potential to minimise the ethnic divides that exist?
Or, will that option lead to the unintended consequences that
Kiswahili has had over some of the East African dialects which have
declined or are dying, all in the name of national unity?12
It seems to me that there might be a tension between the
development of African languages as languages of science and
communication, therefore as lingua franca, on the one hand, and the
need to develop African languages as languages of literature. It is
possible that achievement of the former might inhibit the
development of the latter, that is, promoting Nguni and Sotho as
lingua franca, for instance, may lead to the decline in the growth of
12 Yoneda, Nobuko (2010) “Swahilization” of ethnic languages in Tanzania: The case of Matengo, African Study
Monographs, Volume 31, Number 3, pp. 139-148
literature written in IsiZulu, Setswana, TshiVenda and XiTsonga for
instance. This comes out in the study of the decline of Matengo as a
dialect in Tanzania as a result of the central position occupied by
Having considered these complexities, it should remain the goal of the
African writer to develop his/her languages to the level of
sophistication to produce novels, poems, drama and other forms of
literature, including orature.14 Such a development will help in
protecting the culture of the African people.
Some caution and challenges on developing African languages in
The very fact that we are having this discussion indicates that all is not
well with how we have tried for the past twenty-five years to promote
African languages. Some urgent steps must therefore be taken. Yet,
there are some challenges and caution that must be thrown into the
debate. First, the challenges.
In addition to support from and through the public fiscus, the need
thereof being obvious and necessary to channel through the
14 Oral literature
Department of Arts and Culture and its agencies, there are challenges
that must be overcome.
The first will be to change the mindset of the nation to embrace
African languages. This is against the backdrop of many black middle
class, and even upper working class such as teachers, nurses and other
public servants, preferring that their children should communicate
mainly in English. Some of the efforts to increase the proficiency of
learners in African languages must therefore be enhanced for there to
be a better uptake in the use of African languages in literature.
Second, and related to the above point is that there must be
improvements in the reading culture in the country. A 2016 survey
conducted by the South African Book Development Council showed
an aggregated average of 25 percent of adult South Africans read
books.15 That means that 75 percent of adults in this country do not
read books, whether they are in hard copy or electronic format.
Added to the fact that many still treat English as a superior language
it means that African language literature will require concerted efforts
in terms of consciousness-raising and promotion for there to be an
uptake by readers. Now, a word of caution!
15 South African Book Development Council (2016) National survey into the reading and book reading
behaviour of adult South Africans, 2016. Accessed from https://sabookcouncil.co.za/wpcontent/uploads/2019/08/Final-Report-NRS-2016.pdf, on 06 November 2019
It is critical that we also note that developing African languages for
literature, in and of itself may not be a solution for the social, political
and cultural injustices that manifest as a result of the marginalisation
of these languages.
For literature to be said to be responsive to the needs of the people it
must, of necessity, address itself to the plight, concerns, fears and
aspirations of the very people it claims to talk on behalf of. Failure to
address this critical ontological and epistemological question will
result in decadent nativism. Let me illustrate this point.
The ‘promotion’ of African languages reached its peak in the history
of South Africa under the aegis of the homeland system. Millions of
Rands were spent to develop the lexicography of African languages.
That job was ‘excellently’ done by the language services departments
of different homelands, bush colleges, and the SABC. In fact, we owe
a lot of what still remains of our languages to that era.
The other side of the coin related to this development was however
reactionary in nature. First, African languages were developed, of
course with the exception of IsiNdebele, not because the apartheid
regime was in any way interested in developing the organic culture of
The developments were aimed at entrenching ethnic identities and
therefore the ‘divide and rule’ strategy of the regime. So, Setswanaspeakers learnt good Setswana, so that they could see themselves as
Batswana and not black people in solidarity with one another, but
distinct from IsiZulu speakers, and so on and so forth. The same was
the case for each language group.
Second, some of the books that were produced at the African
literature at the time promoted the very negative and backward
ethnic identities, instead of a unified African/Black identity that
What this means is that we must guard against any nativism that might
arise as a result of attempts to develop African languages literature.
What then must be done?
Beyond just form, but content too!
You will be forgiven if you are now ‘fed-up’ with my overuse of Ngugi.
As language practitioners and activists, you will however agree that
we cannot provide analysis, critique and even solutions with regards
to language issues in Africa without any reliance on Ngugi.
Ngugi’s precedence in writing in Gikuyu should settle the question on
whether it is feasible to write complex texts in African languages. But
his writing goes beyond the technical feasibility. He assists us to
address some of the concerns and pitfalls mentioned earlier; that of
Let me start off with a conclusion of my argument in this segment.
It is my submission that the promotion of African languages in and
through literature must be linked with local and global struggles for
justice and equality. Why should this be the case?
Any attempt that is aimed at achieving social, political, heritage and
culture justice through the promotion of African languages but is not
linked to organic struggles on the ground, both local and global, is an
exercise in futility.
The writer cannot afford to achieve justice, be it at a cultural and
linguistic level, unless s/he identifies their work with the daily lived
experiences of the people whose lives and the creative work s/he
seeks to reflect. These are the lessons that we learnt from the artistic
activism of Ngugi. His employing of community theatre in Kenya
before being forced into exile, executed with the people themselves,
serves as a model for an artistic enterprise that is grounded with
working class communities and is not the preserve of the middle
As indicated earlier, our endeavours to promote African languages
must go beyond the form, which is the actual development and use of
the languages themselves; highly developed as they may be at a
lexicographical level as was the case during the homeland system.
What is needed is to develop African literature that addresses the
plight, fears, concerns, and aspirations of the people. In this regard we
have at our disposal historical references that should serve as
inspiration. Our task will be to take the challenges to higher levels.
First, the post-colonial literature that developed after the Makerere
conference was rich with reflections and analysis on the state of the
post-colony, with its neo-colonial trappings as articulated by
Nkrumah, Fanon and many others. Thus, the writer assumed the role
of a critical griot17 who challenged post-colonial African leaders, some
of whom ruled with fear, while others looted the resources of their
16 Van der Smit, S.A (2007) Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Kenyan Theatre in Focus; A thesis submitted in partial
fulfilment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts in Performing Arts, University of Namibia.
06 November 2019
17 A West Africa artist, especially a poet or musician, who was, in the early days an advisor to royalty but who
these days is an independent performer who exercise the freedom of expression to be critical of rulers
In South Africa we had the era of Black Consciousness writers in the
1970s – Mafika Gwala, Oswald Mtshali, Don Mattera, Lefifi Tladi,
James Matthews, Ingoapele Madingoane, Merriam Tladi, and many
more – who weaved their art into the daily struggles of their people,
commenting on it, enhancing it, and developing artistic language for
While not wholly BC we saw the emergence of Staffrider magazine,
which served as a platform for the articulation of the aspirations of
the people. The Market Theatre was also open during the same era,
adopting a fearless but risky anti-apartheid stance.
The BC era was followed by the Congress era in the 1980s. Then we
witnessed the emergence of the Congress of South Africa Writers
(COSAW), a grassroots organisation. It was that organisation that gave
us Vusi Mahlasela, Lance Nawa, Njabulo Ndebele, Lesego
Rampolokeng and many others.
The characteristic features of the above eras were the centrality of
content. It was therefore not just form that was important.
Towards a just order!
It is my submission that the fusion of content and form will present us
with a rich product that can be weaved into the daily struggles of our
people, and the challenges that are facing this country.
If the post-colonial writers addressed the seven dialectics that Mazrui
et al wrote about in 1993, as we referred to earlier; and, if women
writers began to assert themselves as the African literature form
developed over the years; then the current generation of writers need
to develop a mission for themselves.
In the era of neoliberal decadence and corruption, coupled with
cultural imperialism that is aided by the rampant exploitation of the
South and an unashamed financial imperialism, then it seems to me
that the African writer has to develop a new language of protest and
hope against these dehumanising products of modernity.
In the era of gender-based violence, the African writer must develop
a new language of protest against toxic masculinity and seek to create
a world where the equality of men and women is at the forefront of
Thus, as we develop African languages as languages of literature, let
us do so not just at a lexicographical level but also at a psycholinguistic
and sociolinguistic level, so that these languages help us to transmit a
new message of ubuntu/botho, and a culture ye-sintu/setho.
This, friends, is what I submit is the challenge of speaking in many