I read with minimum surprise that the government has turned down the request by the Domboshaba Cultural Trust to have Kalanga taught in schools, as it was in 1972. In its rejection the government gave at least two main reasons. Government’s position is that the financial implications of introducing Ikalanga are prohibitive. Additionally, it is also government’s position that if it acceded to the demand to introduce Ikalanga into the curriculum, the other tribal groups would demand that the same right be extended to them; something which government does not have the capacity to achieve. This, I hear incensed many, some who even suggested that they should align themselves with a political party which will respond to their linguistic needs. I must hasten to add, the offended persons are thinking along the right lines, since every lobbying is a political statement – whether acknowledged by the lobbyist or not. Now, let’s consider the government’s response. The government’s response may indeed be irritating but it is a perfect answer to those who support linguistic equality, including some of our Domboshaba brothers and sisters. At the heart of linguistic equality is the view that all languages are equal and therefore all individuals must be instructed in their mother tongue in all subjects. There are shades of variations to this general view, one with a modification that all languages must be taught in schools – and not insisting that all subjects should be taught in all native tongues. If all languages are equal then why should Kalanga be added to the curriculum at the exclusion of Sebirwa, Setswapong, Sekgalagadi, Shiyeyi, Otjiherero, Thimbukushu, Sesubiya, Nama, !Xoo, Ju|’hoan, Makaukau, Naro, |Gwi, ||Gana, Kxoe, Shua, Tshwa, Afrikaans and others? In the same vein the all-languages-are-equal thesis lampoons and questions the position of English and Setswana. If all languages are equal why should we be learning Setswana and English? This is oppression! We must liberate ourselves! And so the tirade continues.
Fortunately, I don’t agree with the all-languages-are equal-thesis, however that is a discussion for another time. What I however wish to do is engage some of the Kalanga activists and lobbyists on the Botswana language question and how it could be addressed. My first suggestion is that if possible, they should make their argument without attacking the position of the Setswana and English languages. For some, this may be difficult to do, especially since some of them feel offended by the oppressive position of the Setswana language in Botswana. However Setswana has a unique position in southern Africa, whether some find its position offensive or not. It was recently adopted by the languages arm of the African Union, ACALAN, together with Chinyanga/Chicewa to be developed, promoted and used in the southern African region as a cross border language. The selection was based on the cross-border nature of the two languages in southern Africa, their use, their development, description and technicalization – and not on the sheer number of native speakers – otherwise Zulu and Shona would have been front runners. This selection makes Setswana an important language regionally. The status of English as an international language is generally without challenge. The second suggestion is that they need to begin debating amongst themselves how they want the Kalanga language issue to be handled. That is, they need to debate whether they want Kalanga to be taught in Kalanga regions only, say in the North East of Botswana or they want Kalanga to be taught everywhere in the country? Do they want their children to be taught in Kalanga across all subject or they only want the language to be taught? How do they respond to the subject of linguistic equality? In other words how do they respond to the charge: “Why you guys when there are so many other languages and groups?” How do they respond to the charge that some of them want Kalanga language education not for their own children, but for the children of some poor Kalanga families somewhere in the North East, while their own children are tucked away in the leafy Westwood and Maruapula grounds? How do they respond to the funding matter? Botswana has about 2 million people with about 20 languages. Should all of them be taught? There will be disagreements on some of these questions, but such variation of opinion shouldn’t be discouraging, but rather, the discussions should help shape the argument for a more pluralistic and multilingual Botswana. Finally, the language issue is an emotive one, and understandably so, however, I am hopeful that colleagues fighting for the teaching of Kalanga would handle the matter soberly and with rigour. Sadly some legitimate linguistic debates have been hijacked by extremists who have in the process silenced those with brilliant ideas. There is currently an urgent national need to develop a comprehensive Botswana languages policy which will guide us on language matters. The government shouldn’t hesitate and prevaricate on the language question; instead it should seek guidance on how to proceed given Botswana’s multilingualism. The person to consult before everyone else is Andy Chebanne – an outstanding linguist who can offer fair advice on language matters. The cost question cannot be ignored when dealing with multilingualism. It will be an expensive undertaking. However, citizens need to have the confidence that their government proceeds from the assumption that multilingualism is a good thing and not a sore thumb. Citizens should not fight to have their languages promoted and recognized. They need an assurance that their government wishes to develop their languages, even in the face of financial limitations. The native speakers also need to take the development of their languages seriously and cease endless complaints when they themselves are doing nothing to develop and preserve their languages. I am therefore proud of the Domboshaba crew for their organising a cultural renaissance of the Kalanga people. It’s just the beginning.