Arts CornerReflections


A case for decolonizing English


By Motheo Mofokeng

Lesego Rampolokeng receives credit as being one of the most innovative and insurgent creatives in the South African poetry scene. Recently, I’ve had the privilege of listening to the wise man’s marvelous insights into South African poetry and literature at large.

One of the insights that struck my attention was on the issue of language and the debate of African authors writing in their native languages; a debate that spans from the heydays of “African Literature” in the 1960s and 70s when the likes of Chinua Achebe and Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o butted heads around this question of returning to the mother tongue or continuing to write in the English and French language(s).

Ntate Rampolokeng argues that most authors and intellectuals who argue that we should write in our native languages take their cue from Kenyan author Ngūgī, whom he facetiously adds that “he could afford to write in his native language, let alone dog fart,  because it was easily translatable to the English audience”

Rampolokeng is of the view that there need not be an all-out exodus from writing in English to the native tongue, and that Black authors can use the English medium to express themselves originally, whilst subverting its’ logic and creating new modes of communication that relate to the local experience of a community of people. In other words, we should do to the English language what the Jamaicans did to it, resulting in patois, and what the Nigerians did with it, resulting in pidgin.

This in itself, reminded me of a conversation I had with writer and academic Innocent Madzhoni on this matter, who argued on the cue of poet Mr Enock Shishenge  that on a tactical premise, we ought to develop ourselves within the English medium before dedicating ourselves solely to writing in our native languages, due to the fact that the South African literary space is predominantly white, male and British, and thus to this day, it is commonplace that a Black writer who writes in Tshivenda does not receive widespread attention than a Black writer who writes in English.

Of course, there is also the question of indigeneity and what it actually means to “write in your own language”, considering that most black authors had their background and linguistic development in the townships, where language is often hybrid and multifaceted than it is in the rural areas, where it often operates on the mode of singularity amongst the community at large.

This in itself, reminded me of a post I wrote on the same issue, that speaking one’s native tongue fluently in the townships is not as clear-cut as it is made out to be because of the confluence of different cultures and linguistic groups of Africans, who stretch as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo. My point was further buttressed by the poet (Lesego Rampolokeng) who argues in his own opinion that writing in his indigenous language Setswana would do a complete disservice to the language itself, out of respect of the richness and linguistic beauty of the Setswana language in its variations.

So yes, I’d certainly say, taking my cues from the above, that whilst it is important to preserve and promote the use of our indigenous languages, it is not a must for black authors to write in their indigenous languages. One must not feel compelled to make a hustle out of their native language merely for ideological posterity or “political correctness” if you must. In the absence of our own vernacularized form of English that is understandable and palatable to the broad Black audience in South Africa, our art can still be expressed subversively, creatively and broadly through the English medium.****

Motheo Mofokeng is a second-year LL.B. student at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in Cape Town, South Africa. He is also a writer and scholar, as well as a part-time pianist and composer with a keen interest in politics, philosophy, law, literature, music and cultural production.


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