Resurrecting the Nama tongue

Khoisan languages will soon be taught in schools in the Northern Cape

THE Northern Cape is set to introduce the teaching of Khoisan languages into the school curriculum, in a move that will counter decades of subjugation of these indigenous tongues.

MEC Tina Joemat-Pettersson announced in this year’s budget speech to the provincial parliament that her department’s curriculum unit would allocate funds for the introduction of Nama, !Xu, Khwe and Khomani.

A pilot project has already been started in the tiny settlement of Kuboes, in the Richtersveld, which is the mountainous desert region in the extreme north-west of the country.
Here, about 200 learners at the Johan Hein Primêre school are studying Nama as a school subject.

Before the programme started about two years ago, very few children in the area could speak Nama. This language, which dates back thousands of years, was known only by elderly people in the area. The apartheid government strongly discouraged the speaking of Nama, and it was banned from schools. Those who spoke Nama were condemned by the authorities as primitive and ignorant. Thus, it has all but died out, with only a few thousand speakers in South Africa and Namibia remaining. Nama shows many similarities with the Native American tongue, Sioux, which was banned by the authorities. At present, there are efforts to get Sioux taught in schools in North America, before the language becomes extinct.

Many Khoisan languages and cultures have died out. No-one speaks /Xam, for example, a language once spoken widely by San (Bushmen) in the Northern Cape’s Karoo. (This is the language in which South Africa’s motto, “Unity through Diversity” is written.) According to a survey conducted by the Northern Cape’s Department of Arts and Culture last year, only about 6 000 people still speak it in the Northern Cape, and just a handful of others outside the province.

The head of curriculum in the Northern Cape, Eric Martin says: “The implications of the MEC’s announcement are that teachers of Nama can now be hired. Nama will become part of official language policy, research can be conducted, networking with Namibia and Botswana can take place, and learner support materials can be developed.” Martin says that the Northern Cape will look to the Namibian example, where Nama is taught from grade 1 to 12, and even at tertiary level. “The Northern Cape has the largest group of San and Nama speakers in South Africa. In Namibia, they’ve accommodated all their language groups, so there’s no reason we can’t.

“By the end of this year, we should have formal policy for the introduction of Khoisan languages, which will have been developed based on the experience at Kuboes.” Once policy is in place, Nama will start to be introduced in other schools where there is a demand for it, and where reasonable numbers of people still talk it, Martin says.

Some funding for the development of Khoisan languages in Northern Cape schools will initially come out of Martin’s R9,6-million budget for this year. Both Finnish and Swedish donors have already shown interest in funding projects focusing on the reintroduction of Khoisan languages.

Bennie Davids is the teacher at Johan Hein Primêre who is currently teaching Nama to the school’s 200 or so learners. Davids grew up in Namibia and Nama is his first language. “The children are enjoying learning it very much,” he says, “Many of their grandparents speak it at home. There are a few children who are ashamed to speak it, but many are very proud. “The parents like the fact their children are learning it. Nama was under huge pressure—now the language can live on through their children.”

Marianne Moos’ son, Malcolm, is one of Davids’ grade 7 pupils. “He enjoys it immensely,” says Moos. “The children can speak a few words and they can write a bit. The old people are very pleased—they don’t want their language and culture to die.”

Growing a culture of rights


The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has opened an educational centre for the promotion of human rights education.

The National Centre for Human Rights Education and Training (Nachret) aims to respond to the demand for human rights education by producing both materials and training programmes. Speaking at the launch of the centre, Andre Keet of Nachret said “It is our aim to infuse a culture of human rights in the daily life of practitioners such as social workers, the police and teachers.” It is hoped that this will result in a greater degree of tolerance in society.

Tolerance of differences in race, religion, culture and gender are issues which need to be discussed in regard to teaching and schools. Teachers are an important group being targeted for human rights education training by Nachret.

Chairperson of the SAHRC Barney Pityana said human rights are “intrinsic to the society we wish to become”. The centre will “vigorously pursue human rights education in line with the objectives set out for the United Nations decade of human rights [1996-2005]”, said Pityana.

In his keynote address, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Penuell Maduna, said that the centre is a “very important milestone in the evolution of a human rights culture in South Africa”.

SAHRC(011) 484-8300

Look out for our series on anti-racism and human rights education which begins next month

—The Teacher/Mail & Guardian, August 14, 2000.

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