When will corporate SA get with the programme?

A friend visiting from Sierra Leone once nodded in agreement with a Nigerian colleague’s comment: “The great thing about South Africa is that you really value your languages.” She had asked me what language Generations or Isidingo characters were speaking to each other, finding it remarkable that national television used more than one language in this way, and seeing evidence of a linguistically complex democracy.

I cringed. If only this were the rule rather than the exception.

The SABC has at least recognised that, in our homes, we like being spoken to as if we matter. The public broadcaster is not entirely alone in showing a little respect for the non-English-speaking millions. Now a non-profit group, Translate.org.za, with a decidedly smaller budget than most corporations, has translated an entire electronic office suite into the 11 official languages. Anybody can download whichever ones they want for free from their website and distribute them freely and legally at will.

I cringed because 13 years into a complicated democracy, these organisations are almost alone in this regard. My embarrassment was like that invited by the chain email that returns to many of our middle-class black inboxes, claiming to be written by one in our midst—the one that admonishes us for our fraught relationship with English. We speak English all day, conduct business exclusively in English, do most of our writing—even to relatives and those with whom we share African languages—in English, and sometimes speak to our children in English. We say it just makes things easier. There are no easily accessible equivalent words in an indigenous African language, we claim. But why do we leave it to overworked and under-appreciated translators and interpreters to create these words?

Of course, my colleagues were not reading about the Afrikaans-medium Ermelo school that will not admit “English-speaking” students, or national universities that insist on remaining “Afrikaans”, even though they accept government subsidies paid with taxpayers’ money. They were not reflecting on how, as mother tongue speakers of nine of the 11 official languages, black students are reported by default as part of the “English” students in political arguments. My colleagues miss the avalanche of rejections that land on Education Minister Naledi Pandor’s lap each time she mentions mother tongue instruction.

I wished my visiting friends could eavesdrop on how my students at the University of the Free State, where I taught for close to a decade, defended their decision not to speak more seSotho or xiTsonga in the world of work. “English is an international language,” they say, and must remain the de facto language of law, technology and business. Any attempt to introduce more languages will hobble our competitiveness, placing us in an economic ghetto. Yet the Japanese, Chinese and Western European economies flourish and make a mockery of such arguments.

Our inspired language policy is in place and we can defend it with our non-payment for services that insult us. When is corporate South Africa going to “get with the programme”? Forget that it was in a state of denial so deep that it refused to show up at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, what oppressive legacy is it propping up with our permission today?

Clients should not be expected to be grateful that one bank tokenistically offers services in isiXhosa and seSotho, among other languages. The corporations should speak to us in our languages, not the other way round. Most people who buy medicines, cereal or other products are not only English-speaking.

And before we are told about how expensive it will be to translate packaging and medicine inserts, remember SABC TV and Translate.org. Nobody is so stupid as to think that translating a few paragraphs or airline greetings requires anywhere near the effort these entities have had to put into treating us with respect.

As I renew my TV licence this year, I’m not paying any software licence renewals for proprietary software that says I don’t exist. My computer is quite happy with free software that allows me to function fully in ngesiXhosa, isiZulu, seSotho and other languages I speak.

Pumla Dineo Gqola is an associate professor in the school of literature and language at the University of the Witwatersrand. She writes in her personal capacity

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