Language and life in the time of darkness

Nadine Gordimer charts South Africa’s journey into the uncertain landscape beyond freedom in her new novel, No Time like the Present (Picador Africa). At its core are Jabulile and Steve: ‘She was black, he was white. That was all that mattered.
All that was identity then. Simple as the black letters on this white page. It was in those two identities that they transgressed. And got away with it, more rather than less.” To mark its publication on March 12, we publish two extracts from the novel

Extract one

They’ve never talked about it, but there’s no question there’ll be a change of communication. Nothing foreign as there so often is in a decision such as theirs. English.

Their language, except for her for whom it was once a second language, and there’s family usage of what was her first, passed on as some sort of accomplishment inheritance to Sindiswa and Gary Elias. There is indirect allusion, for him, when the talk around the coffee machine is of frustration of teaching in English while the student’s home language is one of the African nine.—I find I’m resorting to pidgin concocted by putting together with a first-year student a common concept, just differently expressed, he may have in his own tongue.—The Leftist refusing to face facts.—Couldn’t just be the student’s lack of intelligence you’re finding.—

—That’s not what Steve’s saying, it’s the chaotic failure of the schools—

—The ‘learner’ has been ‘learned’ way below the level of literacy where scientific terms and processes have to be acquired as part of whatever world language is to be used—

—Because you have to have one—

—Is English as our entry to the world a survival of colonialism? Many of us blacks see it like that—

—And French, Portuguese the same, the old masters—

—Should a country that’s got rid of them demand world entry for an indigenous language—let them understand us.—

—So which among the nine that were here before the Europeans came—

Christina van Niekerk is such a quiet woman, usually it’s not noticed if she’s there (why isn’t she in an Afrikaans university)—stands sounding her Afrikaans rounded vowels.

—Some among those whites evolved a language that mixed something of their Dutch with the words of Malay slaves they brought from countries they’d invaded in Malaysia, but without inclusion of languages of the indigenous San and Khoi, except for words that describe what the Dutch didn’t know, animals, customs, landscape of the natives. So we claim the taal, Afrikaans is an African not a European language.—

—And our English? Such a taal of cockney, Oxbridge posh, tribal Scots, Liverpudlian, mispronounced names of Huguenot origin, turns of phrase ‘you should be so lucky’—translated from Yiddish of grandfather immigrant Jews—we can’t claim it to be an African language? Just a relic of colonisation?—

Hominids have lived in South Africa for nearly two million years. Australia inhabited less than 60?000 years ago. He’s been reading that like the San and the Khoi, the indigenous Down Under had languages of communication between themselves and the reality of their environment before the English came to colonise, first with convicts exported. But there’s no question—Australians recognise as their language and lingua franca, English. Their created taal is known as Kriol: it’s not a mix of settlers’ tongues from Europe, but the indigenous people’s language with some English, the need to make themselves understood, by the masters.

—Whites don’t speak indigenous languages, even Kriol.—

Professor Rouse invited to the coffee room from Linguistic Studies (Lesego trawls people from various faculties in eagerness to bring exchange between what he calls another apartheid).

—Maybe not in Australia, but come on, you can’t say that of us—many whites, particularly males brought up on farms, they played with the farm workers’ boys, they’ve grown up isiZulu or isiXhosa or Sepedi speaking along with their parental English or Afrikaans.—

There’s another way to have your English language boy speaking an African language; this time a mother tongue since the boy’s mother is Baba’s daughter. But it isn’t appropriate to bring that up—Lesego and others who know this is their colleague’s last year among them—would be thinking, much use isiZulu will be to the boy where there are no Zulus.

Extract two

South Africa inhabited by humans for almost two million years.

Australia inhabited by humans for less than sixty thousand years.

He’s called up online. ‘Australia at the time of European settlement in the seventeenth century the Indigenous population with its highly developed traditions reflected in a deep connection with the land was estimated at least 315?000. The Indigenous population declined significantly as a result of increased mortality and by 1930 was only 20 per cent of its original size.’

Colonisers solved any future problem of liberation movement by killing off the natives, one way or another.

‘There was no population referendum until 1967, after 250 years of colonisation. The Australian constitution was then altered to allow Commonwealth Parliament to make laws to include aborigines in the national census.’

Before that they didn’t exist.

‘The 2006 census. The Indigenous percentage of the total Australian population 23 per cent. But with an average annual growth of 2 per cent compared with 1.18 per cent for the total population.’

Poor always breed like flies.

‘Just over half Australia’s Indigenous population live in or close to major cities but as a proportion of the total population Indigenous people are far more likely than non-Indigenous people to live in remote areas. Nationally, Indigenous people make up 24 per cent of Australians living in remote or very remote areas and just 1 per cent of those living in major cities. The expression ‘native title” is used in Australian law to describe communal, group or individual rights of aboriginals.

In a decision of the High Court of Australia in 1992, Eddie Mabo was the first Indigenous person to have native title rights recognised on behalf of Indigenous people. The court rejected the idea that Australia had been terra nullius—land belonging to no one—at the time of British settlement.

The Mabo decision led to the establishment of the Native Title Act which recognises and protects native title throughout Australia.’

End of Outback Bantustans.

‘The Australian government is committed to the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians. Reconciliation involves symbolic recognition of the honoured place of the first Australians and the implementation of practical and effective measures to address the legacy of profound economic and social disadvantage experienced by many Indigenous Australians, particularly in health, education, employment and housing.

Fewer Indigenous students attend and finish school than Non-Indigenous students. Today Australia has a population of 21 million. More than 43 per cent were either born overseas themselves or have one parent who was born overseas. The Indigenous population is 23 per cent of the total.’
In South Africa everything in reverse. Whites 12 per cent of the 49 million population, still dominate the economy, the black majority which overcame also produces those who join the white class and take freedom as the advance to corruption and distancing from the majority living jobless between shacks and toilet buckets.

Take the Down Under information to her; familiarising herself with law over there, unlikely she’s not aware ...

The fact that she’s never brought it, to us.

We’ve paid our Struggle dues: and the result?

What our son and daughter must grow up to be here, at home, by birth and genes, responsible to a Zuma, a Malema.

Gary Elias is practising on his newly acquired guitar and Sindi, Jabu and Wethu are watching the news on TV, Wethu doesn’t want to see again alone in her cottage the excreta of city’s life where she found herself that afternoon, the rotting food nesting flies, the shore of dirty paper, broken bottles, torn T-shirts cast by municipal workers on strike again, when she was there to buy some special headache muti demanded by a sister back home in KwaZulu.

Education:—no, mustn’t allow himself to be distracted by sections on agriculture, bird life, entertainment, Internet cafés. Education: over the past decade the Australian government has committed to halving the gap in literacy and numeracy between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians (that’s a humbling admission in identity, imaging South African whites agreeing to call themselves Non-Africans!) ...

Although it’s admitted there’s still a long way to go to increase the educational levels of the Indigenous, the progress is encouraging. Out of the country’s total population the number of Indigenous children attending school has increased to 4.2 per cent ... universities: the proportion of Indigenes attaining Bachelor or higher degrees, 5 per cent of the national intake—And at that moment, darkness—Oh fuck! from Sindiswa, a wild thrum from Gary Elias—electricity blackout.

He and Jabu share the moment. Just some piece of the vast equipment that misfunctioned.

Probably failure to be routinely checked. Or, other times, the explanation, cables stolen. Evidently you can get good money for them from metal dealers, one of the ingenuities of having no job, the culture of unemployment, as a professor coined it at a social science seminar last week.

Dark is not—like a sudden flare of light, a disruption. The fumble around for candles, the bed the place of darkness as another kind of reflection: back at the results published end of term on the boards, 23 per cent dropouts missing.

Earnest dutiful bridging classes a finger stuck in the hole of the flood wall against the failure of schools to provide ‘learners’ with education. The indigenes of this African population.

Some of the indigenous homeborn, homeskin, emigrated from poverty to the status of money and political power, the indigenous mass left behind, below, to do the work of fouling the streets in desperation for pay to survive on. A luta continua.

Where’s the cosmic gap least, if never closed, in continuation of freedom’s revolution? Sweden, Denmark, Iceland? Too far.

Too cold.

No Time like the Present will be reviewed on March 16

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