Suren Pillay's recent contribution to the debate on the humanities and social sciences is important because it places the task of "decolonisation" at the centre of transforming these disciplines ("Decolonising the humanities", Getting Ahead, April 5).
"We … need scholars who can tell us about the organisation of political authority in the Funj dynasty in Sudan or the Sekoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria, or the Rajput relations with the East India Company in India," Pillay argued — rightly, in my view, because in reality little is known about pre-colonial societies and their social organisation.
But I want to add that, if the decolonising project does not put the language question at its centre, it is bound to reproduce inequalities in academia, intellectual spaces and, by extension, in post-colonial societies in general.
In fact, if scholars are serious about "humanising" the humanities and social sciences, they have to return to the source, namely the masses and their grassroots intellectuals. To borrow from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci's terms, organic intellectuals of the subaltern classes must play a critical role in organising and framing knowledge of struggles, including struggles against colonisation.
As Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian educationist, put it, an interaction of scholars and the people will also have to be "dialogical". We know that the subaltern classes — or, simply, the people — do not always hold progressive views. The recent attacks on black migrants in South Africa show that a dialogue between progressive scholars and the masses is a necessity.
Colonial dispossession had three related dimensions, namely land, economic resources and language, that were embedded in the whole cultural matrix. It should follow that people of the South and their organic intellectuals, especially women, cannot be mere spectators in an intellectual task of decolonisation: they are the victims of colonialism and so should be essential agents for decolonisation. Any decolonising project task must also respond to concrete conditions on the ground. The 2011 South African census results showed that English is not the first language for more than 90% of the South African population — yet English retains its hegemony in academic and public discourses.
Perhaps we need to return to one of the original sources in the struggle of decolonisation, Ngugi wa Thiong'o. In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi described the colonial language as one of the artilleries colonialism used to disarm the colonised.
"How did we arrive at this acceptance of 'the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature,' in our culture and in our politics?," he asked.
Part of colonisation in the South African context meant that English, a colonial language, became the language of power and domination. In general, African languages became symbols of powerlessness spoken by the majority of subjugated people.
In his recent lecture in honour of the late Dr Abu Asvat, literary scholar Mbulelo Mzamane said that, in 1976, during the struggle against "Bantu Education" and the imposition of Afrikaans, black students demanded that English be a medium of instruction. Students were not demanding that they be taught in African languages; they preferred English, a language of the colonial master.
This suggests that the task of decolonisation must compel progressive scholars to be introspective when they challenge colonialism in their practice, their academic discourses and their broader intellectual spaces.
Mzamane observed that any form of renaissance has to be linked to the language question. In other words, scholars of decolonisation must confront the demons of English hegemony head on by thinking out of the colonial box, so deepening the process of "decolonising their minds".
Consider Ngugi's example: after writing three successful novels in English, he realised that the decolonising task is inextricably linked to the masses and the language they speak. Since the late 1970s Ngugi has written mainly in Gikuyu and Swahili, and from 2002 to 2009 he headed the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California.
Obviously, individual scholars have to discover their own roads to decolonisation, but language, power, gender and the subaltern classes comprise the terrain they all have to navigate. They also have to accept that there are many centres of know-
ledge production and forms of knowledge presentation. A rigorously written narrative crafted by women in the Tshivenda language has its own epistemic value, for instance.
Ivory towers such as universities deliberately alienate and exclude the masses — the producers of wealth and value who, through their labour, fund them. In South Africa, English itself is one of the powerful tools of exclusion. Organic intellectuals who belong to mass organisations are also unable to take part in academic and public discourses because of their inability to write and speak good English.
At the same time, we should heed Ngugi's caution when he argues that "writing in our languages per se … will not itself bring about the renaissance in African cultures if that literature does not carry the content of our people's anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control".
Imagine a book on Marikana written in an African language by a miner who took part in the strike and witnessed the massacre. Imagine a thick book written in Sesotho or isiXhosa by the widows of the workers who died during the massacre. Translating these books into other African languages and English would certainly add value to the proposed decolonising of the humanities and social science.
When isiXhosa-speaking grassroots intellectuals are able to read books written by isiZulu-speaking activists, for example, we will be closer to the dialogue among languages and their "harmonisation" that the late revolutionary scholar Neville Alexander envisaged.
The point is not to eliminate English but to uplift other languages so that they can also be part of the humanities and both the social and natural sciences. Four University of Limpopo students reflected in these pages last year on the innovative bachelor's degree in contemporary English and multilingual studies the university has offered since 2003.
"Learning in one's mother tongue promotes a deep conceptual understanding of a subject," they wrote. But "both one's own language and the language of global communication have to be promoted to implement bi- or multilingualism effectively". This does not send English to the guillotine. On the contrary: "There is a place for all at the Rendezvous of Victory," as Aimé Césaire said.
Mondli Hlatshwayo is a researcher in the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg