Sepedi sparked the flame, the centre of my political consciousness

When I started school at St Camillus Primary in Hammanskraal in January 1976, I was taught to recite the ABC and the 1-2-3 in three languages. (Felix Seuffert)

When I started school at St Camillus Primary in Hammanskraal in January 1976, I was taught to recite the ABC and the 1-2-3 in three languages. (Felix Seuffert)

When I started school at St Camillus Primary in Hammanskraal in January 1976, I was taught to recite the ABC and the 1-2-3 in three languages – Sepedi, English and Afrikaans.

However, Sepedi remained close to my heart because when I grew up in my township there was no television, and evenings were spent listening to my mother's folktales, Pedi spiritual songs, legends and riddles of the proud Bapedi tribe.

I would sit around the fire with my siblings and enjoy these tales, transmitted over centuries from one generation to another through oral history.

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These were stories of warriors like King Sekhukhune, King Mampuru, King Mokopane, and how they fiercely resisted colonialism. I also enjoyed the parables about the lion and the mouse, and the rabbit and the elephant.

If I was not listening to my mother's stories I would huddle, together with others, around a transistor radio to listen to some quirky drama on SABC's Radio Bantu.

These stories created a strong bond between me and my mother tongue, which became the centre of my childhood development and cultural and political consciousness.

I was enthralled by its metaphors and idioms, and its close relationship with other dialects like Lobedu, Setlokwa and Sepulane.

Unfortunately, my affection for Sepedi has been limited to the spoken language at home and when I visit my relatives in Limpopo.

I feel a sense of betrayal and guilt because even at work I exclusively use English, a foreign language, to write and communicate.

I also communicate with my three children in English, making me feel like those colonised natives of Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, who are wont to say: "I speak as Senegalese and as a Frenchman," or, "I speak as an Algerian and as a Frenchman."

To parrot somebody else's language is a repudiation of one's identity, heritage and roots, for what good is a language if it cannot be used to trade in economics or publish books and newspapers?

The great writers of all time wrote in their mother tongues. The Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes in his native Spanish, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in Russian and William Shakespeare wrote in English.

While we have 11 official languages in South Africa, our indigenous languages do not enjoy the same footing or importance as English and Afrikaans.

Until the day our native languages are properly empowered, as Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o – who now writes in Gikuyu – has said, we are merely pursuing a dead end.

Charles Molele

Charles Molele

Charles Molele is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. Charles joined the paper in 2011. He has covered general news, court and politics for the past 19 years, and also worked as a senior reporter for the Saturday Star, Sunday World, ThisDay, Sunday Times and is former politics editor of the New Age. Charles's other career highlights include covering Kenya's violent general elections (2007/08), Zimbabwe’s sham general elections (2008), Mozambique's food riots (2010) and the historic re-election of US President Barack Obama (2012). Read more from Charles Molele

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