What do hip-hop artists from the Cape Flats, drag kings and tattooists from Observatory and grade R children and their parents from Manenberg have in common with protesters marching on Rondebosch Common, creative writing students and graffiti artists?
All are exercising their linguistic citizenship. They use language to interact, share space and establish their sense of belonging and their power to initiate.
In hip-hop battles and drag king performances, people position themselves and are positioned by others through language as people with particular racial and gendered identities.
Recently in a multilingual rap battle, race surfaced saliently between a white rapper (rapping in English) and a coloured one rapping in Kaaps. The coloured rapper set out to “dethrone” what he perceives to be racial privilege and elaborates on the historical entanglements between coloured and white bodies:
Nai, ek sien hy’s Navy Blue/ But hy’s soe wit soes Diamond White/ Sy bestaan is te danke aan die tuinboy/ Want sy ma was te jags vir Marmite/ Ek was die whitey met Sunlight/ En dai’s orraait. (So, I see he’s Navy Blue/ But he’s as white as Diamond White/ He exists thanks to the gardener/ Because his mother had the hots for Marmite/ I was the whitey with Sunlight/ And that’s alright.)
In protest marches on Rondebosch Common and in creative and aesthetic activities, (South) Africans use language to express their personal histories of change and conflict, their understanding of a transforming continent.
The protests share with hip-hop performances the use of multilingual slogans and lyrics. Inscriptions on protest placards become part of the urban linguistic landscape where graffiti artists are already actively crafting new emotional geographies of place, expressing belonging or resistance.
The reframing of the chauvinist lyrics of a drag king on stage in Observatory is like the renaming of streets with the names of struggle heroes – it makes the audience think and reshapes their sense of space.
A crucial feature of linguistic citizenship is language crossing. Graffiti artists and hip-hop performers use a variety of official and unofficial languages, and literacies engaging with friends from diverse social, political and intellectual spaces.
Here the artist is using a mixture of isiXhosa and English to talk philosophy:
Highly spirit of ubuntu nge consciousness ne righteousness/ Afrika was for Africans I don’t know now in our days/ Nd’bhala lom-bongo, nd’phalaz’intlungu yam k’lom-boko.
(…/ I’m writing this poem, vomiting out my pain through this poem).
Equally, grade R children in Manenberg have to cross various language barriers daily. In their classrooms, notions such as mother tongue, first and second language no longer adequately capture the more fluid nature of new emerging multilingual ecologies.
Their teachers have learned to allow pupils to use their many local and migrant languages in peer-to-peer teaching. Pupils who are not proficient in the language of instruction are placed next to one who speaks more than one language to engage on the content.
Teachers admit that, when they let go and relax their control over the linguistic space, they also learn to cope with their own sense of vulnerability in engaging with other languages.
Living in South Africa today means living with a heightened sense of uncertainty – a kind of expectation that events are likely to evolve in unpredictable ways. To cope with this, we have to cultivate sensitivity to the shifting and competing linguistic manifestations of racialisation. We have to develop an ear and an eye for the ways in which belonging or dislocation of place manifests in the languages around us.
We are witnessing two important linguistic indicators of much deeper problems: the unhappiness in South Africa with the pace of transformation and the deployment of military force to the streets of townships to quell the so-called xenophobic and Afrophobic violence.
These issues are not unrelated. Although the government could be justly criticised for surliness in addressing gross socioeconomic disparities, part of the problem has been the lack of conceptual tools with which to understand, talk about, appreciate and engage with our rich resources of human diversity.
Living in South Africa means one has to find a voice that is audible in public and political spheres as well as being heard in the intimate spaces of family and community. This voice has to mediate everyday encounters with increasingly diverse neighbours in ways that enable one to remain the driving agent in one’s life, participating in a democracy within a socially transforming space – in other words, to take ownership of one’s linguistic citizenship.
Multilingualism is often seen as the solution to accommodating and nurturing a diversity of voices. The Constitution, for example, is unique in granting official status to the languages of historically marginalised speakers. This recognises the diversity of speakers and a commitment to developing their languages, which is an essential part of social transformation.
But, after 21 years of democracy, we clearly need more than that. We have to ask ourselves: Why are the voices of the least privileged or those on the periphery not heard; or, if heard, not heeded?
Research done at the University of the Western Cape shows that one of the many and complex reasons is that the dialects, styles and registers are not properly recognised. Linguistic diversity is not looked at in terms of daily voice and agency.
This is not surprising given that language has historically served as a key technology of colonial structures to tame and discipline diversity. What we today take to be language is nothing less than a highly engineered and sophisticated instrument that evolved out of colonial subjugation. By homogenising diverse ways of using languages, untidy populations were packaged and ordered into neat and manageable taxonomies (language X and Y) and countable categories (speakers of language Y and Z).
Language has always been a tool with which to sort and layer individuals into identities and hierarchies – to smooth out other, more fluid, forms of difference and entanglement. Only seldom has it served as an instrument to dissolve or unsettle such divisions. The damage these taxonomies cause remains with us in the way that many African languages are divided into separate languages although they are mutually intelligible and ought to be seen as varieties or dialects.
Research into the suggested messiness of multilingualism has come up with several revelations.
A study found that youth in Khayelitsha rap by creatively blending a mosaic of linguistic fragments into new genres of sound and rhythm, thereby engaging in unique expressions of agency. In their song Anti-Xenophobia Driemanskap rap:
At home, um-Somalia is black/ Xenophobia is wack/ iNigeria yhi plek yama-Afrika Respect! [Chorus] Liphalel’igazi/ Yhile xenophobia … Ulahlekelw’umfazi/ Yhile xenophobia … Sikhathel’emzantsi/ Yhile xenophobia … Ma-Afrik’ay’phele le xenophobia … eMalaw’eZambia/ eGhan’eTopia … eZimbabw’eGambia/ All over Afrika. (At home, a Somalian is black/ Xenophobia is wack/ Nigeria is a place of Africans Respect! [Chorus]Blood (life) is scattered/ Because of this xenophobia … He lost his wife/Because of this xenophobia … We are tired in South Africa/ Because of this xenophobia … Africans let this xenophobia end … in Malawi in Zambia/ in Ghana in Ethopia … in Zimbabwe in Gambia/ All over Africa …)
Ultimately, if language in the sense of voice is the essence of our humanity, then multilingualism is the essence of who we are, or who we can become, by engaging with the diverse voices of “others”. An understanding of multilingualism suggests how we might imagine a politics of language that bridges divides, repairs inequalities and redistributes power.
Professor Christopher Stroud is the acting director of the new Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research at the University of the Western Cape