Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela and African languages

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. (Nelson Mandela)

As South Africa, and indeed the world, mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela, a remarkable leader who the New York Times called the "Peaceful Liberator of a Torn South Africa," here is a quick look at his legacy as concerns languages in Africa. Actually a very quick look, as I don't personally know much on the topic  and find relatively little on line, other than the well-known quote above and some details below (so hopefully more information can be filled in via comments or a future post).

Mandela's first language was Xhosa, an Nguni language very close to Zulu, which he apparently also spoke. He learned English in school, and it was in school where his biography says he met his first non-Xhosa friend, a Sesotho speaker. Later he learned Afrikaans while a prisoner on Robben Island. It seems Mandela was as much a product of a multilingual society as he was of a multiracial and multiethnic one..

The process* leading to the inclusion in the new constitution of all 11 of South Africa's main languages as "official" happened during the country's transition to majority rule. While I don't find any discussion of Mandela's direct involvement in that process, a fellow former prisoner at Robben Island who he knew well - Neville Alexander - was prominent in it. I'm not sure how South Africans would see it, but from afar, it seems that the officially multilingual policy of the country is part of Mandela's legacy.

Other thoughts...

A couple of other thoughts not related specifically to language upon reflecting about aspects of Nelson Mandela's legacy. First, the NY Times obit (referenced above) has this passage and quote in the context of discussing leadership style:
In his autobiography, Mr. Mandela recalled eavesdropping on the endless consensus-seeking deliberations of the tribal council and noticing that the chief worked "like a shepherd."
"He stays behind the flock," he continued, "letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."
Reading the analogy, I am reminded on a literal level about a dismissive comment about Fulani pastoralists I heard from some American development experts while in Mali in the 1980s - to the effect that the herders spent their lives looking at the rear ends of cattle. There are a lot of problems with a statement like that of course (misunderstanding of pastoralism and herd behavior, attitudes regarding development,etc.), but taking it all back to the level of analogy and leadership, it has me thinking about how outsiders (primarily Westerners) conceive of or misunderstand community leadership and decision-making processes, not only in Africa but also in Asia.

Second, I came across an article about how in April 1994, the then new South African president Mandela surprised the outgoing president DeKlerk's official staff when he arrived and they did not know what to expect. The article continues, "he drifted to one end of the room and started shaking hands with every single person present. ... Many a staffer who never had the opportunity to speak to a president was dumbfounded by the personal attention they received from the living legend." Yet this seems, from my limited experience elsewhere on the continent to be considered good form when joining a meeting** - although not expected of a high status person. But as the article implies, this was an example of Mandela's style of leadership.

One wonders if, in the brief conversations Mandela had with the staffers that day, there were any exchanges in the diverse languages of the country...

* The following paper has a lot of this history: Beukes, Anne-Marie, "Language policy implementation in South Africa: How Kempton Park's great expectations are dashed in Tshwane," Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics, Vol. 38, 2008, pp. 1-26.
** It's a habit I personally got comfortable with after several years in West Africa. I remember in one gathering I joined shortly after returning to the US, realizing folks were dumbfounded as to why I, a living stranger, was shaking each person's hand.

1 comment:

Don said...

Tracy G. Beckett of Penn State University Africana Research Center suggested the PBS Frontline interview with Dr. Alexander (1999 I believe) as a source for information on his relationship with Nelson Mandela.