December 13, 2018


Dr Hleze Kunju


theweekly.coThere have been growing calls in South Africa to decolonise higher education and promote indigenous languages in schools and in the workplace. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni  recently spoke to Sol Plaatje University education lecturer Dr Hleze Kunju who recently made headlines after he became the first Rhodes University doctoral candidate to write his entire PhD thesis in vernacular.

Kunju, who gave a public lecture titled “The Decolonisation of the Higher Education Curriculum” on Africa Day at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein says he is not averse to the use of other languages but would like to see local languages being promoted so they get wider use.

Makoni asked Kunju how local languages can best be promoted and who should be leading that initiative.

Why did you find it necessary to write your thesis in isiXhosa having done most of your studies in English and how challenging was it to do so?
Essentially, I would say my first reason is that I did it for the love of the language, the love of my culture, the love for my country and of course the influence by my experience having grown up in rural areas.

My second reason is I did so because we need to tell our own stories in our own languages and allow our own people to tell the stories. It’s different when someone else comes and tells the story about you.

Those are two different things. And the third reason is that I was writing about the Xhosa people of Zimbabwe who have nothing written about their history especially in isiXhosa. These are people who left the Eastern Cape in the early 1900s for Zimbabwe.

Everyone forgot about them and there’s absolutely nothing written about them in any particular detail. They have been trying to look for things written about them and they couldn’t.

And now imaging me coming in to take everything I wanted to take and I run away, write it in English because in my head I am thinking there will be some academic or professor somewhere in the world who may want to have access to this information.

In other words, I was going to write it for someone out there in the world that I didn’t know yet there is a large group of more than 200 000 people who need this information in their own language. So, I thought it would be very selfish of me to come and write this in English and they don’t have access at all to it.

And how accessible is that research to the Xhosa people in Zimbabwe, now that you wrote it in their language?
I took it to the chief, I took it to the archives in Zimbabwe, where they can just walk in and get it and read about it in their own language.

For me, that’s really important. I have noticed that there are so many ethnographers and anthropologists who just come and take things and we never hear about them and we never know what they were writing about or what it was for.

I think it’s for their personal gains, because they do the researches to be promoted to be professors and so forth. It’s not about the people on whom the study based.

What would you say were some of the major challenges that you faced in this exercise?
It wasn’t easy but it was definitely worth it. To begin with, there is not enough African literature that one can use when writing academic work. It’s only English that’s out there. I was doing an ethnography, so I had to get ethnographic theories and so on.

I needed to read them, understand them, see that they fit, create an argument and translate it into isiXhosa. It was like writing two PhDs, but it was really worth it at the end. The next challenge is that there is a bit of of a contrast between English and isiXhosa esepecially when it comes to people’s titles and so on.

If we have a chief, say Chief Mathanzima or King Zwelonke… those are very important titles and you can not just leave those titles and write the surname. But in academic writing, you simply say, according to Kunju… it doesn’t matter who the person is.

And when I was working on my thesis, I was talking to really prominent people and I also wanted them to see their leaders being addressed appropriately. I had to have some discussions with my supervisors on that and we eventually came to a compromise that said, when I introduced a person, I introduce the full title and thereafter, leave the other parts of the name.

I agreed, but now when I look back, I regret it. I shouldn’t have done it.

Whilst your efforts to promote local languages may be appreciated, the recent decision by the justice department that English is now the official language of record in all courts has been viewed as retrogressive by some people, what’s your view on that?
Personally, I am not a fan of resistance. You must not just resist other things just for the sake of it.

We must, instead, think of ways of elevating our own ideas. So, if English is doing well, then that’s good. Let’s aim to get there as well as African people.

I think that’s how we will win. If we resist, we won’t really do away with that. So, whatever is said about English, let’s make sure that isiXhosa gets the respect it deserves and be at the same level with other languages. We want equality.

Africa as a continent has been struggling to promote indigenous languages. It’s not just a problem faced by South Africa alone, what do you think is lacking on the part of the people in general as well as the authorities, what should be done?
Now, you want to take me into politics, but I will not get involved in politics here.

I have mentioned before, if you look into our African societies, what’s the main thing happening there? It’s poverty. Like I said earlier, what do you do with the little bit of money you get? What comes first to your mind, between a book and food?
It’s obviously going to be food. That’s the reason, to me, why our African languages have not really developed. So, I think if our (African) governments really focused on the people and… support languages by all means, such as books, theatre and music I think we can really move forward.

But you have countries that are extremely poor in Asia, for example, and other parts of the world which religiously use their languages, China is one such country although it has only emerged now as a fast growing economy. How much does poverty really have to do with us failing to use our own languages on this continent?
South Africa attained independence not very long ago, and democracy, more recently. And before, you needed to speak English as well as Afrikaans in order to get a job… even just to be a gardener and so forth. So, our parents grew up knowing that to get a job, whether as a gardener or whatever, white people were in power, so you needed to know their language.

I would say that’s what happened with us. I can only talk about South Africa, I can’t talk about China and other countries. But even after attaining freedom, our minds were still very much colonised as well. We cannot, however, forget about about our situation in this country.

There is still no equality within the economy. The (former) colonisers still have an upper hand when it comes to the economy. So, that’s the reason. But for me, this is the time to work.

With all that’s happening around, the protests on transformation and everything, I think our government needs to respond now. It they don’t respond now, I think it’s going to be too late to do something later on.

You have been speaking to different authorities in the country, including ministers, discussing various cultural issues, what are they saying to you, do you find yourself getting support, besides people praising you for having done something unique, do you think you are getting any support to continue on this path?
Honestly, I haven’t been looking for support or anything. But rather, I have been focusing on the support for African languages as a whole. I wouldn’t really be able to answer that one because I don’t know how they have been looking at this whole issue promoting local languages.

It’s however, their mandate to do so. We need partnerships. I might do something in my little corner in Kimberly at Sol Plaatje there, but I think we need to come together. We are so into the culture of looking at things at a distance.

When the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) said they were doing isiZulu now and everyone who comes there needs to learn isiZulu, it was viewed as a UKZN thing. It was not a South African thing. The spotlight was there. But I think when things happen, we should put he spotlight on us as a country and as African people.

What would you say have been some of the shortcomings of such an attitude and what should be done?
By putting the spotlight on one place, it’s only going to be there for just a few days, and then after that… no one knows what’s happening and people get discouraged to do things.

It happens with newspapers in local languages, we are ready to check, whether the language is right or not and the criticism is usually too harsh and therefore discouraging to those trying to make a change.

So, I think we need to start with whatever we have and polish it until it becomes what we want. Also, we not praise individuals, just like you spoke about the Chinese, let’s talk about Africans. Let’s talk about the promotion of African languages not isiXhosa PhDs and isiZulu what, what. So, let’s look at Africans, not individuals.

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