The Khoekhoe and Ncuuki (or n | uu) languages with which they have seen more sunrises and sunsets than most South African languages.
Khoekhoe can be heard across South Africa in three everyday words, dagga (“cannabis”), nai (“pan flute”) and kak (slang for “feces” or “garbage”). The influence of place names, such as karoo (“dry place”), is also a reminder of the history of the language in the country.
The history of lhoekhoe, once spoken by many groups of khoekhoe for thousands of years, is now only spoken by a few in the northern cape. The only surviving speakers of Ncuuki are elderly, putting the language on the brink of extinction.
South Africa has eleven official languages: nine are Bantu languages and two – Afrikaans and English – are foreign languages.
The Bantu languages are a sub-branch of the Niger-Congo languages. Khoekhoe is a non-Bantu language that is spoken almost exclusively in Namibia.
Khoekhoe is not an official language in South Africa. It is neither recognized as a first language nor as a mother tongue, nor is it taught in South African schools, making it even more difficult to reverse the trend of language loss.
This invisibility in the South African national narrative can also be seen in the absence of the language on the internet. From my personal experience, I have seen the arduous battle to exercise the citizen's right to free expression in their native languages online and offline, but a battle in which I have not yet given up.
Amnesia from the first national languages of South Africa
Kakapusa (“delete”, “amnesia” or “forgetting”) is one of the words that I use the most and that really encapsulates the kuru (“work”) that I do as a defender of the officialization of the khoekhoe and the n | uu, two of the first languages of southern Africa.
I'm not going to hoaragase (“Complete”) until I take full possession of my legacy. Sadly, despite being khoekhoe, I am forced to think and speak the language of the tsu-khoen (“oppressors”) who dehumanized my people.
Africa is my home, but I cannot communicate with my ancestors. How can I know vkhîb (“peace”) when foreign words resonate in my soul? The vuru (“healing”) of my being will only begin with the kawakawas (“restoration”) of my nam (“mother tongue”).
Kakapusa defines the post-apartheid era of South Africa. A postcolonial narrative based on the deliberate, institutionalized and normalized suppression of its first peoples in this country.
The injustice of the legacy of colonial rule and apartheid in South Africans is excruciating and terrible. However, the impact on the first peoples of South Africa is more brutal as it resulted in the systematic loss of the first languages.
Unfortunately, the injustice continues to this day, in post-apartheid South Africa, where the main actors – governmental and non-governmental – dedicate themselves by mouth to the restoration and preservation of first languages such as khoekhoe and nccuki.
In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa of the Republic of South Africa made kaise isa (“beautiful promises”) to Auma Katriena Esau, one of the last remaining Ncuuki speakers, that he would do everything possible so that no language would die. However, very little progress has been made since that announcement. The trap between the intention and the performance of state actors when it comes to linguistic issues persists, says linguist Anne-Marie Beukes.
And yet, we, the owners of what is undoubtedly one of Africa's greatest linguistic treasures, have subjected us to linguistic imperialism, ostracism, and the dehumanization of our mother tongue. We have been looked down upon, disconnected from the Republic of South Africa and the African continent.
It has been a battle against perpetual exclusion, to demand visibility in a space, in a country comforted by the silence of our voices.
My goha khais platform (‘language revolt’)
Breda, a Khoe languages and cultural Kuwiri (activist), is from South Africa. pic.twitter.com/9UTpKJrBR3
– GV SSAfrica (@gvssafrica) April 19, 2020
French: “Identity Matrix” project: debates on identity and digital rights in Africa.
From Burkina Faso, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, several activists will lead conversations at the intersection of languages and digital rights in Africa.
From April 20 to 24, Denver Toroxa Breda will tweet on #IdentityMatrix – a social media conversation about identity, language and digital rights – from this account.
Breda, kuwiri (activist) of khoe language and culture, is from South Africa.
Some may not consider using their own language on the internet as a digital right. However, it is increasingly recognized as a fundamental right in many circles.
The African Declaration on Rights and Freedoms on the internet states:
Individuals and communities have the right to use their own language or any language of their choice to create, share and disseminate information and knowledge through the Internet. Linguistic and cultural diversity enriches the development of society. Africa’s linguistic and cultural diversity, including the presence of all African and minority languages, should be protected, respected and promoted on the Internet.
People and communities have the right to use their own language or any language of their choice to create, share and disseminate information and knowledge through the internet. Linguistic and cultural diversity enriches the development of society. The linguistic and cultural diversity of Africa, including the presence of all African and minority languages, must be protected, respected and promoted on the internet.
I have been an active voice on social media to ask public and private institutions to take this important issue seriously both online and offline.
From my Twitter account (@ToroxaD), I have been able to critically challenge these institutions that I feel guilty of perpetuating such exclusion. It is often easy and convenient to ignore me, one of the few voices opposing this injustice and linguistic and cultural inequality.
Universities also perpetuate exclusion: in the past 26 years, they have done little or nothing to u-khai (“uplift”) the first languages in South Africa. I challenged companies like the Macmillan publishing house, which have copyrighted materials in their mother tongues but seemed very reluctant to democratize our content, which does not make it freely available to users in order to encourage language learning.
However, I also knew that by mid-April the opportunity arose to collaborate with institutions that would otherwise ignore me. I was as willing to exploit this opportunity as they were to erase us.
The South African Book Promotion Association organizes National Book Week, an annual activity promoting languages and book development. For almost a year, I have followed them on Twitter and emailed them, all without success. I also noticed that Book Week was featuring online reading sessions in Abantu, Sign Language, and English, but not a single First Nation language like Khoekhoe.
But when I tweeted from my platform gobab khais (“language revolt”), I made sure to tell them how I felt. Finally they replied:
We are also currently busy developing a Children's Literature Project that will include at least one of the languages. We are only in the 4th week of Online Storytelling and have expanded the languages included with each week and will continue to do so. (2/3)
– NationalBookWeek (@NBW_SA) April 23, 2020
Dear Sub-Saharan Africa team at Global Voices, what you see on our digital platforms does not cover all the work we do. National Book Week has had entire programs dedicated to Khoekhoe languages.
We are also currently busy with a children's literature project that will include at least one of the languages. We are just in the fourth week of storytelling online and have expanded the included languages with each week, and will continue to include.
Obviously, I was surprised because, for the past two years, they behaved like a rock and resisted any attempt to move khoekhoe. And here they were, responding and talking about a khoekhoe show they were running, a future children's project, and the possibility of including khoekhoe in future digital storytelling sessions, which was what he really wanted. An email was sent to them and I am hopeful.
Another example was when I contacted a developer to include the first khoekhoe app in the Google app store:
I remember searching on the Google app store seeing all these Language apps and seeing NO KHOEKHOE language apps. I emailed a few of the developers and Shotgun experiments responded and created the FIRST KHOEKHOE language apps ever. pic.twitter.com/7OUsDhwH3T
– GV SSAfrica (@gvssafrica) April 24, 2020
I remember looking at the Google app store and seeing all these language apps and seeing apps in languages other than KHOEKHOE. I emailed a few Shotgun developers and experiments responded and created the FIRST KHOEKHOE apps ever.
Indeed, towards the middle of April I had the opportunity to reflect. It was also a reminder of the importance of gobab udawa's work (“language recovery”) in a digital space.
I remember talking to my community about my tweets, and some really appreciated that our voice was amplified internationally. It is quite a challenge for a first nation like the Khoekhoe community with 366 years of intellectual, cultural and linguistic colonization to realize that qnora (“liberating”) our languages is valid work.
Sometimes it is easy to see this work only from within the community. In mid-April I saw this work through an exclusively African lens. This helped me recognize that khoekhoe is not just for the khoekhoe community.
This language gave the world the word mama (ma in Khoekhoe means “to give”) and the word haka (a dance). Therefore, the udawa (“recovery”) of khoekhoe is equally important to our continent – it is a language rich with those historical and narrative origins of Africa that must never be allowed to fade into extinction.
Africa voaga (“elevate”) when their tongues rise and much more when their xgusi gobab (“mother tongue”) rise.