Music giant Dr Jonas Gwangwa who passed away on 23 January used his influence to promote the language of his people MaNdebele ase Nyakatho writes Lucas Ledwaba
AS young reporters on the Sunday Times back in the 90s we were assigned to interview prominent South Africans for the paper’s Christmas edition.
One of the people on my list was the legendary musician, composer and cultural activist Dr Jonas Gwangwa. To say I was intimidated by the name would be an understatement.
I dialed the landline provided to me and someone, a young woman, answered the phone. She asked me to hold on. After a few moments a man greeted me in a firm, rather intimidating voice from the opposite end of the line.
“Hello sir, is that Mr Gwangwa?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“Sir this is Lucas Ledwaba from the Sunday Times…”
“Ledwaba?” he asked.
“Likuphi?” he enquired, switching to our mother tongue SiNdebele sase Nyakatho [Northern Ndebele].
He sounded surprised that I actually spoke the language and did so with proficiency. This helped to break the ice and we spent over an hour over the phone – even though all I needed from his was a short Christmas message to South Africans.
It was clear he loved his language and was, like many MaNdebele elders, on a mission to ensure it never died.
I was left spellbound a few years later and shouted in absolute joy when I heard for the first time, a mainstream artist, none either than Gwangwa, singing in my mother tongue.
Unless like me, your mother tongue falls in that category of tongues known as minority languages, you may not understand why something like this which for many people is normal, meant so much.
My mother tongue, Northern Ndebele is spoken largely in Limpopo, parts of northern Mpumalanga, North West and northern Gauteng.
Northern Ndebele falls under the tekela group of Nguni languages. These include SiSwati, isiHlubi, isiBhaca and sePhuti. It should not be confused with isiNdebele which is spoken on Ikwekwezi FM and is among the country’s 11 official languages.
isiNdebele spoken by the renowned visual artist Dr Esther Mahlangu, together with the isiNdebele spoken in Zimbabwe, fall under the zunda language group of the Nguni, which includes isiZulu and isiXhosa.
According to the United Nations Educational and Scientific Council [Unesco], if nothing is done, half of the over 6 000 plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century.
And with the disappearance of unwritten and undocumented languages, says Unesco, humanity would lose not only an irreplaceable cultural heritage but also valuable ancestral knowledge embedded, in particular, in indigenous languages.
Through its Endangered Languages Programme, Unesco supports communities, experts and governments to help preserve indigenous languages.
Unesco has declared the decade 2022-2032 as the Decade of Indigenous Languages, which is meant to recognise the importance of indigenous languages to social cohesion and inclusion, cultural rights, health and justice and highlights their relevance to sustainable development and the preservation of biodiversity as they maintain ancient and traditional knowledge that binds humanity with nature.
There are 10 South African languages on the Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. These are all Khoi and San languages which are either highly endangered or extinct.
While programs like this one by Unesco are important, it is the people themselves who are key role players in the preservation of indigenous languages.
For instance, my late parents may not have known about Unesco or its programs. But today I’m grateful to them for the greatest heritage gift of all, that of instilling the love, knowledge, appreciation and taking pride in our mother tongue.
We must have been one of only a few families in Soshanguve township, where I grew up in the 1980s, who spoke the language daily, openly and I must add, with pride. There was this unwritten rule that in our home, this was to be the only spoken language.
Even in public spaces, football matches, supermarkets, this is the language we spoke amongst ourselves, much to the delight and surprise of those around us.
Yet we knew too well not to speak any other language at home especially in the presence of our stern father would not hesitate to call to order anyone violating this golden language code.
“Munrwana wami [my child],” he would say if he overheard you speaking another language. “Nga bani nngale [whose house is this]?”
Of course, you would sheepishly respond that this is the house of Ledwaba to which he would then demand to know why a foreign language was being spoken in this house of Ndebeles.
At school we studied Northern Sotho, because there was no school that offered the language in the entire country. We were even told there was no Northern Ndebele book in existence.
Our teachers, just like our friends and neighbours always made good fun of us and our language. But it wasn’t anything malicious. They too seemed fascinated by our language and envied the fact we actually spoke this unknown tongue.
I remember one day when a man walking past our house overheard us speaking and stopped in his tracks in total surprise and a reasonable amount of shock.
We were making sandals from cardboard boxes and the man appeared absolutely fascinated by the SiNdebele word for shoes, tikrabula. He asked us to repeat the word quite a number of times while he listened in fascination. In the end, he struggled to pronounce it and walked away.
In the streets, my friends made good fun of some of the words we used, like sidudu, which means pap. The only other time we heard other people speak SiNdebele was at family gatherings or if we visited our kin in the then northern Transvaal [Limpopo].
In those days, hearing someone speak or sing in the language on radio was just a dream. I don’t even think it is something we ever imagined possible.
So, it was with much shock and absolute disbelief when one day back in 2000 while driving in Johannesburg, I heard Jonas Gwangwa using a SiNdebele phrase in his album A Temporary Inconvenience [Epic/Sony Records 2000].
Gwangwa, whose ancestral roots are in the heartland of the MaNdebele GaMagongwa in Mashashane, Limpopo is also of Ndebele origin. He grew up in Orlando East in Soweto.
But for some reason I had not expected him to sing in SiNdebele. After all, he is an internationally decorated and respected musical genius who lived in the US and Europe for many years.
So, when I heard him remark, liNdebele la sumela mala li yafa in his song Shebeen Queen, I had to pinch myself. It felt unbelievable. Gwangwa has continued this trend in the 2001 album Sounds From Exile, where he opens the song Afrika Lefatshe la badimo, which is sang in Sepedi, with a popular SiNdebele medley.
In the 2008 album Kukude he sings an entire song, Lituba lami [My pigeon], a SiNdebele folk song, entirely in the language. It goes like this:
lituba lami li tegwe gubani?
ndilibonile lihleti esihlahleni
line makranda gamambiliiiiii…
That a man of Gwangwa’s stature finds it important to sing in his mother tongue, a minority language not known to many and not even recognised by government, underlines the importance of language and its connection to identity and self-respect.
The thought of a language becoming extinct is just too tragic and its implications go way beyond the mere loss of the spoken word. But with giants like Gwangwa showing the way, it is unlikely SiNdebele will end up on Unesco’s dreaded endangered list.
Young artists, probably taking a cue and inspiration from the genius of Gwangwa, are making and recording music and other pieces of visual arts in the language.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his tribute to Gwangwa this week: “A giant of our revolutionary cultural movement and our democratic creative industries has been called to rest; the trombone that boomed with boldness and bravery, and equally warmed our hearts with mellow melody has lost its life force.
“Jonas Gwangwa ascends to our great orchestra of musical ancestors whose creative genius and dedication to the freedom of all South Africans inspired millions in our country and mobilised the international community against the apartheid system.
“As we mourn the loss of many precious lives around us, we pray also that the soul of Jonas Gwangwa will rest in peace.”
Efforts to preserve the language continue. Scholar Dr Plaatjie Mahlobogoane has compiled a Northern Ndebele dictionary which is currently available online.
Community radio stations in parts of Limpopo are broadcasting in the language daily.
All this is a sign that a language doesn’t need to be recognised by any institution, including government for it to be spoken and preserved. It is the people themselves who are primarily responsible for ensuring that their language does not disappear.
In the streets of the bustling bushveld town of Mokopane [Mughombane] people converse openly in the language. Even one bank has written a notice in SiNdebele on its glass door. It reads, ‘tiawara te gu bhanka [banking hours].’
By continuing to speak their language the people of Mokopane have made corporate to acknowledge their tongue and communicate to them in it.
Perhaps the best lesson on the importance of one’s mother tongue is carried in a statement made by renowned African scholar and author Ngugi wa Thiong’o during his lecture titled Secure the Base, Decolonise the Mind at Wits University.
He said: “If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowerment.”
Thobala ge nkhudjo Murungwa! – Mukurukuru Media
Further reading on Jonas Gwangwa: