The Strength of a Culture is the Strength of its Language


Bradley van Sitters with Nama teacher, Pedro Dausab

Growing up on the Cape Flats of South Africa, I was, misguidedly, stereotyped a “amalawu”; a Xhosa term depicting people with no culture and no language of their own, the bastard children of Jan van Riebeeck, the pirate… so-called “Coloureds”. In 2009 during a Khoikhoi ceremony in Cape Town, Cochoqua Chief Basil Coetzee commented, “Even a Rottweiler has a name, have you ever heard of a so-called “Rottweiler”…Why are you that was created by the spoken Word of God, a so-called “Coloured”? If a dog has an identity; why not us? Japanese is proudly Japanese because they come from Japan and speak Japanese; a “Coloured” can only be a proud “Coloured” only if they come from “Colour” and speak “Coloured”. Today, after many years of oppression under an enforced slave label “Coloured”, I can finally rid myself of it and free my mental enslavement by saying; I am a proud Khoikhoi… (Man par excellence)”. While growing up during years of Apartheid, general notions expressed views that Xhosa young boys went to the bush for initiation rites to adulthood (a practice still maintained), while the Whites went to the Army but the “Coloureds” went and still to this day, flock to prisons for manhood. Recent statistics indicates for every 1 100 inmates in South African prisons, 647 are “Coloureds”; 40-50 are Whites and Indians, while the remaining 403-413 are Nguni.

I remember, ever so clearly, during my childhood, my mother returning home tired and somewhat bothered one day after work, sharing a story of how a white-Afrikaner scoffed at her calling her a “Hotnot” in a demeaning manner. An identity that was transmitted to me in the process of my mother’s story-telling, for I thought if she was called by that name, then the same applies for me. On account of the Khoikhoi tribes interesting language depicting click-sounds, “vowel-nasaling”, “tonation” and harsh faucal sounds, the Dutch settlers called them Hottentots, referring to a stutterer. Not knowing what to make of such an unheard-of-language the old Dutchmen viewed it as more akin to the chat of a parrot than to human speech calling it Hottentot, a mere gibberish. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in 1649 remarked, “When they speak they fart with their tongues in their mouths…” Augustin de Beaulieu observed in 1620, “… Their usual greeting on meeting us is to dance a song, of which the beginning, the middle, and the end are ‘hautitou’.”

In everyday speech today in the Cape, one often hears, “moenie jou Oorlams hou nie” (loosely translated into, don’t be a Mr. Smarty-pants). Historically the term “Oorlams” was adopted to refer to the dispossessed and enslaved, but very resourceful, descendants of the Southern Cape Khoikhoi tribes who once lived in and around Cape Town. Interestingly, “Oorlamsche Hottentotten” can be traced back to the Malay words “orang lama” meaning “experienced people” who had contact with Europeans. Then again on school, the most rowdy children were often labeled as “Gam se kinders” (“children of Ham”), portraying the lowest and most degenerate stratum amongst the Cape Flats communities. “You can take the man out of the bush, but you can never take the bush out of the man”, is often used to describe them, meanwhile the Khoekhoegowab (Khoikhoi-language) word “xam” similar in pronunciation as the Afrikaans word “gam”, actually means lion!

In time, needless to say, all this name-calling and confused identities left lasting inferiority complexes and impressions on the psyche of the honey-skinned people of South Africa, deeply connected to notions of inadequacy to function as a valued and respected citizen. Having no apparent traditional rooting, no process where age-old civilizing morals and values were transmitted from generation to another, leaves people prone to immoral behavior having no binding cultural anchoring.

Traditions were not accumulated by early European travelers, migrations out of the South Western Cape led to the later disappearance during the rapid decline of independent Khoikhoi societies in the region. Under Apartheid, people in the western part of South Africa, were forced to adopt Afrikaans as their primary language as the use of Khoikhoi and San languages were suppressed. Even long before apartheid, indigenous (aboriginal) identities and languages were daunted and their assimilation resulted in the loss of most indigenous peoples’ languages. The majority of indigenous groups adopted Afrikaans as the language of communication, apart from a few indigenous peoples situated in very rural and remote places. Khoikhoi, who were living in coastal areas of the southwest in the seventeenth century, have mostly been assimilated into other cultures, and many so-called “Coloureds” can trace their ancestry through Khoikhoi. Even as much as 90% of the slaves brough to the Cape, were men and took local indigenous women as wives. By taking up an enforced identity, Indigenous people under the classification of “Coloured”, one could argue, were masking memories of pain…

History teaches us that in 1613, Coree, a local Khoikhoi in Cape Town was kidnapped and taken to England for a year to learn English for bartering purposes. Autshumato, who was known to the Europeans as Hadah, Adda, or Haddot and after 1652, as Harry, was similarly taken around 1631-32 to the Javanese port of Bantamand and taught the essentials of the English language. Krotoa, who was the first Christian baptized Khoikhoi and Doman (Nommoa), during the time of Van Riebeeck were further instances of Khoikhoi who adopted European languages to facilitate translation and trading. This furthermore, indicates how the European tongue over time firmly settled into local ways of communication. After almost 400 years of language shift, the pendulum now again is swinging the other way instigating processes linked to Language Revitalization.

Look, one has to accept the fact that there are still people clinging to the shackles of “Coloured”-identity, but again one has to bring into consideration the view highlighted by Marcus Garvey; “People without knowledge of their past, history and culture, is like a tree without roots.” And surely as the seasons of time went its course, I started to hear the calling of the voices in the winds of time… calling me to seek further, to peer deeper…

On 2 November 2008, I stood along the ancestral graves of the /Khowese Nama people in Gibeon, Namibia, along the banks of the Great Fish River in Greater Namaqualand, north of the !Garib (Orange-)river. The /Khowese Heroes Day Festival is a commemoration held on the day King Hendrik Witbooi (3rd King of the /Khowese) died in battle against the German authorities who occupied Namibia from the late 1800s. Oral traditions, amongst these Nama people of Greater Namaqualand, suggest that they once lived in and around the Cape 17-18 generations ago; still calling Cape Town by its ancestral name //Hui !Gaeb. Moments before I delivered my speech tears started welling up, as I soon realized how historic and momentous this event truly was. For there I was, in a community that still retained their ancestral Khoikhoi tongue, and I could draw a direct parallel to the “prodigal son” spoken of in the scriptures. I stood there addressing the Father of the Nation, the late Paramount King Dr. Rev. Hendrik Witbooi and other Chieftains, as a descendant of the Great Red Nation. My genetic ancestry testing traced my Mitochondrial DNA to the L0d haplogroup which is thought to be the oldest of the L0 clans, common to Khoi-San populations of southern Africa. Coming from an urban background; I lost the ability to communicate in my ancestral language. However language was not the only thing that was lost.

Aspects of the indigenous knowledge system has in today’s Cape Flats communities, in its urban environment, still been preserved through, for instance, the traditional health practices of Rastafarian Herbalist and Bush doctors who still preserved age-old knowledge of herbs, roots and medical plants. These glimpses of indigenous cultures, is like an oasis in a dry cultural desert. Khoikhoi and San language has been wrongly stigmatized as a “skaamtaal” (shy-language) not to be used. If you had a “korrelkop” (pepper-corns) or had strong indigenous features, you were ridiculed and joked, because people were forced to fit into the Western accepted norms and standards of beauty.

Our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the miscognition of others, and so a person or a group can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or the society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. The withholding of equal rights of participation and self-governance from minority, and in this case indigenous, groups may also destroy their sense of self-respect and through the marginalization and silencing of certain experiences, a group’s sense of self-esteem may be shattered. Non-recognition or misrecognition can inflict harm; it can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted and reduced mode of being. Miscognition shows not just a lack of due respect. It can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need!

The general charge against liberal democracy is that although it gives equal rights to all individuals in a multicultural society, it does not give significant recognition to distinctive groups for their survival and preservation of their identities. The South African experience is a case in point! To counterbalance the mass influx of foreign influence, it is important to preserve what is left of our indigenous languages and accompanying cultures. How much has to date already been lost? The blood in my veins started calling to preserve what was left our linguistic heritage. After searching far and long, I found a Khoikhoi language workshop programme by the Language Commission in Western Cape Cultural Affairs Department spearheaded by Pedro Dausab, which has set the process in motion to attain my indigenous ancestral tongue, to speak in the language of my ancestors.


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