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Celebrating SA’s rich and diverse heritage

September is a month that affords South Africans an opportunity to celebrate their rich and diverse cultural heritage.

As citizens of this beautiful country, we are richly endowed with 11 official languages.

Our nation has a multitude of cultural traditions. Many of these have the potential to contribute to our social and economic development.

In the areas of agriculture, medicine, architecture, science and technology, arts and culture, age old indigenous African knowledge has been relegated to the periphery and does not enjoy the parity of esteem along western knowledge systems.

This is why the United Nations has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, which is important for us as South Africa too.

Throughout the world, languages of trade, commerce, science and technology have been in the main those from nations that have colonised others such as English, French, Spanish and German.

As a result, languages of thousands of communities in countries that were colonised have been relegated over centuries and do not enjoy parity of esteem with the languages of colonial countries.

Despite this reality, indigenous languages have survived and continued to be spoken by many communities in Africa and throughout the world.

In South Africa the advent of reading and writing has meant that there is a sizeable amount of literature in indigenous languages.

A lot of the literature is derived from the oral tradition within African communities, where stories are told by elders to the youth and are passed from one generation to the next.

In line with this United Nations theme, South Africa hosts Heritage Month under the theme “Celebrating South Africa’s literary classics in the year of indigenous languages”.

Focus on books

During this month the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, in partnership with the National Library of South Africa, will focus on books that have been written and published in indigenous languages.

These books have been the foundation of reading and writing in indigenous languages in South Africa over many years.

Most of these books have at one stage or the other been prescribed as text books for indigenous languages.

An exhibition featuring South Africa’s literary classics will be displayed to help citizens appreciate indigenous literature and to encourage the youth to develop a love for books written in our indigenous languages.

With a few exceptions for major languages, such as Kiswahili; Hausa; Yoruba; isiZulu and isiXhosa, most African languages still have low status and have restricted roles due to the colonial legacy and negative perception of multilingualism, among other reasons.

Many aspiring and well-established writers, with the exception of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, lack the motivation to write and publish in indigenous African languages.

Another reason why writing in African languages may not be attractive is the absence of any meaningful recognition of most authors. This can be exacerbated by the lack of opportunities for publishing.

Many publishers argue that publishing in African languages can only be financially viable if there is market for those books, either in the form of a government guarantee or other tangible support.

Low-income levels in most of the regions where African languages are spoken means that the market for books simply cannot develop without government support.


Languages Publishing Programme

To address this challenge in our country, the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture has come up with the Indigenous Languages Publishing Programme which is implemented as a priority by the South African Book Development Council.

It is aimed at growth and development in the book sector, by increasing the publishing of indigenous languages and providing ongoing production of South African authored books to assist small and independent publishers to produce quality indigenous language books.

Another initiative is the collaboration between the Department of Arts and Culture, National Library of South Africa and the Publishers Association of South Africa, which resulted in the publication of a substantial 630-page volume entitled Writing in Nine Tongues, A Catalogue of Literature and Readers in Nine African Languages for South Africa.

This catalogue showcases over 4 000 titles, in nine African languages namely isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Sesotho Sa Lebowa/Sepedi, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. These books are written in different genres.

The department has recognised that a culture of reading and writing needs to be established and that the book industry needs to be both sustainable and support all South African languages.

Publishing opportunities

Through its close work with the South African Book Development Council (SABDC), the representative body of the book sector, the department has initiated a variety of strategic interventions to create publishing opportunities for aspiring writers, encourage a culture of reading and recognise excellence in literature.

Some of these include the establishment of National Book Week, which coincides every year with International Literacy Day on 8 September and the annual South African Literary Awards.

Support is provided for national literary events through the Mzansi Golden Economy funding.

There is further support for national writers’ organisations and a partnership through the National Library with the Library and Information Association of South Africa.

The department also supports activities of book clubs, through the Funda Mzantsi initiative with the National Library.

It also supports discussions on books including at book fairs and book festivals, namely the Abantu Book Festival (Soweto), Open Book Fair (Cape Town), SA Children’s Book Fair (East London) and Time of the Writer (Durban), among others.

A pilot incubator to promote reading and writing, and reading programmes at nine community arts centres is also supported.

Heritage Month will focus the spotlight on literature written and published in South African indigenous languages.

All national, provincial and local libraries will be encouraged to put up exhibitions so that readers, especially the youth, are encouraged to take an interest in reading in indigenous languages. During these exhibitions, writers of indigenous language books will be invited to address readers and share their perspective on reading and writing in indigenous languages.

The exhibitions are geared to stimulate writers and publishers to offer new literature in indigenous languages.

We hope that the activities lined up for this month will, among others, promote the culture of reading and writing amongst South Africans, while celebrating and recognising the writers of our literary classics.

*Vusumusi Mkhize is the Director-General at the Department of Arts and Culture.

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