Your language is your African identity

Black people must love themselves, love their languages and know and honour their clan names, and not feel constrained or shy to proclaim them in public if only to affirm their humanity and their Africanity, or the state of being Africans.

These attributes are tied up to the principles of black consciousness, which in part have been prodigiously espoused by the father of Black Consciousness, Stephen Bantu Biko, and many other lovers of Africa, including Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe whose life-long teaching on Africanity was anchored on the notion of love of Africa, which he regarded as forming the centrality of what it means to be an African – to love Africa and all that is African, without exception.

This obviously has other implications for those whose roots are grounded in African philosophies and epistemologies. First, this is predicated on loving and appreciating African languages, and never, as Africans, to be inclined to undermine indigenous languages, while simultaneously not wishing to undermine other foreign languages.

As Africans, the priority is to love African heritage, which is carried in African or indigenous languages.

One of the foremost US-based Africanist intellectuals, the Reverend John Jackson Senior once remarked: “I think we have taken for granted that all of us actually embrace our Africanity.”

This, in one sense, speaks to the rogue African leadership that has caused instability in the continent instead of promoting development and progress, a stark contradiction to what Sobukwe stood for in terms of loving Africa.

I want to stay in this discourse with Biko and Sobukwe as a focal point and to conclude my meanderings with the gift that Ilifa (Indigenous Languages Initiative for Advancement) has become to black South Africans.

First, Biko, with Barney Pityana, brought to the attention of their contemporaries in the 1960s, a body of angry university students, that black people should not expect as a messiah any extra-terrestrial fictional being outside of themselves to rescue them from the venom of apartheid onslaught.

Second, Biko and Pityana, and other black consciousness leadership of the time, argued, in scholarly arguments encapsulated in the slogan, “Black man you are on your own” , that it would take black people themselves to extricate, and untie themselves from the white liberals’ apron strings if only they took it
upon themselves to wage a political battle they would control and direct.

The idea was that if black students remained tethered to the white-controlled National Union of South African Students (Nusas) and failed to form their own organisation, which is black-controlled, black students would remain doomed and an insignificant political entity, with white liberals dictating political terms.

The wake-up call prompted the formation of the black-controlled South African Students Organisation (Saso) with the scales that blinded them from the strength they wielded having fallen off their eyes. It seemed by adopting the slogan, “black man you are on your own”, young Biko and Pityana had a vision to end white domination in the affairs of black students.

Similarly, Sobukwe, throughout his short life that ended at 53 in 1978, his abiding message was that of love of Africa, and his words being prophetic. Think of the following words and see in them a man dedicated to an African cause: “Here is a tree rooted in African soil, nourished with waters from the rivers of Afrika. Come sit under its shade and become, with us, the leaves of the same branch and the branches of the same tree.”


One way of loving Africa is by loving its flora and fauna and the indigenous languages used by its inhabitants. To love the country’s flora and fauna, according to an unknown African sage, is to love languages by which flowers and animals are expressed and described.

Let the chairperson of Ilifa le Sizwe Lethu, Mabutho “Kid” Sithole, have the last word, which is that for a long time, he has been at pain to explain to black mothers and fathers to be more vociferous to promoting their own languages, as opposed to encouraging their children to converse in English. If we love Africa, we must love her indigenous languages, “for to do differently is tantamount to committing “linguistic genocide”.

“No African person should be unable to sing praises of their ancestors, as well as reciting their clan names. To do so is to love Africa, as it is to love your language,” said Sithole.

  • Mdhlela is the acting news editor of Sunday World, an Anglican priest and former editor of the South African Human Rights Commission journals

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