Cultural identity trapped between colonial margins

David wa Maahlamela | July 18th, 2014 | current issue, Writer's Block | No Comments

Freedom, to me, means a number of things, but I will particularly focus on one, language, which I regard as ‘cultural identity’. The right to cultural identity. As long as the highest law of the country does not correspond with the actual practice, then freedom will remain a wet dream, to some of us. Many language activists are loud to identify how the black South African youth do not, and in most cases, cannot speak their mother tongue(s), African languages. But they, unfortunately, fail to realise that most of these languages are still half-developed and there is a shocking scarcity of learning resources. We then wonder when the youth adopt and adapt Western culture. Culture is embedded in a language, meaning: without language, the youth will remain orphans to their culture. There are cultural rituals which cannot be translated or articulated in any language other than the original language. The current government speaks with an angelic accent when coming to language rights, yet less is done to nurture them. But this problem started centuries ago, and to redress it, one needs to trace its origin in the colonial era. Multilingualism remains a pounce coated on our monolingual state’s face for the international acclamation.

Having observed how unapologetic other countries are when it comes to their languages, one will conclude that less, if not nothing, is done in our beloved country. This will surely hasten the death of these languages. Needless to point out, currently there is a serious contradiction between the constitution and the departments such as the Department of Education on the language issue. Institutions tasked to promote these languages are contaminated with politics. Authority and funds are abused in the process. These institutions barely focus on their main task: to develop these languages. Language development is still an educated man’s business. Colonial history tells us that the missionaries who developed African languages into written forms were not that educated. Again, we learn from the apartheid era that the development of Afrikaans into the strong language that it has become, did not take more than two decades. Post-1996, after the formation of PanSALB, we saw men, some of whom speak none of African languages spoken in South Africa; men who studied Latin and French in Europe; being tasked with drafting language policies to develop these languages. Most of them, then, took advantage of the language question to score political points. Furthermore, the national and provincial language committees were throttled by scholars who were mostly heads of the African languages departments and had a lot in their hands. Language development is a full time job. Unfortunately, Our Politicians in Parliament do not see it that way. We ignore passionate language experts and activists, particularly writers, forgetting that Shakespeare was not a professor but through his literature, he re-created Queen’s language. Passion is the drive in this issue.

Does Union Buildings have passion for African languages? Perhaps the right question is: When last have you heard one of our black MPs speaking in one of the African language in the Parliament? Afrikaans interpreters’ jobs are safe, but what about Tshivenda, Sesotho and isiSwati interpreters? South Africa has forgotten the vision of the June 16 youth, so the language question is no longer a question. We enjoy the romantic hegemony of English at the expense of African languages. Our cultural identity is eroded by our ignorance, and soon we will be a nation without identity. Some would argue that choice of language is a personal preference. But you could ask an insane person to choose between an empty box and a full box, he will surely go for the full one. Such is not a choice. My point is that lingual rights are the mother of freedom of speech. If you deny me the right to learn and speak my language, you are denying me the right to freely express myself. This is the chief reason my PhD research is on Sepedi Oral Poetry: to explore and expose lack of cultural rights.

Background on Sepedi poetry

The development of African languages into written form, despite its noble aims, has cost Africa much loss in politics, religion and culture. Literacy came at an enormous price that planted segregation between languages and tribes. One language was often developed to the detriment of the others. Certain variants and dialects have been favoured and, in some instances, a new language hierarchy was created, which resulted in unending linguistic disputes which often translate into and reinforce tribalism. “Through the random selection of African languages to be standardized, dialects that had been standardized had their status unnecessarily elevated at the expenses of others. Thus, different nations were created out of people who spoke more or less the same language…” (Banda 2002:2). More than 150 years after South Africa’s Sepedi language was ‘reduced to writing’, the language is not only half-developed, but also trapped in a dispute about whether to be officially named as Sesotho sa Leboa or Sepedi (Parliamentary Monitoring Group, 2011).

Sepedi oral poetry is arguably the least studied genre of the three Sotho languages spoken in South Africa. It is hardly ever mentioned in studies of the southern African oral tradition or in African studies in general. Yet Sepedi, according to the national 2011 Census (Statistics South Africa, 2012), is the most widely spoken Sotho language, followed by Setswana and then Sesotho.

In his 1906 study of the South African “Bantu Folklore”, the Southern Sotho folklore expect, E. Jacottet raised a concern that out of the three “Ba-Suto” languages, the “Ba-Pedi” or “Northern Ba-Suto” folklore is the only genre that remains unstudied. He acknowledged the role played by the missionaries, particularly Alexandra Merensky, in the development of this language, though he still regarded it as “terra incognita”. He urged “the scientific societies of Pretoria and Johannesburg” to “encourage or undertake the work of collecting them before it is too late.” (1906:xx-xxi). In 1932, G.P. Lestrade, the then head of Bantu Studies at the University of Pretoria, proposed a better method of burying this language: “I am against the full development of Transvaal Sotho…,” he recommended, “[a]t the very least, it should continue to exist as an auxiliary language, for the less mature, and for simple or more intimate needs, in home, the church, the lower classes of the schools, etc.” Lestrade suggested this, in his favour for the “unification/harmonisation ” of all the three Sotho languages; a concept which was later made popular by James Nhlapo (1944) and Neville Alexander (1992). However, several scholars, including Eileen Jensen Krige, D. R. Hunt, N.J. van Warmelo, Ferdinand Kruger, J.D. Krige and W.M. Eiselen, continued conducting sociolinguistic, anthropological and historic studies on Bapedi. Yet all the above studies excluded oral poetry.

Perhaps that was because the common perspective on oral poetry was that “[t]he traditional way of delivering a praise is to start and proceed with the greatest speed possible, saying it rather softly and pronouncing the words most indistinctly. Due to this method a European, who has a perfect speaking knowledge of the language, may not be able to understand anything of what is said.” (van Zyl 1941:125). Annekie Joubert (2004:388) shares the same sentiment:

“The richness in poetic language, and the use of archaic and lofty language is often beyond the capacity of the ordinary listener, difficult to decode and understand within a certain framed context, and often in need of interpretation. Despite my own fluency as well as that of Profs Gobler and Louwrens in Northern Sotho, we had to rely heavily on the knowledge of the performers and community members with regard to the translation of the praise poems.”

Moreover, many compilers have, in their editing, confessed to having distorted the recorded poems to “suit [their] own convenience” and “translations are as literal as possible” (Cook 1931:184), which is later misleadingly interpreted as ‘nothing poetic’ by other scholars. Literal translation, then, saps the depth of oral literature’s creative richness, resulting in people questioning whether the poetry has any richness at all.

Only in the 1930s did C.M. Doke make a call for the “BaSotho themselves [to] play a greater part in collecting and preparing such material.” (Doke 1933:20). In 1935, the first Sepedi books by the “BaSotho themselves” were published: D.M. Phala’s Kxomo ’a thswa! (A cow spits!) and E.M. Ramaila’s Tsa bophelo bya Moruti Abraham Serote (Pastor Abraham Serote’s Biography); followed by S.K. Lekgothoane’s (1938) collection of Sepedi oral poetry. Introducing Lekgothoane’s compilation, N.J. van Warmelo (Lekgothoane 1938:189) wrote, “What at first sight appears to be so much incoherent nonsense then becomes, upon closer examination, intricate and subtle humour and allusion.” Three years later, H.J. van Zyl observed, during his intensive analytic study of Sepedi poems written by students from the Lemana Training Institution (in Elim, Limpopo), that “[I]t is sometimes said that these…cannot be considered poetry, and that the difference between Sotho prose and praise-poetry is so insignificant that it proves to be extremely difficult to distinguish one from the other. On closer consideration such opinions seem to be based on a somewhat limited conception of what we really have in praises.” (van Zyl 1941:120). Eileen Jensen Krige and J.D. Krige’s merged Balobedu studies resulted in the culturally dense and detailed account, The Realm of a Rain-Queen. Their justification for excluding poetry was that “the exquisite poetry of these praise-names cannot easily be rendered in English” (Krige & Krige 1943:95).

This led to what P.S. Groenewald (1983:1) regards as “The Matsepe period,” 1960-1982. Oliver Kgadime Matsepe, like B.M. Vilakazi in isiZulu, introduced exotic forms such as rhyming, sonnets and ballads into Sepedi poetry. His multi-influenced writing style won him the Samuel Mqhayi prize twice (1964 and 1973). Many poets such as Moses Bopape, Stephen Ratlabala, H.M.L. Lentsoane, B.N. Tseke, A.M. Mashala, S.N. Tseke, S.P. Nkomo, S.R. Machaka, J.R. Maibelo, A.P. Nkadimeng, and M.J. Mojalefa emerged afterwards. Following in the footsteps of Solomon Plaatje (1916) was J.R.R. Rakoma (1971) who published a remarkable account of Sepedi idioms and proverbs, Maremakadika, though unlike Plaatje, he did not translate it into English.

The most noteworthy oral poet of that time was Peter Molelemane, whose poems were initially recorded in a form of an LP record and are today, decades after his death, still widely distributed, proving the importance of “technauriture ” as argued by Kaschula (2004) and Kaschula & Mostert (2011). His poems, just like that of Isaiah Shembe’s and Ntsikana’s, have become poetic anthems to members of the independent African church he belonged to. The three leading researchers of Sepedi poetry were, and still are, Groenewald, Serudu and Mojalefa. Groenewald conducted analytic studies; Serudu collected, translated and anthologized; and Mojalefa continued Ellenberger’s and Laydevant’s work on “divinity poetry”. “Divinity poetry” is poetry recited by traditional healers in their communication with the traditional bones (dolos). He also continued Lekgothaone’s oral praises of animals. The Matsepe period was followed by the Makobe period. Bishop Makobe still remains the leading poet in print. Vital historical accounts on the Bahananwa and the Sekhukhune Bapedi have been written by Makhura (1996) and Delius (1984); the latter filling up gaps in studies such as Bothma’s Pedi Origins, Mönnig’s The Pedi and H.M. Nkadimeng’s Kgoši Mampuru Sekwati.

Around 1990, performance poetry attracted more attention (Finnegan 1990), leaving three notable accounts on Northern Basotho oral tradition with reference to performance: Hofmeyr’s (1993) We Spend our Years as a Tale that is Told, James’s (1999) Song of the Women Migrants, and Joubert’s (2004) The Power of Performance. Hofmeyr’s account questions the view that women of southern Africa were historically silent, which, according to her, contradicts the fact that women were historically regarded as storytellers. James takes this further by demonstrating how women migrants at the Reef did not only adopt what before the 1970s was known as a male genre (kiba dance) – they further recreated a new form (koša) different from the women’s dance of the rural hinterlands of Limpopo (Leboa). This suggests that for these women migrants, dance was not just recreation of “home” by “homeboys” but the invention of a new and independent identity uninfluenced by male domination. Joubert, on the other hand, simultaneously explores song, dance and praise poetry of the “Hananwa” and the “Lobedu” using a broader approach. She encompasses the commonly ignored “derogatory/negative praise poetry”, which, as scholars including Mafeje (1967:193) and Kaschula (2002:12) have argued, attests that the seretigale/seretitumišo (praise poet) is also not limited to ‘praises’ as the term ‘praise poet’ misleadingly suggests. “Praise poems are usually explicitly laudatory,” Joubert observes, “but can also include complaint motifs, uncomplimentary and critical references to the hero, or they can be derogatory.” (Joubert 2004:385).

Timbila Poetry Project, a Polokwane based publisher recently published two ground breaking Sepedi poetry volumes, Phomelelo Machika’s (2005) Peu tša Tokologo (Seeds of Freedom) and David wa Maahlamela’s (2006) Moswarataukamariri (The one who holds the lion by its mane). Machika’s volume is the first volume of Sepedi poems by a female poet to be published. This, like Hofmeyer argued, might be misinterpreted as testimony to women’s silence, but in Sepedi culture, it is rakgadi ’a tšona (the aunt) who always recites an unprompted poem when the coffin is interred, when initiates graduate, or during the cultural wedding ceremony. This is a long practice which can be traced before the first Sepedi poetry volume was published. Wa Maahlamela’s volume included the praise poem, Ka Lehu Laka (In my demise), which became the leading Sepedi performance poem and won him many awards including the PanSALB Multilingualism Award for the Promotion of Oral and Written Language for Sepedi category in 2011. Both these poetry volumes include protest poems which are unapologetically radical – something new in the Sepedi written poetry milieu.

Praise poetry has “an ethnological significance in tracing kinship relating relationship and genealogy” (Vilakazi 1938:106), and it has “literary, historical and even philosophical interest” (Cook 1931:184). Unfortunately, most poetry anthologies prescribed for the Sepedi school syllabus are dominated by the western forms such as sonnets and ballade. Less attention given to Sepedi traditional form, particularly praise poetry – which remains the core of Sepedi oral and performance poetry. Deborah Seddon (2008:133) writes of “the urgent need for the creation of a student- and teacher-friendly anthology which would collect, re-voice, and adequately contextualise a selection of the seminal works of South African oral poets from the colonial to the post-apartheid periods.”

Several scholars have conducted their studies on Sepedi poetry in Afrikaans. Unlike their Setswana and Sesotho counterparts, such as Mangoaela (1950), Schapera (1965), Kunene (1971), Damane & Sanders (1974), Coplan (1994), and Mokitimi (1998) the Afrikaans researchers did not anthologise or publish their studies widely. Furthermore, studies conducted in Sepedi remain un-translated and only a few include fieldwork. Unfortunately, most scholar-poets tend to use their own compositions as general examples of Sepedi oral tradition – what Hamilton (1987:69) calls “personal history depicted as public history” or simply “invented history”. Sepedi oral poetry, as Jacottet observed more than hundred years ago, is still a “terra incognita”, desperately calling for scholarly attention.

In conclusion

This research will, therefore, focus on Sepedi oral poetry, particularly the unexplored field of kiba poetry. Kiba traditional dance of the Bapedi people in South Africa is infused with rich oral poetry, especially the male version, dinaka. I will critically examine and translate kiba poetry into English with minimal loss of its richness in order to preserve kiba poetry for cultural and educational use for current and future generations, by assembling an annotated anthology of this poetry. The general observation has been that Western poetry influenced traditional poetry, but no qqone has explored how African traditional poetry has influenced the modern or Western forms of poetry, Sepedi poetry in particular. “Most of the so-called “modern” poems…are still praise poems in nature.” (Milubi 1997:131). Sello Galane’s (2009) doctoral study shows how Phillip Tabane adapted and adopted kiba poetry to produce contemporary jazz music. Deborah James’s (1999) study also adds that musicians such as the German auto-harp player, Johannes Mokgwadi reproduced kiba poetry in different genres. The influence of kiba poetry on urban poetry forms such as slam poetry and protest poetry will, therefore, be traced. The researcher hopes to inspire many other scholars, particularly African scholars, into conducting further studies in kiba poetry field and Sepedi literature in general. This will eventually ensure that Sepedi literature (and the same applies to other African languages) is no longer a “terra incognita.” By having sufficient literary and academic resources in, on, about Sepedi, Sepedi youth will also be inspired to learn and develop passion for their mother tongue, their cultural identity.


Poems-For-Freedom-Mag&Ipadthis article was published in our print quarterly number six, Poems For Freedom.

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