The recent outbursts on social media, especially amongst the young and restless caused quite a stir as to how relevant oral proficiency is, especially amidst prominent public figures in Namibia. The uproar came days after Ohangwena Governor, Usko Nghaamwa, was caught with his gloves off in the ring as he made a speech that was digitally inspired; however, fell short of his ability to making any sort of sense. Nghaamwa who has been at the helm in his region since 2005, has previously been called out for his inability to articulate himself in English. However, many have seen a different side of his fluency when addressing the masses in his mother tongue. Nghaamwa has certainly not been the first, and most probably not the last to go under the knife for his apparent “language incompetence”. English appears to be a struggle inside the “ring”, considering we have seen other prominent ring leaders like Paulus “The Hitman” Moses being made fun of for his lack of proficiency in this foreign tongue. Neighbouring South African President, Jacob Zuma is no stranger to this game as he became an instant celebrity on social media with his viral videos of mispronunciations, especially of figures he attempted during various live broadcasts.
Chapter 1, Article (3) of the Namibian Constitution clearly pronounce English as the official language in Namibia, however, this article indirectly acknowledge the cultural foundations of a multi-cultural society by stating that other languages other than English can be used, specifically in regions where such languages are spoken by the dominant populace of the area. One could be inclined to believe that this vague yet useful note left in the Constitution was because it was known that post-colonial cultural imperialism will make dents and cause issues of hegemony amongst the citizens of a nation state such as Namibia in the years to follow, right? Needless to mention that we still have all sorts of “isms” creating a divide and nonetheless, the role of the media over the years, being a forerunner in sharing the power of national and cultural values with ideologies from the West, has not been so innocent. What is happening here, is that at some point, it was cool and hype to speak English, especially when accompanied with an accent that resembles the “haves”, using vocabulary that frightened the “have nots” and expressing oneself to an extend that meaning creation in this foreign language is lost due to certain fractions of society not being able to decode it.
English as the official language is becoming dangerously dominant and this puts an obvious threat on other local languages, eating away and eroding a part of a culture that will forever be lost. With greater reason, it just struck me that it might be ironically so with this article being written in English, displaying the nuances of power dominance at play here. I recently saw a picture depicting two pairs of feet, one with broken shackles across the ankle and another with the latest branded sneakers… the title read “Still slaves, just different chains”. This made me think about the whole Nghaamwa, Hitman and Zuma affair and brought to realization that yes, we might have celebrated 26 years of Independence, free from political rule and excited about the future, especially the much talked about Harambee Prosperity Plan, but deep inside we know that although our colonisers have left, their remnants continue to live on through our verbal expressions. It is equally important to make reference to the longstanding misconception about the hegemonic status of English as a language whose speakers are assumed to be more educated and intelligent. The relationship between the ability to speak formal and Standard English and the speaker’s IQ arouses an overt prestige which leads people to look down on others and create a psychological divide. This seemed to be exactly what Namibians have been doing with regards to both the Hitman and Nghaamwa cases.
About two decades ago, South Africa incorporated most of its local languages as a constitutional provision and they all became official languages. This in an effort to represent what the South African nation brand stands for, which defined diversity, as well as an effort to further promote inclusivity of locals, the real owners of the land. Scrolling through the clip of the governor making his speech, it was visible how uncomfortable he felt, standing there, trying to make sense of an ill-written speech and still having to deal with an onlooking crowd on the verge of bursting into laughter. In retrospect, he should have ditched the speech and spoken from the cuff, like he did in his last minute or two… much better and far more dignifying. Twenty-six years after independence, no more guns, no more resistance and no people dying… but wait, although there are no visible traces of hard power being exerted over this country, we have become slaves to the type of soft power and we continue to encourage it. Did our coloniser leave or have they simply morphed and changed shape and complexion? We continue to laugh at those not being able to read or speak English properly, a form of over glorification of something that is not even our own. As Africans and Namibians, in particular, we need to stop undervaluing the things that make us unique, special and stand out from the rest because we are merely robbing ourselves of our own cultural riches and will result in the erosion of our languages and eventually our culture.
I mean, not too scary, right? After all, what is a nation without a culture? Maybe something we ought to think about for a while. If we consider the aspect of language in a global context, it becomes worrisome considering that the challenge is not only to speak our languages and retain them within our countries, but also use them in a written form, especially in a digital age that steers connectivity, creativity and rights. Predictions are that by 2050, at least half of the six-thousand languages spoken in the world would become extinct. English is our official language and even for purposes of governance, we should encourage our leaders to improve their proficiency skills instead of breaking them down. English is the economic language of the world and certainly we cannot do without it. Instead, we should encourage the use of our own Namibian languages alongside the use of English as an official language, as there is no pride in only being able to speak English fluently but afraid to be expressive in our mother tongues.
Ockert Jansen is Fulbright Scholar doing his Master of Arts in Intercultural and International Communications at the American University, USA.