On linguistic citizenship

It’s a long time since I have been as fascinated by a theoretical concept as I have by the idea of “linguistic citizenship”. Developed by researchers at the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research (CMDR) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), “linguistic citizenship” reveals the faultlines of “linguistic human rights” by drawing attention to non-standardised versions of languages, and to the significance of language crossing, in formulating human voice, agency, belonging, resistance, disjunction, dislocation, and migration. While the Constitution of South Africa in theory guarantees “language rights” by recognising eleven official languages, “linguistic citizenship” offers a more fluid conceptualization of language, incorporating unofficial languages and language crossing, and drawing on utopian ideas in connecting language to citizenship and belonging. There is a danger that citizenship can harden into rigid and exclusive formulations of identity – if we lose sight of the promises of participation in political life, and of agency, insurgency and demands for a more inclusive socio-political sphere, that are part of the meaning of citizenship in its ideal or utopian form.

Based, as I have been, at UWC as an extraordinary senior lecturer since 2013 and as a Research Fellow since 2016, I understand why this university was a strategic site for the development of “linguistic citizenship” as a concept. The relationship, or rather disjunction, between standardized Afrikaans and the linguistic community around the university is stark. In this context, cultural forms such as rap and “conscious” hip-hop claim voice, agency and identity through a non-standardized version of Afrikaans known as “Kaaps”, which incorporates language crossing and multilingualism. These cultural forms, and the scholarly work done on them by commentators such as Adam Haupt, Chris Stroud, Quentin Williams and Warrick Moses, have drawn attention to the previously erased history of a complex and creolized language, created and spoken by “coloured” people in the Western Cape, that was captured and standardized (read: whitewashed) by Afrikaner ethnonationalists in the early twentieth century.

This disjunction between Kaaps and Afrikaans as a standardized language is vividly explored in J.M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country (1977), the first edition of which is a multilingual novel with first person narration in English and dialogue in Afrikaans. Published in the wake of the Soweto uprisings, which protested against standardized Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, the novel exposes the emergence of Afrikaans as an authoritarian and ossified patriarchal language, out of the flexible and hybrid “language of nuances, of supple word order and delicate particles” that the narrator, Magda, hears spoken by the “brown” workers in the kitchen. As opposed to this “nuanced” language, Magda has been inducted into an Afrikaans that is aligned in the novel with the authoritarian “law-of-the-father” defined by Jacques Lacan. Describing the language she speaks, Magda claims that “a law” has taken up residence inside her, subjugating her body to its “war of sounds”. She claims: “I was born into a language of hierarchy, of distance and perspective. It was my father tongue”.

Standardised versions of languages will always be profoundly melancholic. Contrary to the ways in which they appear to us, these languages are not discrete and pure systems, and globally dominant languages such as English and French are not exceptions. As Derrida states of French in Monolingualism of the Other; Or, the Prosthesis of Origin: “ – We only ever speak one language. (yes, but) – We never speak only one language.”

Chris Stroud and Quentin Williams of the CMDR have argued that although multilingualism has “served to silence, invisibilize, and sort speakers and languages hierarchically” (this was certainly the case under colonialism and apartheid), multilingualism can also interrupt and trouble the residue of colonial relationships, allowing for “new empowering linguistic mediations” where “the mutualities of our common humanity with different others” can be worked out.

Literary and cultural texts often reference and reflect multilingual realities, and fragments in interpenetrated or unofficial languages within these texts can contribute to scenarios of mutual exchange, or resistance. Zoe Wicomb’s “When the train comes”, published in You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town (1987), has the narrator giving a multilingual retort to the sexual harassment that she and other girls are forced to endure from boys while waiting for the train. After being targeted and treated with contempt by “a tall boy”, the young “coloured” narrator finally finds her voice and the story ends with her defiant, language-crossing question, that firstly sounds like rap or poetry, and secondly disrupts and mocks the male gaze:

“Why do you look and kyk gelyk/ Am I miskien of gold gemake?”


Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to our Hillbrow (2000), arguably one of the most profound post-apartheid novels, is a metafictional text about languages that have been sorted hierarchically by an indelible history of colonialism and apartheid. One character, Refentse, writes in English “the story of a fictitious scarecrow heroine in an attempt to grapple with these profound questions of euphemism, xenophobia, prejudice and AIDs”, because he “knew the limitations of writing in Sepedi”. Another character, Refilwe, “did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse…. Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for education publishers, and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems they served.” Notably, the first epigraph of the novel is a quote by OK Matsepe, who changed the direction of Sepedi literature from “suitable” educational tales to epic narratives.


Also notably, Welcome to our Hillbrow uses an English inflected by local idiom, and interpenetrated by Sepedi words and phrases, which the author explains in English, creating the effect that this is a text in and of translation.

Despite the dominance of colonial languages, I believe that translation is a space where multilingualism and linguistic citizenship can become activated in an exploratory and pedagogical interface that disrupts the ghettoization of African languages in the education system generally, and in the academy.

In 2016-2017 I was initiator and project manager of the Mendi Centenary Project, hosted by the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town. The project included a multidisciplinary exhibition, a choral tribute in isiXhosa by the Fezeka school choir, and a multilingual and diverse conference with a range of presentations by academics, archivists, descendants of the Mendi tragedy, military historians, autodidacts, and Fallist students. Papers were delivered in English but included contributions in indigenous languages such as seSotho, and presentations and discussions often switched  between English and African languages. Around this time I also worked collaboratively with UWC students, who are like myself from the rural Eastern Cape, on translations of S.E.K. Mqhayi’s poems about the Mendi in which we found very deep meanings about land and nation that are still relevant today. This is an ongoing project.

I believe that engaging students and researchers in collaborative translation (an under-theorised field in translation studies) can further a critical rethinking of the questions we should be asking, enabling imaginings of the reconstitution of a post-apartheid humanities.​​

Unexpectedly, my commitment to ending spatial apartheid in Cape Town led to my being adopted (or perhaps coopted) in the role of “translator”, by a grassroots movement called Umhla Wethu Development. Since 1994, English has become the dominant official and bureaucratic language, and this presents real problems for the majority of people who speak many languages but are not confident to write proposals and other documents in English. I was thus approached by Umhlaba Wethu to translate their visions and requests into official English. What I found interesting, however, was that after formal meetings (with, for instance, government departments) had been arranged through the use of official English, these meetings often shifted into isiXhosa, though they were then minuted in English.

In my academic work, I have felt increasingly confined by the limits of separate academic disciplines, and by the limits of English literature as a field of research. Just as English is not a discrete language, English literature is not a discrete tradition, but rather is influenced by and often has intertextual references to literature written in a range of languages. Moreover, literature often references other arts and media.

My work has shifted from a narrow focus on literary texts to consideration of cultural production more broadly: Visual texts, cinema, music and aural effects. Issues of language, multilingualism and linguistic citizenship are an integral part of the second major project I am working on, namely “Post-apartheid dissonance: the cultural politics of post-‘rainbow nation’ South Africa”.

As the title suggests, this project seeks to identity key fissures in the “rainbow nation” myth of multi-racial harmony that emerged in the 1990s, around the TRC. I am proposing that the idea of dissonance provides a way through the post-apartheid landscape that cannot easily be incorporated into narratives of redemption, forgiveness, closure, or even accounts where “the misery of blackness” can be readily fetishised. In this study I track cultural forms that converse with the way Cornel West describes jazz as “riding on the dissonance”. The study uses the idea of auditory discord and a multitude of competing voices, languages and sounds to engage with the complexities of “post-rainbow nation” South Africa.

A chapter on HIV / AIDS, Afrophobia and queerphobia shows how a discourse of “contamination of the rainbow nation” stigmatized and targeted supposed threats to the health of the collective, and how literary and cultural texts have addressed these issues.

There is also a chapter on the Jacob Zuma rape trial which discusses the ethnochauvinism that attached to the trial, and to Zuma’s use of Zulu during the trial. The chapter juxtaposes the judge’s bizarre rescripting of Kipling’s “If” poem in his judgment, with a poem by Khwezi, “I am Kanga”, that reclaims this word of East African origin, for an item of clothing associated with African women, from the misogynist meanings it acquired during her rape trial. Though written in English in Europe (effectively translating for her audience the meanings of “Kanga”), the poem bears witness to a history of exile and migration, but it is also an assertion of Khwezi’s belief in a world where “no one is above the law [and] where sex is pleasurable not painful”. The gesture of the poem is one that claims voice, agency, and linguistic citizenship. Shortly after delivering the poem, Khwezi returned to South Africa, claiming on social media: “This is also my home.”

A focus on cultural texts about the Marikana massacre comprises another chapter, examining a range of texts alongside the history of migrant labour on the mines. The isiXhosa or siPondo word “intaba”, meaning mountain, which recurs in documentary footage of the miners’ conversations with black police that take place otherwise in Fanakalo or in elementary Zulu, accrues particular significance. As I argue, the use of the word “intaba” for what was essentially a small koppie, was a means of integrating, into the miners struggle with Lonmin and the state, a long history of rural resistance that includes the Pondoland Revolt against the Bantu Authorities. As visual artists have suggested, this history also includes the story known as the “Cattle killing” of 1856-7.

The post-apartheid dissonance project also includes a chapter on Fallism; a chapter entitled “Mother City Blues”, about resistance to the continuing legacy of spatial apartheid in Cape Town; and a chapter on South African Jazz, entitled “Over the Rainbow”. The title of the latter chapter comes from Mandla Mlangeni. After hearing a set that he played with his Tune and Recreation Committee at Cape Town’s Slave Church Museum in 2016, I asked Mandla whether he had played a riff of “over the rainbow”. His answer: “Ja Lucy…. [long drag of a hand rolled cigarette] , we are so over the rainbow.”

I am also currently putting together a proposal for a project entitled “Debates on Decoloniality”, which aims to examine: local and global debates on the term “decoloniality” and implications for education/ pedagogy; Fallism as morphing in and out of being a “leaderless movement” under pressures of intersectionality; the role of white “allies” in the South African student movements; the relationship of Fallism to Soweto 1976 but also to much earlier protests in the black schools of the Eastern Cape dating back at least to the 1920s; and the Eastern Cape as a key historical area in debates on decolonization, language and education.

I am interested in the fact that many of UWC’s students are from areas such as the Eastern Cape. The Cape, broadly speaking, is a large and diverse area, rich in languages and local knowledge. In the face of divisive racial tensions, I would like to connect the Western and Eastern Capes – by reaching out to the community immediately around the university, and also to the histories, local knowledges and communities of other areas where our students, and I, have roots.

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