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 discipline, 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.


LVG Blog 1

Fifty shades of mad, bad, and dangerous

Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 9.23.49 PM

At the end of the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James, Anastasia Steele has succeeded in transforming a controlling, physically-abusive entrepreneur into a doting husband, father of her two children. Miraculously (for a married couple with children) their sex life is still smoking hot and they enjoy BDSM sex. Though not regarded as a great literary feat, the series has been compared to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), in which the heroine’s love reforms a stormy, melancholy Romantic bluebeard – replete with a mad wife secreted in the attic – into a somewhat domesticated chap with whom Jane can have a cosy and equal married relationship.

Considering that the Fifty Shades series has sold more copies on Amazon than the entire Harry Potter series combined, and that Jane Eyre is a well-loved text that has been prescribed in school and university curricula around the world for decades, it’s worth pointing out that the myths these works are purveying may not be too helpful for women trapped in abusive relationships. It’s also worth asking whether there are alternatives to the narratives they offer.

Enter gender relations in the novels of South African author Daphne Rooke.

All of Rooke’s major novels present male characters who are mad, bad, and seriously dangerous to know. But for women readers these novels offer a very different message than Jane Eyre and Fifty Shades of Grey.

I am going to focus here on Rooke’s Mittee (1950), mainly because it is a rewriting of Jane Eyre, and also because it is one of my favourite novels. You have likely not heard of Mittee before, though you may have heard of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), by Jean Rhys, which is also a subversive retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s famous story.

Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 9.40.17 PM.png

In a similar vein to Wide Sargasso Sea, Mittee is about a love triangle, from the perspective of a “Creole” woman. The novel is set in the Transvaal in the lead up to and during the South African War of 1899-1902, and told by Selina, the young and beautiful “coloured” servant of a young and beautiful white woman, Mittee. Selina begins by describing her peaceful life with her husband Fanie, before telling the story of her youth with Mittee in an extended flashback that comprises most of the novel. She describes how she was having an affair with Mittee’s fiancé, Paul, and it seems that she was in love with him, though he treats her dismissively and even hatefully at times. Her relationship with Paul must be kept as secret as Bertha Rochester locked away in the attic. Though she loves Mittee “as a sister”, Selina is often overcome by jealousy, and on one occasion rips up the silk for Mittee’s wedding dress, recalling the incident in Jane Eyre where Bertha enters Jane’s room and tears her wedding veil in half.

Like Bronte’s Rochester, Paul in Mittee is a dark and powerful Byronic character who first appears in the narrative on horseback. His demonic intensity and intertwined sadism and appetite for dark-skinned or ethnically-ambiguous women have much in common with Rhys’s Rochester.

On finding out that Selina is pregnant with his child, Paul seeks to marry her off to the brutal farm hand Jansie, who terrifies Selina. One evening Jansie comes around to Selina’s room, expecting her to submit to him. When she refuses him and he sees that she is pregnant, he attacks her, jumping on her stomach and causing her to lose her child. This attack becomes an excuse for Paul to kill Jansie, who was the only witness to the pregnancy. After Jansie’s death, Paul, already vicious and nasty, becomes even worse. During his marriage to Mittee they have a crippled child whom he smothers to death, as he cannot stand to see weakness in something that he evidently wants to view as a narcissistic projection of himself. When he begins beating Mittee, Selina stops him and he turns on her and rapes her instead.

While some of the brutal men in Rooke’s novels are seductive in the beginning of the narratives in which they appear, they deteriorate very quickly into violent doubles of one another. The horror is that these men are family: husbands, or potential husbands, and fathers.

When in an interview I asked Rooke about this, she responded that these men are based on stories she heard from her mother Marie (to whom Mittee is dedicated), about her mother’s first husband, Knevitt, a hard-drinking Welshman who was extremely violent to Rooke’s half-brothers and her mother. One night Marie and her three sons ran away. They heard Knevitt coming after them on horseback, with his two colt revolvers firing, and hid behind a waterfall, an incident that became the inspiration for the final major scene in Mittee.

Rooke claims that she grew up on these stories, but presumably there were other stories, and one may question the significance of her investment in tales of frighteningly violent men. After all, Rooke never knew Knevitt, and her own father, by her account a loving and benevolent man, was killed in the First World War, soon after she was born.

In The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, Slavoj Žižek argues that fictions of “enraged paternal figures,” excessively phallic figures with their “wild outbursts of violent rage,” are essentially a fantasy, such that even the most obscene Urvater, “the rapist father,” is an invented defense against the suffocating and protective figure of parental benevolence. Following Žižek, it could be argued that Rooke’s childhood, growing up without a father in a household of women, may have perversely shaped her obsession with the fiery and violent men that she returns to again and again in her novels.

An interpretation of these excessively evil male figures as “fantasies”, however, would overlook their relation to the actual violence of the patriarchal order that Rooke was describing. In her memoir Rooke not only remembers growing up in a house of women, but also makes a link between apartheid and male “aggression.” As Zoë Wicomb notes: “Rooke is resolute in her exposure of the bullying male. The consoling words of an Afrikaner matron—‘Don’t be upset by the boys. All girls have to put up with it, Selina, probably he meant no harm’ reveal to what extent sexual harassment is institutionalized in that society.”

Through the portrayal of brutal husband-fathers, Rooke reflects on the patriarchal violence that was endemic at every level in colonial society and under apartheid. Her novels are poignant as we have inherited the legacy of these toxic masculinities today.

In Jane Eyre, the heroine chooses the fiery and arguably abusive Rochester, over St John Rivers, the kindly missionary. In Mittee, Mittee rejects Paul, choosing instead to live with her missionary, Doctor Besil, and Selina eventually lives a life of peace with her compassionate husband, Fanie.

It’s not my intention to claim that “nice guys” are incapable of being trash. Such is the nature of toxic masculinities that “nice guys” can transform into demonic versions of themselves in the blink of an eye.

But unlike Jane Eyre and the Fifty Shades trilogy, Mittee demonstrates that women cannot reform narcissistic men who are overtly “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Such men don’t get better. They only get worse.


Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 9.38.42 PM.png

LVG pomes


Failed execution


Last request: a camera

Aimed at the man with the gun.

He lifts the rifle,

I click the shutter,

The photograph on the screen

Is bequeathed

To my father.


The bullet collides somewhere near

My heart.

I stagger home –


To be not dead.


Now the task is

To live




Boland Bluebeard


They were unruffled,

The artist and his mistress, when I arrived in a battered kombi

To save the wife.


But she had already disappeared.


Only pink water in a bucket and a bloodstain

That smelled of detergent and would not wash out

On the floor near the fridge.


It is happening to me now.

As I try to hide behind the rose bushes,

He says: “Did you really think you could escape?”



Fishing 1


Angling for water

The fish leapt

Under the bridge

Into my arms

A soft egg wounded

By gills

I knew it would die

Like that.




Tick bite fever


My knight in shining armour

Turned out to be an engorged tick

With no eyes

Who crawled out of the veld and drank my blood until I became so sick

He had to turn to another source of life


What they don’t tell you in fairy tales

Is that there is nothing

Behind the polished armour –

Inside the shiny smooth body of the tick you will find only

Your own blood.






I never thought

You could defeat me,

I always thought

My hate stronger.

But you are a white man,

with white hair

And so you and your henchmen

burned me,

Turned me into something


A parody of myself –

Cast out.


Remember. I am not on the side

of your tribe.

And the past is not forgotten.

Cast out –

I stand with the miners of Geduld

who cough up

Pieces of lung in shacks

near Mthatha,

And with the Cubans

who fought against you

At Cuito Cuanavale.



This wound


This wound inside

Most days sits quiet, seeping

As imperceptibly as blood murmurs through capillaries –


But oh

how the merest thought or kiss can tear open

The thin membrane, disgorging bits and then


I am on on the edge, almost falling

into that yawning void –

the solar plexus.



Northern Hemisphere Haiku I


Under grey English

Skies in June, I miss the smell

Of frangipani.



Southern Hemisphere Haiku I


Over these dark waves,

Lion’s Head and mute Apostles,

Wheels the Southern Cross.



A Disappearing World


The forest is being razed

Turned into powdered dust


From out of a chasm of hewn vegetation

They drag a panda bear


And her cub

Bound for some zoo, or worse


I rush to the mother,

And reunite them


Then carrying both creatures I run

Though the forest, now busy with men


What shall I feed these skepsels

When I take them into hiding?


Suddenly in my arms they grow

Smaller and smaller


As if I have been carrying two insects –

Lost, they have fallen


I search the dusty ground but see nothing

If I had my cellphone here I could call for help.





and stars

Bloom in darkness.



Settler’s hospital


I was 19 going on 20

when they put me into the hospital for settlers

I cannot remember why, though it must have been 

for something shameful

I remember the white ward

with two ancient white ladies, fellow settlers

one was dying

the other had lost her faculties

or at least some of her reason in the sense that

reason is focused on present coordinates

she kept rattling the end of her bed

like a cage and calling for “Florence”

and her little dog called Tover

Tover, Tover, where is my little dog


sometimes she swam into the present

and focused on her gasping companion

calling for the nurses to feed her grapes

as grapes are very digestible

sometimes I put my hands to my eyes

and feel the bones of my skull

it’s coming for all of us

the bones rattling their cage

wanting to get out

like Tover who escaped through

the hole in the fence