June 16 Uprising and importance of Mother Tongue education

As we celebrate The Day of the African Child, which happened exactly 46 years ago on June 16, 1976 in Soweto, South Africa, we remember the innocent lives of young children that were mercilessly cut short by heavily armed South African soldiers whose reason to kill was because of Afrikaans language instruction and cultural dispossession of the African value system. We will do well if we reflect on this journey in terms of how far we have come and how much more work remains in realizing the dreams of those young brave sons and daughters of Africa, who died solely for resisting political, linguistic and cultural imperialism.

It all began in the early morning hours, when students from various schools began to protest in the streets of Soweto in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in black schools. According to estimates 20,000 students took part in the protests and were met with fierce police brutality and many were shot and killed for refusing to be taught in a language of their oppressor. The number of pupils killed in the uprising is estimated to be 176, but other sources estimate the number to be around 700 fatalities. In remembrance of these events, 16 June is now a

public holiday in South Africa named Youth Day and a public holiday in Africa known as the Day of the African Child and an international day named the Day of the African Child globally.

In simple terms, what the African Child was fighting against was linguistic and cultural imperialism. Their sacrifice and their deaths were acts of resistance against being exploited ideologically, linguistically and culturally. They fought the elitist power of their oppressor who wanted to use language as an economic and political tool to dominate them. The apartheid regime’s aim was to use their language and thus push their ideologies, structures, and practices that would reproduce an unequal division of power and resources between the minority South African colonial masters and the majority black people on the basis of language. What was achieved by the African Child’s resistance was to avoid linguistic genocide. As rightly put by Skutnabb-Kangas “When speakers shift to another language and their own language disappears, the sociological, psychological, educational, and linguistic damage can be seen as linguistic genocide”.

Today, as we reflect on the sacrifices made by those young children, we realize that we have a long way to go in restoring the linguistic and cultural heritage of our people.

Perhaps it is befitting to call for a Ministry of Cultural and Indigenous Affairs that would promote with vigor the interests of the African value system in schools, in the community and on the international stage. Perhaps it’s also time that we call for a National Dialogue in terms of how to preserve and restore our African Values.

Moreover, it is also time that minority languages be written and be introduced in school so as to preserve them and include them in the mainstream economy. There are numerous advantages why mother tongue of minority languages should be prioritized above languages from elsewhere. We all know that Mother Tongue is the first language that a child gets to hear after birth and helps give a definite shape to his or her feelings and thoughts. It is an undisputed fact that children who learn in their mother tongue will improve their critical thinking skills and literacy skills. Research world over has also proven that Mother Tongue makes it easier for children to pick up and learn other languages. Whereas many parents think teaching their children their Mother Tongue inhibits learning, the opposite is true. Children who learn their mother tongue in school are less likely to be dominated and oppressed by others. Children who speak their mother tongue and learn it in school develop their personal, social and cultural

identity and are thus mentally fortified to embrace their self, their identity and have high levels of self-esteem as they can easily identify with their culture.

It is time that traditional authorities, especially of minorities, as custodians of languages and cultural values prioritize the writing of their languages and call for the introduction of their languages in the early grades which will ultimately preserve their linguistic and

cultural values.

Sinvula Mudabeti (Son of the Soil)

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