When South Africa became a democracy in 1994, South Africa’s vernacular languages were expected to come into their own, but this never happened.
In fact, there are fewer African languages published today than during apartheid, according to Mondli Makhanya, City Press editor at large, columnist and former editor of the Sunday Times. “This has a lot to do with the Anglicisation of the country since 1994 where… indigenous languages have been deemed ‘uncool’ and unable to get you ahead.”
“Government makes nonsensical noises about (the) lack of indigenous language media but has done little in terms of policy and policy enforcement to ensure that African languages are taken seriously.”
As it stands, English media is by far the most dominant, with Afrikaans a distant second and Zulu holding its own in a minor third place.
Zulu radio station Ukhozi FM is one of the most popular radio stations in the world and the most popular in South Africa. Over the last decade, it had an average listenership of more than seven million. In November 2012, Vuma FM, a 90% Zulu-speaking and 10% English radio station, launched in KwaZulu-Natal. Its listenership has more than doubled in a year from February 2014, from 121 000 to 271 000 (RAMS past 7 days listenership).
Isolezwe, the most successful Zulu newspaper, has a circulation of 107 139 (Audit Bureau of Circulations, fourth quarter of 2014). Other than the Daily Sun, this is the biggest circulation of South Africa’s dailies, according to the ABC.
Ilanga, a twice-weekly Zulu newspaper, has a circulation 90 008 (ABC 2014 Q4), while the circulation of its weekend edition, Ilanga LangeSonto, is 49 738 (2014 Q4). Isolezwe’s Saturday newspaper, Isolezwe ngoMgqibelo, has a circulation if 76 837 and Isolezwe ngeSonto on Sunday has a 85 301 (2014 Q4) circulation.
In April this year, Independent Media launched Isolezwe lesiXhosa, the only Xhosa-language daily newspaper in the country.
There are unbelievably no mainstream newspapers in any other vernacular language.
Magazines are even less representative of languages. Only Bona is published in a language other than English and Afrikaans. It is published in Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa and English, and its circulation was 73 606 (2014 Q4), having fallen from 81 504 (2013 Q4).
The national broadcaster has a mandate to ensure that all South Africans get to hear their mother tongue on radio and, in some cases, on television.
But is it about the language or the quality of the specific publication or platform that entices consumers?
Sazi Hadebe, the editor of Isolezwe, says it is not just about the language of the newspaper. “Isolezwe hasn’t grown the way it has – now with three editions and selling over 700 000 copies a week – just because we publish in isiZulu.
“Our readers are demanding – our content has to be captivating, accurate and ‘fresh’. Readers are all over us if they don’t like the way we use the language, if our sports reporters hint at bias, or if we don’t demonstrate insight into the context of what’s going on in the most remote corners of our province [KwaZulu-Natal].
“Fortunately we’ve built up a talented team and know what works for our readers. When we get it right, the response is huge – that’s gratifying and it keeps us going.”
Thandeka Mapi, a former lecturer in African Language Studies and Media at Rhodes University, believes that Zulu is a spoken and literate language but most of the other vernacular languages are generally spoken and not used by people to read or write.
Also, she says Zulu people are particularly “Proud of their culture and language. IlangaLase Natali newspaper, the first Zulu newspaper, was established in 1904, long after ImvoZabantsundu and other Xhosa newspapers, but if you look around, (Ilanga) is still up and running. Imvo died in the late 1990s”.
Professor Franz Krüger of Wits Journalism School says, “There are newspapers publishing in other languages, but they tend to be small local papers, often non-profit. The Media Development and Diversity Agency gives some support to these initiatives.”
Krüger says he is surprised there weren’t more publications in Xhosa because it had a strong tradition in publishing that dates back over 100 years.
Unathi Kondile, editor of Isolezwe lesiXhosa, agrees but says that Xhosa speakers today are not used to reading in Xhosa. “It is now more of a spoken language than written and we have to factor in that Xhosa people are not educated in Xhosa, but English or Afrikaans,” he says. He believes there has not been enough of a push in this country for Xhosa or other language speakers to read and write in their mother tongue. “In fact some of South Africa’s greatest writers are Xhosa first-language speakers and they write in English. Our history is of being groomed in English by the missionaries in the former Transkei.”
While Kondile says there has been “incredibly positive feedback on his newspaper”, it will take a while for people to get used to buying a Xhosa daily.
Makhanya believes the launch of Isolezwe lesiXhosa “is exhilarating news”. He hopes it will spur a renaissance in Xhosa publishing. “This was one of the first written indigenous languages and it is travesty that the richness could be allowed to wither.”
Mapi believes that building these languages, other than Zulu, in the written media won’t be easy. “Reading goes with sophistication and being literate, (which are) always attached to English.”
Mapi says that her students believed the problem was caused by the lack of pride in African languages. “A lot of people regard their languages as poor and as a result most of them do not want to be associated with (them). They find them boring and not as funky as English. If you go to schools, many learners are encouraged by their parents to do English and Afrikaans, so there really is no foundation and interest in reading or writing in these other languages.”
“Blacks hate their languages and think they are backward. Look at how many middle class parents speak to newborns in English, even before the child can say ‘mama’.” This impacts on their choice of media.”
This obviously has an effect on magazines as well, with a number having launched in vernacular languages but failing to survive. That is, other than the 50-plus-year-old Bona.
Managing editor of Bona, Moeketsi Letsohla, says there is a big market for their magazine. “We sell thousands of copies each month of every language edition. Zulu’s circulation is a little above the others… because [it is] the biggest language group in South Africa.”
In terms of radio, everyone is catered for but, says Mapi, “The quality of language that people speak on air is mostly poor. Most people prefer to listen to their home language on the radio than to read it.”
Makhanya agrees. “It makes me mad when I switch on African stations and hear presenters mixing the mother tongue with English,” he says. “Why the hell are you on this station if you can’t finish your sentences in your language? That is just a symptom of the contempt with which African languages are treated.”
But even in radio, Zulu dominates other vernacular languages: consider the hugely successful Ukhozi FM.
Krüger explains that the size of the SABC’s African Language Stations’ (ALS) audience is related to the number of mother tongue speakers. “There are far more Zulu speakers than, for example, Venda speakers. So naturally the audience will be bigger for Ukhozi. People listen primarily to their mother tongue. The second biggest language group is Xhosa, and Umhlobo Wenene FM (a Xhosa station) is the next biggest ALS station.”
When it comes to television, says Mahkanya, there are strong vernacular soapies likeMuvhango and Isibaya. “This is thanks to people like Duma ka Ndlovu, the creator ofMuvhango, who takes African language television seriously,” he says. “ The success of these programmes shows that you can make excellent and exciting media in African languages.”