Good afternoon everyone! Molweni bantwana, zihlobo noogxa bethu ababekekileyo. Ndiyabulela!

Sinamkela ngezandla ezishushu nonke bantu abaphumeleleyo ukuza kuzimasa inkomfa yethu yama – 2019 nangakumbi kuni bantu bathatha inxaxheba ngokunikela iintetho ezimalunga nenkcazelo ngophando-nzulu lwenu. And a special warm welcome to our international guests, Casimir Rubagamya and John Simpson.


I’m Catherine Kell, Director of the School of Education at UCT and Chair of the 2019 Conference, here representing the Western Cape LITASA branch, the host of this conference, as well as the National Association. It is a real honour to be here, thank you for your trust in me to take this conference forward and to our incredible dream-team of a conference committee. Viva LITASA Viva!

We are finally gathered here after a year of work to make this happen, and for many of you presenting your research and other work, after many years, even decades of engaging with the issues that are at the heart of this conference. It’s a wonderful moment and almost a little hard to believe it’s actually all happening.

Before we start I’d like to acknowledge that being here in this space carries the history of the recent struggles that have rocked universities, struggles which have brought to the centre questions about language and inequality in the wider context of calls for decolonisation. Many of you who have not been to UCT recently will be interested to see the empty plinth on which the brooding statue of our arch-colonialist used to stand (just over the road).

For many years I lived in New Zealand where an event like this would always be opened with an acknowledgement that it takes place on the lands of the Maori people, the first people of that country. Given the fractured and complicated racializing of South African history, it is a more complex matter here. Instead, I thought that what we can do is acknowledge with humility and gratitude the languages of the people that were first in and across this land, languages that were shaped by their speakers’ relations with the mighty rivers…

…the deserts, the mountains and the plains, shaped by ways of life and cosmologies that were very distant from those that came to colonise. Some of these languages have long, long histories that have carried through, others bequeathed elements that are still parts of the soundscapes of our lives. We acknowledge also the early markings made by people living along our coast, these small tablets and inscriptions…

…which are now seen as precursors to writing, that signal that, yes, people here, were engaging in (let’s just call it literacy – mark making and meaning making – those of you who know me know the difficulties around defining literacy) around 73 000 years ago and around 10 000 years earlier than any other humans anywhere else in the world!

And yet it needs to be acknowledged that this rich heritage and celebration of multiple languages and forms of meaning making carries painful histories of systematic erasure and denigration and of failure to grasp what is needed for change. There is a growing awareness of what the loss of languages represents, of processes of cultural appropriation involved in the development of orthographies for African languages, of the ways in which monolingualism is naturalised, of the legacies that have led some and not others to have better access to and control over the varieties of language and literacy that have been granted status and currency by our history. At the same time there is an absolute urgency to address the fact that we are failing our children.

A conference like this is a good time to surface this growing awareness, to examine what contribution we are each making to the changes that are needed, to explore where, perhaps, we might be contributing, wittingly or unwittingly, to maintaining these erasures and denigrations. As we stated in our conference call, for most South Africans, communicating in multiple languages is a matter of survival. Most of our children come to school with the resources of more than one language and most teachers would be unable to teach without drawing on their bilingual resources. In fact, the majority of South African children would not succeed at school, without becoming at least bilingual. Despite this reality, a monolingual approach emphasising English, dominates our conceptions of literacy our curriculum and pedagogy. Related to this, learners and their teachers are often positioned in deficit terms: as lacking – in knowledge, experiences, literacy, linguistic and cultural resources.

These are the challenges of what can be called coloniality. To quote Maldonado-Torres:

Coloniality refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality all the time and every day.

Whatever language might be our home language, this is something that we all face here together, the dominance of English is folded into all of our lives and provides a powerful example of how we live and breathe coloniality. And yet we have a striking example of a successful decolonising language project in our own recent history. Prof Mahmood Mamdani in UCTs TB Davies Academic Freedom lecture in 2017 was addressing the call for decolonisation and stressing the absolutely central role that language should play in this. He believed that the development of Afrikaans over a fifty to sixty year period in the mid-1900s was one of the most successful decolonising projects that the world has even seen. The material resources and the political will were there for this development to happen and we have all been around for long enough to see the effects of it. Most people who grew up speaking Afrikaans have benefited from this and have the advantage of being fully bilingual. In many ways, while English breathes its dominance into the coloniality of our spaces and lives, it is actually English monolingual speakers who are disadvantaged – to the point that monolingualism has been called the illiteracy of the 21st Century.

I am not quite sure I agree with that and the last thing I would want to do is minimise or trivialise the challenges of literacy or centre the debate around those of us poor souls unfortunate enough to have never had the urgent need to seriously learn another language! But it’s a catchy phrase and worth contemplating – however let this not detract from the point that it is twenty four years after the end of apartheid and we are still to see resources and evidence of the will to address the role of African languages in our children’s writing, their learning, in our teaching and in our country.

It is at this moment that we are gathered here and the research, the projects and development work, the celebrations that we will all take part in, over the next three days bring hope that there is a new wave of energy. While I am not wanting to advocate that we all jump on a rocket/plane headed for Japan….

…what we do need is some uuumph in our tails as so exquisitely drawn by this creative child.

There are many exciting initiatives underway, bold projects and some big dreams, as well as many contestations, as there should be. All of us are here because we are deeply passionate about literacy, about what being being literate means, and about challenges we face. Let us make a space where we can share these, where we can work together, debate, consider the pitfalls as well as the promises and commit ourselves to being part of the changes that are needed.

Niwonwabele umxholo wenkomfa! Masifunde ditale!

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