Saturday, June 15, 2024

Why Setswana must be made Botswana’s official language

Let me start with the conclusion before outlining the argument of this column. Setswana must be declared Botswana’s official language for Botswana to be a nation; for Batswana to feel patriotic. For full national unity to occur Batswana must not only be united by a flag and a national anthem, they must be united by a common language and culture. As long as Setswana is not Botswana’s official language there will forever be a sense of alienation amongst the citizens. There will be cultural and linguistic erosion. This will lead to be disconnect between the citizens and their country, which will engender national insecurity. There will be nothing unique about being a Motswana. We as a people of Botswana have lost a sense of national dress that sets us apart. We are increasingly losing pride in our diet and cuisine. Every day our culture is being eroded with our assistance and participation. Our language is on the line. Shall we sit by and watch helplessly as it fades away? Shall we be the generation that failed to transfer its language to its children? 

Let us start from the beginning. Why are we using a Pula instead of a Rand? Why do we have a flag? Why does Botswana have a national anthem at all? Why are we not singing a British or an American one? The answer lies in the idea of nationhood, who we are as a people. We are Batswana. This doesn’t mean we are homogenous. There is no homogenous morafe in fact. Amongst the Bangwato there are Batalaote, Bakwena, Baherero and Bakalaka who make the Bangwato morafe. The same can be said of the Bangwaketse who have amongst them Bakgwatlheng, Bakgatla, Bahurutshe, Bakubung and other groups who make up the Bangwaketse. The Botswana nation is equally multicultural and multilinguistic with Setswana being the lingua franca and the most widely spoken African language. Setswana must be seen as a language that can be used to unite the country. Just like a flag and a national anthem, Setswana must be made official to engender pride on who we are as a people. Failure to make Setswana official will see Setswana vanish from the public sphere. National pride and identity will increasingly fall away. The Setswana language is spoken internationally by around seven million people (cf. Janson and Tsonope, 1991; Andersson and Janson, 1997; Otlogetswe, 2007; Chebanne, 2008). Numerically this makes Setswana internationally a minority language. It has mother-tongue speakers in at least four countries: South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The largest number of speakers is found in South Africa (with over 4 million speakers making about 8% of the population) where Setswana is one of the eleven official languages. Zimbabwe has an estimated 29,000 Setswana speakers and Namibia has approximately 6,000. In Botswana, Setswana is spoken by close to two million speakers (70-90% of the population) as a mother tongue (Andersson and Janson, 1997), second or even a third language. Selolwane (2004:4) observes that “…the SeTswana language is the most dominant of all the language groups found in Botswana, with at least 70% of the population identifying it as a mother tongue and another 20% using it as a second language.” Seven percent speak other Sotho-Tswana languages (Setswapong and Sebirwa), 9% Ikalanga, 3% Seherero or Sembukushu, 2% Sesarwa (Khoisan), while 1% speaks Sesobea (Chikuhane) and 1% Seyei. Her observations on the Setswana language are confirmed by Ramsay’s (2006) report that 79% of Botswana’s population speaks Setswana as a mother tongue. Ramsay’s data was taken from the 2001 household census data. Setswana is therefore a perfect candidate for being declared an official language.

My view is not new. It has been expressed in the 1977 education commission findings, a commission chaired by Prof. Torsten Husen. The central core of its recommendations were aimed at redressing the historical imbalances brought about by Botswana’s position as a British protectorate. The commission therefore recognised in its preliminary pages that: “For 81 years until 1966 Botswana was the Bechuanaland Protectorate under British rule. Not surprisingly, the institutions and culture of the colonial power were imposed on the country.  To some extent the indigenous culture became submerged and many Batswana were encouraged to believe that their own cultural inheritance was inferior to that imported by the British. With Independence has come the opportunity to reassess this situation, to reassert the national identity, and to build a society which gives expression to the noblest values from the past.” (1977:11).

The commission therefore recommended that there was a need to “reassert the national identity and to build a society which gives expression to the noblest values from the past”. To create a unified nation and reinforce national cultural identity, the commission identified language in the educational system as a critical component. It argued that: “Language is one means by which cultural identity is strengthened, but education provides other ways to inculcate in every Motswana a sense of pride in and identification with his or her cultural heritage. … The education system should orient young people toward the social, cultural, artistic, political and economic life of their unique society and prepare them to participate proudly in it” (1977:12).

Setswana was therefore identified as a language to be used to foster national unity and national cultural pride. Every Botswana national was urged to rally behind the national language. “The pursuit of unity calls for every Motswana to appreciate his or her rights and responsibilities as a citizen of Botswana, to become fluent in the national language, and to take pride in the national cultural heritage” (1977:30).

“Secondly, the curriculum of the school must stress national unity and national identity. A fundamental requirement is the national language, Setswana, must be mastered by all, for it is an essential means of communication between Batswana, and is the medium through which a great deal of the national culture is expressed” (1977:31).

Additionally, Setswana has been chosen by ACALAN (The Academy of African Languages) as one of the first working cross-border languages and the vehicular cross-border languages which should be given priority in the southern African region. ACALAN is an arm of the African Union, created in 2001 to deal with the growing efforts of promoting the African languages as tools of development and regional integration in Africa. Out of the 2,130 languages spoken in Africa, it was discovered that 396 are cross-border languages, that is, they are spoken across national boundaries. Setswana was identified to be one of these languages. The African Union is interested in promoting and developing these 396 languages to use them in promoting regional development and integration. In southern Africa Setswana and Chinyanga have been selected as the first regional languages to play the role of regional development and integration. The two languages were chosen for the southern African region on the basis of their broad use in several countries. This includes their extensive use in public domains, their success in attracting second language speakers, their national/official status and their levels of technicalisation and standardisation. Setswana now has an African Union Language Commission made up of language experts/promoters, writers and cultural promoters. Setswana has therefore overall African, and not just national relevance. Because of such relevance, Setswana deserves a unique position in Botswana as an official language. I must conclude. My conclusion appears in the introduction.


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