PJM: Why is writing canon in African languages an important concern for you? 

SMM: I think our liberation as a people will not be complete until we can tell, retell and retrace our stories. This is an archive of a people, a point of reference. A foundation of people is their stories. Stories of heroes and villains, of loyalties and betrayals, of successes and failures.

PJM: Intellectually, you are obsessed with Setswana writing. Where does this come from and how has this obsession enriched your intellectual pursuits, exploits and experiences?

SMM: I started writing in English as a journalist. My first book, an accessible biography of Solomon Plaatje, was written in English. But it was exposure to Plaatje’s work while I was based at the Sol Plaatje Museum in Kimberley that made me relook at English as a default language for African storytelling and intellectual engagement. I got to understand language beyond just being a means to communicate but as a body of knowledge and a way of knowing. I got to know how much we lose when we cease utilising our language. I also got to understand the limitations of the colonial language, for instance when we look at language as a facilitator of human relations. I started a process of learning anew my language, I started digging into my linguistic archive. I was fortunate to have grown up in a Setswana-speaking village in Taung. I will always be grateful for that because there is no place whose inhabitants continue to demonstrate the beauty of my language better than those Batlhaping.

When I started writing my first Setswana novel, Ga ke Modisa, it was a moment of madness. But it was also a taste of freedom. I got to know how it feels to artistically express myself in my own language. I no longer had an acquired language, an European fanakalo for that matter, to negotiate with on which are best phrases to use in order to tell stories set in Setswana-speaking communities. I no longer had the burden to explain and or translate. I don’t care about that anymore. This, for me, is the ultimate freedom. In my life as an academic, I am constantly looking for any work in Setswana. I read any fiction, poetry and works of nonfiction in Setswana. It is refreshing. I see anew the world I live in. This beautiful language is a vista into its speakers, their philosophies, their science, their histories. I realise what a tragedy it is that we spent so much time worldview and this means that by not using our languages we end up seeing the world through borrowed spectacles. This goes back to the relationship between coloniser and the colonised being the teacher-pupil relationship. The coloniser believes there is nothing of value in the language, the culture or the worldview of the colonised and drums that kind of thinking in the head of the colonised. Central to colonisation is the unforming and/or reforming the colonised. The colonisers made evil anything that he did not understand, whether it was important to us or not. To an intellectual, whose major asset or device is language, central to decolonisation is awareness of the evil of westernisation and the reclaiming of what is possible to reclaim, develop that which could not be taken away, seek no approval from those that deemed him sub-human or unimportant, be aware that one needs to define oneself because those who define you derive a benefit from such definition. I have been deeper into Sol Plaatje’s world.

Recently Professor Brian Willan and I have completed a book of Plaatje’s letters, many of them in Setswana. This gave me an opportunity to understand Plaatje’s battles with the missionary societies and universities on matters of orthography in the 1920s, his commitment to his Setswna-English newspapers which were great platforms for the development of Setswana as a written language. This year we mark the centenary of his English novel Mhudi and I get to engage with arguments by the likes of Recius Malope and Shole Shole that Mhudi is essentially a Setswana novel. I get to see how Plaatje’s Setswana has enriched his English and instances where the Setswana translations of this novel have actually freed the story from the limitations of English. There are academic debates around the use of African languages in a mainstream way. How can Africans achieve this – be it at government, official capacity or in commerce? It takes political will. English was not always the language of government and education in England. Afrikaans would also not be where it is sans political will. But one must also say leaders, as in politicians, need to be conscious enough to get to that level. I doubt the sloganeering band can think at that level. So we’re on our own: artists, including us writers, must produce work in these languages. Films, novels, music etcetera. But it boils down to political will and legislation.

PJM: Writing in your natural language in the manner that you do is a very serious political act and one that should not make any academic sense. But it is your Setswana writing that has opened doors and portals that many writers will not reach in two lifetimes. Outside of its political imperative, your writing is also linguistically rich. Please expand on these points and why you took this route.

SMM: I think the world is ready to open up and receive anyone who has something interesting or nearly unique to offer. For a reason I don’t know, many people who have invited me to writing programmes abroad seem to be fascinated by my decision to turn my back on English. My approach is this: I write not only what I like but in the language I like. It is political. In other words I show a middle finger to the colonisers. It’s being a unrepenting rebel, it’s being a native who does not seek to be understood by the settler. I chose to write in my language it’s language I know better than any other language on earth and I believe there are many people who would like to read stories in it. South Africa alone has over four million Setswana speakers. That’s the total populations of worldview and this means that by not using our languages we end up seeing the world through borrowed spectacles. This goes back to the relationship between coloniser and the colonised being the teacher-pupil relationship. The coloniser believes there is nothing of value in the language, the culture or the worldview of the colonised and drums that kind of thinking in the head of the colonised. Central to colonisation is the unforming and/or reforming the colonised. The colonisers made evil anything that he did not understand, whether it was important to us or not. To an intellectual, whose major asset or device is language, central to decolonisation is awareness of the evil of westernisation and the reclaiming of what is possible to reclaim, develop that which could not be taken away, seek no approval from those that deemed him sub-human or unimportant, be aware that one needs to define oneself because those who define you derive a benefit from such definition. I have been deeper into Sol Plaatje’s world. Recently Professor Brian Willan and I have completed a book of Plaatje’s letters, many of them in Setswana. This gave me an opportunity to understand Plaatje’s battles with the missionary societies and universities on matters of orthography in the 1920s, his commitment to his Setswna-English newspapers which were great platforms for the development of Setswana as a written language. This year we mark the centenary of his English novel Mhudi and I get to engage with arguments by the likes of Recius Malope and Shole Shole that Mhudi is essentially a Setswana novel. I get to see how Plaatje’s Setswana has enriched his English and instances where the Setswana translations of this novel have actually freed the story from the limitations of English. There are academic debates around the use of African languages in a mainstream way. How can Africans achieve this – be it at government, official capacity or in commerce? It takes political will. English was not always the language of government and education in England. Afrikaans would also not be where it is sans political will. But one must also say leaders, as in politicians, need to be conscious enough to get to that level. I doubt the sloganeering band can think at that level. So we’re on our own: artists, including us writers, must produce work in these languages. Films, novels, music etcetera. But it boils down to political will and legislation.

PJM: Writing in your natural language in the manner that you do is a very serious political act and one that should not make any academic sense. But it is your Setswana writing that has opened doors and portals that many writers will not reach in two lifetimes. Outside of its political imperative, your writing is also linguistically rich. Please expand on these points and why you took this route.

SMM: I think the world is ready to open up and receive anyone who has something interesting or nearly unique to offer. For a reason I don’t know, many people who have invited me to writing programmes abroad seem to be fascinated by my decision to turn my back on English. My approach is this: I write not only what I like but in the language I like. It is political. In other words I show a middle finger to the colonisers. It’s being a unrepenting rebel, it’s being a native who does not seek to be understood by the settler. I chose to write in my language it’s language I know better than any other language on earth and I believe there are many people who would like to read stories in it. South Africa alone has over four million Setswana speakers. That’s the total populations of Lesotho and Botswana put together. That’s more than eleven times the population of Iceland. That’s not a small number at all. To some extent, I believe, central to a people’s identity is their language. I don’t need to quote Ngügí on this. It’s simple logic. So a freed slave or formerly oppressed person’s liberation is not complete while one still sees the world through the spectacles violently imposed on them by those that deemed them subhuman. But apart from the political, I read Setswana books like my life depends on it (actually my career does). I listen to Setswana-medium radio stations (there are around 15 of those in SA alone). So on a daily basis I try to learn new words in this beautiful language, I learn how to use the words I know better, I learn new phrases, I compose new terms for newer things such as Twitter and Facebook, I oppose the use of some old proverbs and idioms and phrases that justify or promote things I don’t agree with – patriarchy, violence.

PJM: You call Makerere University Conference of 1962 a “literary crime scene” (a point that I agree with you on). In your view, how did this crime scene sidetrack the development of African languages writing in the continent and elsewhere? We still feel its effects even today. How can we reverse these or work towards correcting this ‘crime scene’s’ legacy?

SMM: I think the conference was huge as far as the Anglophone Africa is concerned, and its exclusionary nature was and remains the problem. It was called Conference of African Writers of English Expression and true to its name, it excluded African writers who wrote in African languages. This means that someone with a contribution as huge and eternally important as Thomas Mofolo who gave us the first Sesotho novella in 1907 and later Chaka which is still read and taught in many countries today, would not have been allowed in that conference had he been alive at that time. The danger here is that the magnanimity of that conference borders on it directly or indirectly stating what is African literature and what it is not. Most of the people who attended the conference went on to be major writers of African literature in English. The conference not only sidelined African literature in African languages but created a template for future contempt of such. What we need to do is create awareness that these languages are an integral part of us, that we cannot divorce them from who we are. Then we need to write in these languages. There is no language that develops without it being written. Creating literature in any language gives it an opportunity to develop new terminology and borrow where necessary. We need to make sure that we speak our languages at home and make them languages of commerce, education and government. There is no plausible reason why proceedings in the North West Provincial Legislature are in English except that MPLs are under an illuision that speaking English turns their nonsensical speeches into quotable wisdom.

PJM: In your writing, you have managed to avoid romanticising the typical concerns of the ‘African novel’. Many novelists romanticise poverty, sickness (especially HIV), the township and so on. Surely this is intentional. What would you say is your approach to the typical settings, plots and issues that you concern yourself with in your writing?

SMM: I’m of the idea that the life of an average black person in this country is sad. Township is hell, we are generally landless, we pay black tax, our Saturdays are for funerals, Sundays are for the white man’s church, Mondays are for work so that we pay the 20-year bond, month-ends are for paying unending debts, Fridays are for shebeens because we drink to stay sane. It’s hell. We haven’t healed from apartheid. I’m angry. I know I don’t look and sound angry but anger makes me write about heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle becoming common criminals, about us being packed like sardines in townships when a white family has a farm bigger than any of South Africa’s major township. My approach is rugged honesty, no pretence, no trying to sound smart, no mangamanga. But I love my beautiful language.

PJM: Do you think the African novel written in natural languages can be pedagogical? Or is this flying too close to the ‘anthropological duty’ of the African novel?

SMM: It is a fine line. An African writer exists, as Chinua Achebe argued, because the telling was done and because (s)he did not like the telling, (s)he decided to do the telling him/ herself. That is to an extent pedagogical and may border of the anthropological, especially when the African writer feels that (s)he has to right the wrongs of depiction and presentation as done by others about him/her and Africa. There is a need though, to tell a story without the need to be pedagogical, perhaps a story for the story’s sake but the risk is that emanating from a hugely misrepresented ‘dark’ continent, one may not have such luxury.

PJM: There is an expectation of sorts – I suppose; because of the ‘white gaze’ – that African authors and their writing has to fulfill a certain duty – moral, educational, ‘anthropological’ etc; while English writers of novels – or non-African novels are not burdened with this expectation. The English novel – especially when written by a white writer, can be about anything and it is not burdened by any ‘duty’. Would you say this is a fair assessment of the status of the African novel?

SMM: It is not a fair assessment and puts an unnecessary burden on the African writer. This has its roots in missionary education as well as apartheid. The latter reduced African language literature to be literature of the classroom with no use on the real world trade, politics and daily life. I personally refuse to write in order to fulfill the above-mentioned. I write stories that simply demand and deserve to be told. If anything anthropological or educational is derived from these stories it is merely unintended consequence. I write with no white reader in mind because the need to explain ourselves begins the moment we think of that white man that we feel we are presenting ourselves to. Of course our realities are too harsh and if we reflect that in our stories, one may realise that it is not easy for an African writer to write about daffodils and butterflies.

PJM: Your PhD is on another important Setswana author, Kabelo Duncan Kgatea. Can you do two things: broadly and generally explain why is Kgatea such an important figure of Setswana fiction in the post-1994 and expand on his rapport or body of work?

SMM: Kgatea has produced more work of Setswana fiction than any other person alive today. He wrote six novels, all of them in the postapartheid era. He has also written 16 radio dramas that have been broadcast on national radio. He is not even 60 years old. In all his novels he writes about human condition in the post-apartheid South Africa, basically he writes about the delicate process of rebuilding a broken, polarised and fragmented nation. When you read his novels you may be tempted to see Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation at best as an incomplete healing process or at worst as a farce, a process in which perpetrators knew what was in it for them while the victims were sold something as a dream called closure. Kgatea shows us, as Sol Plaatje did a century ago, the cruelty of landlessness, the pain of being a second class citizen or as Plaatje wrote, a pariah in the land of your birth. But Kgatea also simplifies Paulo Freire’s argument that it is the oppressed who has the ability to grant freedom to the oppressor rather another way round. Kgatea, through his novels, part-takes in a conversation started by his icon Sol Plaatje over a hundred years ago. He unpacks what Plaatje termed the “Black man’s burden”. My interest in Kgatea’s work is focused on his six novels, all written in the post ‘94 dispensation and all a form of kaleidoscope into a multiracial (as opposed to nonracial) society, a close-up of a nation in the time of profound change. I am interested in race and reconciliation in these novels. In all of these novels Kgatea has all the South African races and shows how the country negotiates a new, post-apartheid order. He shows how SA is battling to create a state nation out of what apartheid had intended to be some sort of a group of nation ‘states’.

BY:

ntatabokang@gmail.com

Phehello Mofokeng is a Publisher-in-chief at Geko Publishing (Pty) Ltd. Geko Publishing has published over 25 titles in English and a wide spectrum of South African national languages....

2 Comment

    • Malesela -

    • March 8, 2020 at 22:26 pm

    A very enlightening interview from both parties. You gentlemen clearly shows the respect and admiration you have for our natural languages. Again, thank you Sebata for taking the initiative to lead the way in fighting for our indigenous languages to gain recognition in the literary space. You are such an inspiration. Keep doing the great work. We are right behind you , starting from now.

    • Malesela -

    • March 8, 2020 at 22:26 pm

    A very enlightening interview from both parties. You gentlemen clearly shows the respect and admiration you have for our natural languages. Again, thank you Sebata for taking the initiative to lead the way in fighting for our indigenous languages to gain recognition in the literary space. You are such an inspiration. Keep doing the great work. We are right behind you , starting from now.

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