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The zeitgeist of post-Apartheid South Africa and critical pedagogy in Sabata Mokae’s “Ga ke Modisa”

I dreamt I was a resident of Lembede Park! It was actually a nightmare not a dream because throughout the dream I kept asking myself “how did end up living here?”. I was super relieved to wake up in my home in a little known Joburg suburb far away from Lembede Park 😅. The dream clearly reflected my unease about living in a posh housing complex founded on the endemic corruptheid plaguing our country. Actually, Lembede Park does not even exist! It is a figment of Sabata-mpho Mokae’s imagination in his award-winning 2012 Setswana novel, Ga Ke Modisa (I Am Not My Brother’s Keeper).
I was reading the novel to meet two objectives:
  1. Read for pleasure and get a break from academic stuff.
  2. Fight my chronic Tsundoku (the habit of acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them).
But, reading the novel had me excited and frustrated about all sorts of school related stuff, thus dragging me back into the academic domain. I imagined myself teaching a critical literacy lesson and salivated thinking about the discussions we could have on the range of national interest issues covered in the book, mmhhh 😋😋😋. The novel should definitely be prescribed reading for learners from Grade 10 onwards (if this is not already the case).
My mind then wandered towards the teaching and learning of Setswana in Joburg schools. Who teaches Setswana in our schools? Where did they learn to be Setswana teachers? Did they actually have any Setswana Language teaching education? If yes, where? I did my B. Ed. at Wits from 2015-2018 and Setswana was not one of the languages on offer. In fact, only four out of the eleven official languages were offered (Afrikaans, English, IsiZulu and Sesotho). Isn’t that a strange for a university based in the heart of a multilingual city? I must actually find out from Wits why this is the case. But I digress. So, who is teaching the other languages and how were they prepared to teach those languages? Were they prepared to teach those languages? There I go ranting again 🤦🏾‍♀️🤦🏾‍♀️🤦🏾‍♀️.
Let me get back to the novel. Dreaming about the novel reflects the extent to which I was pulled into the story and the depth to which I was immersed that I became part of the story. I can only attribute this connection to the fact that I was reading the novel in my mother-tongue, Setswana. I just had this enduring sense of affinity while reading the novel that I don’t experience when reading in English even when the content is about matters that are close to my heart or familiar to me.
Neville Alexander explains this more cogently, “Being able to use the language (s) one has the best command of in any situation is an empowering factor and, conversely, not being able to do so is necessarily disempowering. The self-esteem, self-confidence, potential creativity and spontaneity that come with being able to use the language(s) that has or have shaped one from early childhood … is the foundation of all democratic politics and institutions. To be denied the use of the languages is the very meaning of oppression”.
Mokae’s ability to capture the zeitgeist of post-Apartheid South Africa elevates the book from a brilliant Setswana novel to a critical text that can be used in the practice of critical pedagogy (Paulo Freire) and the development of culturally relevant and responsive literacy (Gholdy Muhammad).
Ga Ke Modisa is not only good for language classes but could be used for the development of critical literacy in subjects across the curriculum. I am hopeless at mathematics and statistics, but I can imagine learners working out how much a small-town mayor would have to earn to maintain a an above average lifestyle. Or, determine the probability of said mayor owning a luxury car, living in a mansion in an exclusive suburb, wearing designer clothes & rocking pointy shoes, imbibing booze with name, surname & age, smoking cigars fit for revolutionaries … you get the picture, on a civil servant salary. In a science class, students could explore the interaction of alcohol and tranquilizers and how this impacts human organs. In a Life Orientation class, learners could debate the merits of family loyalty over ethics and national interest… The possibilities are endless. Sadly, so are the limitations because children learn in their home languages only until Grade 4 while the implementation of our progressive Language in Education Policy of 1997 remains a dream deferred.
Okay, back to my objectives! Objective two was fully accomplished. My “to-read” pile is now one book less 💃🏽💃🏽💃🏽Objective one? The reading for pleasure part was certainly accomplished! Ga Ke Modisa is an absolutely delightful read and has all the elements one could ask for in a contemporary South African story: history, family, culture, politics (of the stomach), friendship, romance and so on and so forth. Just look at this pick-up line, “Ke mabele ke gasane ke tlhoka yo o tla nkolelang” ❤️❤️❤️
What about the getting away from academics part? That was an epic failure. It was inevitable given my language ideologies and my stance on the language of learning and teaching debate. I am a teacher, a language teacher who strongly believes in mother-tongue based additive multilingual education and vehemently opposed to the current subtractive early-exit bilingual education. It breaks my heart that reading novels in our indigenous languages is becoming an exotic feat as our education system beats the multilingualism that children bring to school out of them; subsequently shaping them into half-baked English monolinguals. So, it was not possible to ignore the Language in Education Policy of 1997 chimera and the resultant glaring language in education issues that continue to negatively impact the performance and achievement levels of many learners who do not have English as their home language and are taught by teachers who may not be fully competent in the languages that they teach nor the language in which they teach.
But, my failure to confine my engagement with the novel within the leisure/pleasure realm is testament to Mokae’s visionary reading of society and mastery in storytelling. He paints a picture of society and lets the reader decide what to make of the society he has painted. Reading Ga Ke Modisa was a rewarding experience, and Mokae is fully deserving of the accolades he was awarded for this masterpiece. The novel was published ten years ago but it could have been written yesterday, literally! Look at the words of a character in the novel whose imprisonment for corruption is imminent: “Kana ke itse diphiri di le dintsi mme fa ba ka ntlogela gore ke bopame, nka rothisa madi!” (By the way, I know a lot of secrets and if they lock me up, I will spill the beans) Déjà entendu?
Let me leave it there. A saying in the language of Matome, a Mopedi character in the novel goes, “Go anegelwa ke go tingwa”. So, get the book, read for yourself, and decide whether you’d want to live in Lembede Park and then laugh or cry when you realise that Lembede Park is a microcosm of contemporary South African society.
A special treat: View Presley Chweneyagae doing a beautiful reading of an excerpt from the novel here: https://youtu.be/exqyg70Tgms
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