Yesterday I was at the mall and I happened to use the lifts. When I entered the lift I was amazed by the technological advancement I encountered. There is a voice that tells you that “you are in the first floor”. When the lift reached the second floor the voice announced again “you are in the second floor, door opening”. I asked the tannie if she has noticed this, she told me she has. She schooled me on this saying “it is made for the blind people”; she even showed me the braille dots on the buttons. I marvelled at this. However, my excitement quickly died off as my inquisitive nature kicked in. I asked myself so what if you are blind and you do not speak English. Melancholically tannie was no longer there. I decided I am going to go down with this lift and try to figure out if there is any button for language choice. Guess what? There was no button of that sort!
I decided to press the help button; a voice of the African lady with a strong Tswana accent responded. I ask her if the voice in the lift can be changed to Sesotho. She cracked into laughter and said “he eh papa dilifti tsena disebedisa Senkekesemane fela”. I lost energy to continue interrogating her; I was agitated by her laughter and her acceptance of defeat by the Western standards. I thanked her for her “assistance” and exited the lift. This thing couldn’t leave my ‘revolutionary conscience’. I kept asking myself what if you are blind and cannot read any braille and you cannot speak English. The answer was obvious but I refused to accept it. I thought the voice in my heard that kept saying “then you are screwed” was not right. I quickly remembered that konje the black society has deaf people too, so I thought ahh! But those they can see where they are going moss. A flamboyant voice spoke to my ear and asked “aikonawhen they go to the bank benzenjani “So I realised that in a bigger picture the technological advancements are not pro-African.
The banks and other institutions are busy migrating to the advanced digital functioning where there will be no usage of paper. We see the development of easy banking Apps and USSD codes to access various services. This is a brilliant move, absolutely no doubt about that! Nonetheless Black Africans who are speakers of African Indigenous languages must start asking questions of why these developments and innovations linguistically exclude them. StatSA’s numbers of the 2011 Census indicate that the speakers of Nguni languages amount to 43.4%, followed by the Sotho languages speakers who are 24.7%, Afrikaans group at 13.5%, English at 9.6%, Xitsonga 4.5% and Tshivenda at 2.4%. With this in mind, it will be illogic to assert that one is opening access to information for the masses of the population yet English is used in the App one is developing. That will mean one has excluded +90% of the population. Imagine if they use Tshivenda for real, they will not see the sunset before receiving a letter from the Human Rights Council.
The African languages speakers in South Africa constitutionally are well accommodated yet in practice they are excluded and forced to enter the technological world through the languages of their former oppressor. The 9.6% that speak English as a mother tongue are the only group that is given a choice to receive information in their language. The rest of us must first acquire English then we can be part of the “IT gemeenskap”. If you are blind or deaf, the pre-requisite remains the same. English is the language of any technological advancement. When they make buildings they think of An English speaking blind person, when they create screen readers they think of English speaking people, so being blind and a speaker of the African language o mathateng.
These institutions have the same attitude of the help-desk lady at the mall, who thought it is even a ridiculous idea to think that a lift can be programmed in isiZulu. They too, do not believe that the indigenous languages can be utilised in Apps. To them isiZulu and Sesotho are colloquial languages with no capacity and even the potential to be active role-players in the global village. Zulus and Sothos must first be anglicised then they are fit to be part of the digital world. They are not the only ones. Try to peruse the Consumer Protection Act no. 60 of 2008 and see if you are going to find a clause that guard against linguistic rights of people. You will only find “plain and understandable language”! That covertly means English for dummies. The Financial Service Board, the watchdogs of the Acts governing the Financial Services Providers are aware of the unprotected African languages in these statutes but they see nothing wrong about that. The National Credit Regulator which regulates credit providers has a section 63 and 64 in the National Credit Act but they let the providers get away with murder. It is only African languages by the way; they do not have to conform. So our government is okay with the fact that the majority of the African languages speakers are systematically discriminated, minoritised and excluded in such ways. Baba Dlamini will never use a navigator, because it gives directives in English, Minister Fikile Mbalula can because he has mastered Henry Frere’s language!
Language policies published by the government entities, enterprises and national departments under the Use of Official Languages Act 12 of 2012 all advocate for English as a transactional and internal language and for official documents. African languages speakers, despite being the majority, can only access a document in 60 days. That will be a translated version. Otherwise, African languages will be used to advertise, run campaigns and colloquially at the call centres and branches when members of the public seek clarity. Yebo, you heard me right. No written information for the +90% of the population! Only the 9.6 % English speakers can access information in their language promptly. If you want to receive it promptly too, you better fu$*n’ learn English first then you will be a better citizen. Ohh! Let me not forget to mention this: you cannot work for this government if you are monolingual in any African language; the human resources departments are not prepared to deal with ‘nonsensical languages’. If you are English monolingual, don’t worry the job is yours. The bigger picture here is that even the government is not moved. Thus, the people of the Republic will continue being side-lined and being left wanting in the digital world.
Despite all the statutes and every system that is set in the land of our forefathers, we remain like the cattle herded by an adolescent boy with a small stick. We are powerful but powerless! We are ‘minoritised’ through English. We are made to believe that our languages are not good enough as languages of intelligence. We have accepted that we will forever be at the messy of the descendants of the Queen to access tools to embetter our lives. The worst crime we are committing now is forgetting that by admitting this we are institutionally imperialising and colonising our generations. Such things depend not on Mandela and Sobukwe, they depend on me! Notwithstanding having my sight and my hearing let truth are told: all of us black South African whether we are blind or deaf we are literally screwed!! These Apps are not for us…period!
“Usesigabeni sesithathu sebhilidi, isicabha siyavaleka, ilifti iyehla” the lifts in 20-donsamehlo will say in KZN when true freedom comes!!