Sunday, 24 July 2005

Cheers to 33 + 1

The blog is one year old today, and who would've thought we'd make it? To add to the occasion, Cerebus is bypassing JC this year and turned 33 yesterday. This is what I wrote one year ago:
the blog is up and running, after only two weeks of discussing it. this must rate as one of the most decisive moments of my life - any more decisions at such breakneck speed and my posts will become blurred as well.

cerebus will join soon, as soon as the weight of yet another birthday (july 23rd) wears off.
Cerebus and I quickly realised we're not going to make it alone and Krizz and Thespian joined as well (the latter for one real and several promised posts). So cheers to us for managing to clutter up the Internet with another 80+ Deep and Informed ramblings. Let's see what the next year brings. Hmmm.

Wednesday, 13 July 2005

British muslim bombers, NY Times & selective reporting

On the subject of crap reporting.

Check out the New York Times report on the revelation that the attacks in London was carried out by British muslims:

"Neighbors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not wish to draw attention to themselves during a time of tension, said Mr. Tanweer had worked at his family's fast-food store selling fish and chips. "When he was 15 or 16, he got all religious, and started praying five times a day," a woman said."

"The neighbors said Mr. Tanweer had attended two local schools and had been known as a soccer and cricket player. "He was more British than anything else," said one of two women who said they were neighbors."

The NY Times prefers to zoom in on only one of the four suspects, who though "more British than anything else," suddenly "got all religious and started praying five times a day" (ironically is the number of prayers expected daily according to Islam - more or less like Christians are supposed to go to Church every Sunday).

What irritates me here is the not-so-subtle perpetuation of the structure of thought that every devout muslim is a latent suicide bomber. Religious devotion should not be treated as a necessary condition for fundamentalist political stances (In fact, I would argue that most religious fundamentalists are on the periphery of the core religious tradition, but that is for another time).

If you compare it to the Reuters article, which I presume the NYTimes journalists used as filler, then a different picture emerges (it also emerges that Reuters uses The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Times as source material - what do you think of that Pollen?):

"They were four ordinary British lads from ordinary British homes who loved football and girls... So why did they become the suicide murderers?" The Daily Mirror wondered on its front page.

Neighbours in Leeds were shocked that their young might have been responsible for the blasts.

"He was a sweet guy who gets on with everyone," said Mohamed Ansaar Riaz, 19, in The Times newspaper, of one of the four suspects, a 22-year-old sports science graduate who was said to adore football and cricket.

"He had a fantastic sense of humour and could make you laugh... The idea of him going down to London to explode a bomb is unbelievable; it is not in his nature to do something like that."

The suspect, who was said to help out in his father's fast food shop in Leeds, was described as "sound as a pound" by Azi Mohammed in The Guardian.

"I only played cricket in the park with him around 10 days ago. He is not interested in politics."

Another neighbour, who declined to be named, told ITN News that the "always smiling" sports graduate had spent two months in Afghanistan last year and four months in the Pakistani city of Lahore.

Another suspect, a 19-year-old also from Leeds, was said to have turned to religion after being a "bit wild".

"He went off the rails and his parents were very worried. They wanted to instil some discipline in him; I don't know what happened but 18 months to two years ago (the suspect) suddenly changed and became devoutly religious," a cousin was quoted in The Times as saying.

A third suspect was said to be a 30-year old married father of one and according to an unnamed member of his wife's family they had originally disapproved of him because he was not as traditional a Muslim as they would have wished.

"He does not believe in having a beard or wearing a hat. But he has always seemed a really nice guy and has never been in any trouble that I know of. He has been to Pakistan a few times but not for long periods," the in-law was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying.

Well, if you look past the irritating, "I cannot believe that our nice neighbour turned out to be an ax-wielding serial killer" - then it seems that only one of these bombers could be considered devout and then only after a "damascus moment". Surprise surprise, that is the one on which the NY Times prefers to shine their human angle spotlight. I am not only making a point about selective reporting. I am also making a point about the nature of fundamentalist Islam - most islamic fundamentalists are not really the devout muslims they are made out to be. Put another way, they are not driven by their religious beliefs, rather they mobilise around their religious identity, but they are driven by their politics.

Another Reuters article gives devout muslims the chance to respond:
The Muslim Council of Britain said it was stunned that English Muslims appeared to have carried out the attacks. "We have received today's terrible news from the police with anguish, shock and horror," secretary-general Iqbal Sacranie said in a statement. "Nothing in Islam can ever justify the evil actions of the bombers."

Monday, 11 July 2005

Dumb(ing down) asses

When I check news headlines online, I tend to verify the stories on three different publications, as opinions of what is news-worthy and what to say about it can differ substantially. One of the reasons I only buy weeklies is that the important news is online anyway, and all you get extra in the printed version are the useless local stories. I've often wondered what do our SA journalists do these days for most of the day, as most stories seem to come from the news agencies like SAPA, Reuters, AFP etc. It's only these agencies that write actual new news stories, requiring some understanding of the world, which then gets copied and pasted by the local papers.

Increasingly, reading three online publications is just as worthless, because the same story and the same text is just repeated ad infinitum... the same stories get repeated under the "Funny and weird" section (usually about China)... the same pictures get published... the same mistakes get made over and over and over again.

Like the story everyone is running again today, written by some sap at SAPA, about the two scientists that have discovered time travel backwards causes to much interference and you can therefore not theoretically travel backwards to other scenarios. IOL first runs this stunning headline: "Quantum Theory rubbished as mumbo jumbo" then follows it up with the SAPA cut-and-paste job, which ends with probably the stupidest, dumbest comment since... well, since Bush crashed his bicycle again. Check this:

"Their theory makes nonsense of the movie Back To The Future, in which the character played by Michael J Fox had to ensure that his prospective parents actually met."

Holy crap! How inane can you get? What, I ask with bitter tears streaming down my grizly cheaks, does this mean? That the writer knows his 80s movies? That the Back To The Future movies were supposed to be hardcore realism? That the makers always defended it as the truth? That Einstein's brain can be reduced to this?

It's just sad, very sad. And it's everywhere... mostly in standardised high-culture languages.

Friday, 8 July 2005

Eleven Official Languages? Count again Max...

Seen from above the eleven official languages situation in South Africa seems like a celebration of diversity, but seen from below the opposite is actually the case. Take for instance the Eastern Cape province and KwaZulu-Natal. If one would walk from Port Elizabeth to Durban, then you won't find that in one village people speak isiXhosa and then there is a sudden transition to people speaking isiZulu in the next village. The truth is that as you walk from village to village, you would find people speaking a number of different local dialects/languages that exist on a continuum between isiXhosa and isiZulu - and you would probably find that whilst people living at the start of your journey would have a little trouble understanding people living close to the end of your journey, people in neighbouring villages will have no such communication problems. So, rather than saying that people in one village speak isiXhosa/Zulu, it would be more accurate to say that people in one area speak Mpondo and in another area Cele and so forth...

Therefore, from the perspective of the rural areas, the eleven official languages are not a celebration of South African diversity - it is much more of a large-scale language reduction exercise by the South African state, that denies status to many local dialects and so effectively pushing local dialects towards standardization or extinction. A specific local dialect in the Eastern Cape for instance, that possesses a vocabulary and syntax that is somewhere between isiXhosa and isiZulu, would then have to "choose" with which standardized version to align itself - isiXhosa or isiZulu - thus contributing to its own extinction.

Now, if you put this type of spin on the whole debate about the importance of mother-tongue education in South Africa then you'll see that the participants in this debate are often guilty of oversimplification. Here is Max du Preez take on matters, as an example of the type of argument that is often made.

The catch-22 of mother-tongue education being: you need language standardization in order to have broad-based literacy/education. Or you need mastery of a language that would give you access to the world (in terms of communication, but also in terms of coming to grips with a modern world) - and probably English is better for this than Afrikaans, which is better for it than isiXhosa, which in turn is better than Cele or Mpondo or San, and so forth. But language is a tool like any other - if you are not a competent language user in a standardized high-culture language - some of the features of this tool remain unavailable to you. The question then becomes whether you would be better off using a less sophisticated tool, which you could hopefully wield more skillfully. Ai-ai...

Thursday, 7 July 2005

Let's put an ethnocentric cat amongst the multicultural pigeons

I have been thinking about the pro-Afrikaans lobby that regularly take part in the “taaldebat” (language debate) – especially since the DA’s recent fight with the insensitive billboard.

I am interested in the switch by the Afrikaans “taalstryders” away from Afrikaans as a European language to Afrikaans as a homegrown indigenous language. The merits of the whole language debate aside, I am simply wondering whether promoting Afrikaans as an indigenous language is strategically wise in terms of language politics.

The background is of course our constitution that guarantees the official status of 11 languages in South Africa (The official languages of South Africa are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu). But of course the result of positing 11 official languages is that English becomes the public language no.1, or the universal/official language, whilst the other 10 languages all recede to local/private status. The de facto situation in South Africa is thus almost a kind of “diglossia.” This is more than mere bilingualism – there is a clear division of labor between the different languages that a speaker employs – the one operates as a low-language and the other as a high-language, and they are used for different purposes and in different contexts. In the case of South Africa, the indigenous languages operate as private languages, whilst English fulfils the role of universal or public language.

Against such a background, claiming similarity between Afrikaans and the other indigenous languages make little sense. A much better strategy, but something the pro-Afrikaans lobby seemingly has not discovered yet, would be one of differentiation; in other words to claim that Afrikaans offers capacities that the other indigenous languages failed to acquire (maybe unfairly, but still they cannot offer their speakers the same kind of cognitive resources).

As a result of the apartheid state’s active promotion of Afrikaans, the language now offers a cognitive/cultural resource to its speakers that give them access to a scientific/technical lifeworld. In the language of Gellner (or Gagiano), Afrikaans gives its speakers access to a high-culture in a way that isiXhosa does not to its speakers. Of course this difference between Afrikaans and isiXhosa as cognitive resources is partly attributable to the promotional efforts of the apartheid state that favoured Afrikaans over (other) indigenous languages. But the efforts of the state to promote and standardize Afrikaans, is not the only reason for this difference; it also has to do with the fact that Afrikaans derives from Dutch – a language that already possessed this high-culture capacity. It would be a far more accurate depiction of the language politics in South Africa to say that Afrikaans needed this state sponsorship to develop its latent capacity, not because it was primarily in competition with indigenous languages, but because it had to attain its high-culture status in proximity to an already existing high-culture language, namely English. In other words, the real competition for high-culture status was with English.

By hook or by crook, Afrikaans is thus different from the indigenous languages, because it has cognitive properties that the other languages do not have and therefore offers more cognitive resources in the real world. Empirically it shows, as Afrikaans is after English the most widely spoken language in Southern Africa.

Wednesday, 6 July 2005

The Billboard

Re: the issue of the billboard discussed below. It doesn't matter what the technical status of Afrikaans is, whoever made that billboard was acting in bad faith, excluding Afrikaans on purpose. The indigenous-ness, or not, of Afrikaans is not the issue here. The issue is that Afrikaans was purposefully not given the benefit of the doubt, and anyone living in SA would be aware of the sensitivities. Let's face it: it was clearly malicious. (Also, let's get used to it.)

Bloody uitlanders.

Tuesday, 5 July 2005

ANC Today

This is the mental picture I have of the inner workings of the ANC after the 2nd National General Council.


Sheesh! Now this was eerie. I've been meaning to write something on the whole DA/ Afrikaans/ billboard thing, and as I logged in I saw Krizz beat me to it.. and actually said a lot of what I wanted to say... ai-ai.

I didn't do 5 minutes of Internet research for nothing, however. So here's my (somewhat deflated) opinion:

I saw the billboard at Jhb International last week and the first thing I wondered was how long it's been there, as we haven't heard the indignant laments from the usual crowd. The second thing I wondered was is it really true: no word for "foreigner" in nine indigenous languages? Hmmmm.

On the indigenous issue, Krizz talks about the meaning of the word. One of the definitions at describes indigenous as: "Originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment." Ok, so there is some argument for saying Afrikaans is indigenous to South Africa. Whether a linguist will call it an African language is up for debate, as Krizz has pointed out.

The issue of the ad's claim kept bugging me: "nine indigenous languages, 44-million people and not one word foreigner" or something to that effect. Obviously this excludes English (apart from not being indigenous) and Afrikaans. There is... well, foreigner and there is vreemdeling. So even if you regard Afrikaans as indigenous, you can't go around and make the same claim while including it, now can you? That, at least, should tell the DA and FF+ to talk to the hand. (I won't even go into Tony Leon's attempt at Afrikaans in an election ad some years ago: "Dit iz Tony Leon fon di Dehmôquwratieze Pôrrrtay" - what language was that, meneer?)

But. And it's a big, hairy but: is there really no word for foreigner in the other nine? How do these people communicate? What do they call the favourite South African target of all xenophobic outbursts: Nigerians?

Not to worry. It turns out, the ad lied. A quick Internet search turned up no Zulu word for foreigner (score: 1 out of 9), and the Xhosa dictionaries are few and far inbetween (score: possible 2 out of 9), but lo and behold the search results for foreigner in Northern Sotho: lephatle (outsider, foreigner), mofaladi (emigrant, foreigner), mošele (stranger, alien, foreigner), ntopolane (foreigner, victim). Four! The only outcome is for someone to now explain to me that these words actually mean something else. Go for it if your Northern Sotho is better than mine, but the ad might need to go to the ASA for other reasons. (I didn't check the others, sheesh, I have a life!)

At least those supporting Afrikaans as African have one more ally: The Online English to African Dictionary. Look again. African is a language? Not really, they meant Afrikaans. But if the Internet says it is so, who are we to judge?

DA fumes over airport advert

The DA feels strongly about an airport advertisement, with the words "nine indigenous languages, 44 million people..." was grossly insensitive and a "smack in the face of everyone who spoke Afrikaans".

"Afrikaans is a unique language which started here in South Africa. The language, along with our ten other official languages, enjoys the full recognition and protection of the Constitution."

Ja well, interesting... depending what you mean with indigenous language of course ;-)

In the past white Afrikaans speakers tried to emphasise that Afrikaans is a European language. It was the language of civilisation here in South Africa. Then as the politics changed, there was an about-turn and now people want to claim that Afrikaans is an indigenous language (maybe even an African language?)

The truth is of course that Afrikaans is a creolized version of Dutch. It is basically Dutch with some words and grammar rules borrowed Indonesian (courtesy of the slaves brought from Indonesia and Malaysia to the Cape) and this process of creolization took place on the African continent. Does that make it an indigenous language? Or does it simply mean that in future we may also claim that Afrikaans is actually an Asian language! Might become handy in a world where China is the only superpower...

Point being, it is not that easy to make a living thing like a language fit human's constructed geographical boundaries. And it is as clear as daylight that the DA are taking a cheap shot at a billboard in the hope of harvesting votes from white Afrikaans speakers.

I am not so sure however that most white Afrikaans speakers will be comfortable with the DA's insistence that Afrikaans is an indigenous language (by implication worthy of the same rights and protection as African languages). Most white Afrikaans people would think Afrikaans superior to African languages, because it is also used as a technical and scientific language. But maybe that is about to change if you take a look at the Minister of Educaton, Naledi Pandor's plans for African languages.

Pandor said she could not be swayed from the belief that the indigenous languages had been marginalised, neglected and underdeveloped and that "their strengthening and revival depends to a great degree on what we do in education".

The irony is that Afrikaans is the second-most spoken language in Soweto (amongst blacks) as well as the most widely spoken language on the Cape Flats (amongst coloureds) - but very few white Afrikaans speakers will recognise those versions of the Afrikaans language, let alone claim some form of language-bond. And it is of course also true that those blacks who use Afrikaans as their second language after their African language are not part of the black elite that decide on what happens in this country.