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02 February 2024 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Stephen Collett
African languages, gender, and sexualities explored in newly launched Thetha Sizwe
At the launch of the book Thetha Sizwe, were from the left, front: Dr Phindile Dlamini, Dr Engela van Staden, Prof Nompumelelo Zondi, and Dr Bonakele Mhlongo; back: Prof Mogomme Masoga, Prof Saleem Badat (Consulting Fellow at the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Research Professor in the UFS Department of History), Dr Gabisile Mkhize, and Prof Vasu Reddy.

The book, Thetha Sizwe: Contemporary South African Debates on African Languages and the Politics of Gender and Sexualities, saw the light six years after the idea for this publication was conceived. The launch took place on the Bloemfontein Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS).

In her welcoming words, Dr Engela van Staden, former Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the UFS, expressed that the message she took away from this book is the crafting of new philosophical spaces, particularly for the UFS in its effort to develop Sesotho as an academic language. “I see this as a foundational work that can be used not only in schools, but also in universities, because it shapes a theory to be further debated. This work sheds light on cultural dimensions that are currently very pertinent in higher education.”

Dr Van Staden also expressed the hope that the Academy for Multilingualism at the UFS will use these learnings for the benefit of education at the university. 

At the event, Prof Mogomme Masoga, Dean of the Faculty of The Humanities – who also provided a short review on the back cover of the book – congratulated the authors for a well-executed job. “Without language, we are nothing. The authors have helped us to think about issues that are affecting us. It was a brave task to look at language and incorporate social and political issues into that,” he said.

Understanding inequalities in the broader human and social dimension

Prof Vasu Reddy, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation (UFS) and one of the editors and authors, provided an overview of the book’s genesis. He explained that this collection of essays is a product of a funded project by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. According to him, Thetha Sizwe is part of a programme titled: Justice and humanity: Challenging world inequalities. He emphasised that the key to the project lies in the concept of understanding inequalities in the broader human and social dimensions – a contemporary global problem.

Prof Reddy is of the opinion that the term ‘inequality’ often places excessive emphasis on economic and wealth indices at the expense of humanistic constructions, presenting limitations to our understanding of this issue.

According to him, ‘inequality’ is a weighty word carrying shades of meaning that question and probe the meaning of ‘equality’. “It brings forth issues of unevenness, disproportion, and the lack of fair and just treatment. Equality is something we all strive for and want and demand. It is one of the world’s most potent human ideals – a constant social concern,” he said.

Prof Reddy stated that this is a book that takes readers into the storylines of language and gender. “Languages are not just innocent tools. They convey so much in a social dimension. They also represent the social structures in our societies and have bearing on social identity. Language intersects with a range of identity markers such as class, race, and sexuality.”

In his view, gender and feminist thinking are also deeply intertwined with considerations of inequalities, fundamentally because inequalities also speak to questions of social difference in which gender plays a critical role.  He noted that the text is pioneering in many ways.

Bringing about empowerment and being listened to

Besides Prof Reddy, the other authors who attended the event and who engaged in a panel discussion about the book included Dr Gabisile Mkhize, Dr Bonakele Mhlongo, and Dr Phindile Dlamini from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as Prof Nompumelelo Zondi from the University of Pretoria.

Dr Mkhize said one of the things about this book that inspired her was its ability to provide a platform to discuss these matters without holding back. “When you speak, you want to be listened to. That inspired me,” she stated. Prof Zondi believes that everyone wants to be respected and to feel part of a bigger picture, not isolated. “It was important not to exclude anyone from the conversation. Sizwe, meaning that we may hear everyone. Thetha Sizwe (loosely translated as ‘let your voice be heard’) suggests that these issues are not restricted to just a few people but are a national concern. All kinds of inequalities are addressed in this book,” she said, stating that the book will be timeless.

Dr Mhlongo, who wrote her chapter in isiZulu, focused on polygamy. She remarked that her chapter was inspired by the desire to bring about empowerment in the context of gender and inequality. Dr Dlamini, who wrote about three ceremonies performed by women, used these ceremonies to showcase the richness of indigenous knowledge, specifically examining the songs sung during each ceremony. “Before we were colonised, we could do anything with our language,” she commented.

The book was published by ESI (Emerging Scholars Initiative) Press. All attendees of the event received a complimentary hard copy of the book, which is also available to the public free of charge. 

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