Editorial Comment: Minority rights becoming real rights
Zimbabwe has made impressive progress in not just giving rights to minorities, but in converting those theoretical rights in the Constitution of 2013 into practical programmes, policies and actions that make these rights real.
And President Mnangagwa was on solid ground when he detailed before the UN General Assembly Zimbabwe’s significant achievements as the world commemorated the 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National, Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
There were some back in 2013 who felt entrenching 16 languages in the Constitution as official languages was going overboard, but the counter-argument was decisive: why should some community have their language ignored, and in any case who was going to do the ignoring.
Essentially it had to be all or none if every citizen was to be treated equally. This is important. Zimbabwe had far too much colonial history that declared some citizens first class and some second class, some languages first class, or at least one language first class, and a whole pile second or third class. That needed to be reversed.
The United Nations in 1992 acted on this itself, and looking at individuals rather than nation states declared that each individual had cultural and linguistic rights and that these, at the essential base, were equal.
Of course there are practicalities. Zimbabwe faces two sets of these. First we need to be able to communicate with each other, with people we live next door to and work with, and we need to communicate with people across the world. We cannot be condemned to associate only with people from our own linguistic community.
Secondly we need to ensure that the right for a person to have their language listed as an official language is translated into fact, that they can use their mother tongue, that their children can be taught the language to full literacy, that they can find materials in that language and that the State gives practical as well as theoretical recognition to every official language.
The solution is obvious. Few people have the linguistic skills and the time to learn all 16 languages, but almost all Zimbabweans are at least bilingual and a substantial number are trilingual as part of the practicalities of interacting with neighbours and friends, obtaining employment, doing business and heading into advanced education.
By an historical quirk the international language used by Zimbabweans is English, but this is not a bad choice. Many countries, from China downwards, have adopted that language as a recommended or compulsory school subject even though they never were in the British Empire simply because it is probably the most useful for international communication, even though the overwhelming majority of users are not mother-tongue speakers.
But that does not mean we have to accept the culture of the mother-tongue speakers or lose our own identities and cultural background.
At one stage across most of Europe, Latin performed this function, centuries after the last mother-tongue speaker had died, and the Roman Empire was nothing more than a set of decaying ruins.
Also as a matter of practicality two local languages have the largest number of mother-tongue speakers, and even with growing urbanisation and movement of people, it is extremely useful for business and for social mixing to speak Shona in the eastern part of Zimbabwe and Ndebele in the western part.
But this is, for those who are not mother-tongue speakers of either language, simply a communication convenience, not a way of expressing identity. Despite the attempts of the colonial authorities to see Zimbabwe as simply a trilingual country, and lump all indigenous citizens into two cultural and political groups, most people wanted to retain their own language as well and not be put into some box of the chief native commissioner.
The Bible Society was at one stage the only body that took the far wider language diversity seriously, trying to get at least some sections of the Bible translated into all languages, even if there were only a few thousand speakers, and the whole Bible as a matter of course into languages where there were a few tens of thousands of speakers or more.
Sometimes the society was able to use the fact that a linguistic group was split by an inherited colonial frontier, and regional societies were able to split up the required work. This approach needs to be looked at for some of our minority languages when we build up education and other materials.
The Constitutional reforms of nine years ago recognised the diversity, as could be expected when we wrote a Constitution with the people participating rather than having a bunch of lawyers and politicians sitting round a table and dictating the deal.
And a major pressure at that stage was to recognise everyone’s language and identity as equal.
The Second Republic is now attempting to convert that theoretical right and Constitutional guarantee into something practical. We admittedly have a long way to go, but already we have translated some of the essential documents, such as the Constitution and development plans, and we are pressing ahead.
The advent of community radio stations is already opening opportunities, at least where a minority language group has a concentrated geographical centre, and it is now Government policy to press ahead with that when licences are being issued.
Living languages need to live and between the Government and the more useful cultural NGOs it should be possible to achieve the required goals quite quickly. Even those from a community who are running some major company in Harare can at least listen online.
One critical area is to ensure that everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live, can be taught, at least in the early stages of primary school, in their own language and just as important that everyone can proceed to full literacy in their mother tongue, regardless of who their neighbours are.
This means we need to rapidly expand the Grade 7 and O Level language subject options. We cannot see why a San speaker, to pluck one example at random, cannot write the Grade 7 and O Level language papers in San.
They might have to write the rest of the subjects in another language, but they are entitled to full literacy in their own language as well.
This will, of course, require teachers and examiners who know the languages, but that pool is not impossible to create, even for languages with only a modest number of speakers.
And where we have a minority with a reasonable geographical concentration we need the early learning and primary school staff as well.
For a start reserving places at teacher colleges for qualified people from those communities will create the needed pool, and it is not impossible for at least one university to offer degree courses in a particular language, even if the class will be small.
While the Education 5.0 revolution must continue and be accelerated, this needs to include the requirement to see language as a form of identity as well as a form of communication. We can have both, and still ensure the stress on technical and practical education.