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Politics of the tongue in SA
Author: Desmond Thompson
Published: 11/11/2014

​Just as one should not judge a book by its cover, so people should not be labelled according to their accent or dialect.

This seems to be the consensus of participants in the second Maties Diversity Week blogging competition of 2014, hosted on the website Bonfiire recently. Presented by Stellenbosch University (SU), in association with the SU Debating Society, it posed the question, "Should we speak to fit in, or stick to our 'traditional' accent?"

In her blog, "Please excuse my English," Khanyisile Tukani (pictured on right-hand side in banner photograph above), a second-year BA Humanities student, reacts strongly to people jumping to conclusions about others based on how they sound.

Once, in the Post Office, she was addressed very slowly by the person serving her. This annoyed her no end: "The fact that I am of darker skin pigmentation does not mean my brain capacity is lighter."

Another time, a classmate was impressed with Tukani's "Model C" accent because she "did not know Eastern Cape people could sound so well-spoken."

But it seems prejudice is not confined to members of a particular group. "In​ my own community, I am sometimes called a 'snob' or a 'coconut' for speaking English the way I do. None of this is fair, of course," Tukani said in an interview after being announced the winner of the blogging competition.

Runner-up Fritz Louw (left above), who is doing his master's degree in Economics at the MIH Media Lab at SU, agrees. "Accent is one of the most pernicious forms of social discrimination," he writes in his blog.

"I think this is particularly relevant in South Africa, where we have 11 official languages. We have come a long way towards a more equal society, but we still harbour biases."

Francois du Plessis and Majeletje Mathume received a special mention from the judges for their blogs.

Du Plessis writes: "It is virtually impossible to stop yourself from forming an opinion about someone during any brief contact, but maybe we should pay more attention to what someone is trying to communicate than to how they are saying it."

Mathume, who is doing a BA in Development and Environment, concurs.

"It is stupid to take issue with someone who struggles with a language that is not native to him or her," he says.

This makes him suspect "this accent thing is all political."

"It is not a communication issue, but your own worldview about other groups of people, and you need to deal with it."

The competition was a continuation of the Big Matie Accent Debate presented as part of Diversity Week 2014, the second annual festival of its kind at SU. Aimed at promoting inclusivity and a welcoming culture on campus, the initiative was the brainchild of the late SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Russel Botman, who passed away at the end of June.

Pictures: STEFAN ELS

  • Click here to read all the entries in this competition, titled "Say what?"
  • For a podcast of the Big Matie Accent Debate, click here.
  • The topic of the first blogging competition of Diversity Week 2014 was "1994 + 20: Closer together or further apart?" Click here for an article on the winners of that competition, and click here to read all the entries.