Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Researcher’s collaboration with Khoisan community recognised
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 09/12/2019

​A research collaboration between Dr Menán du Plessis, an Associate Professor in the General Linguistics Department at Stellenbosch University, and the Khoisan community, has not only led to the first extensive documentation of the lost Khoisan language, Kora, but has now also seen Du Plessis recognised for this groundbreaking work. 

Du Plessis' work, which is contained in the book entitled Kora: A Lost Khoisan Language of the Early Cape and the Gariep, was further recognised recently with her being awarded the prestigious Hiddingh Currie Award by the Senate Publications Committee of UNISA Press. The book is the end result of a collaborative project that was done in close consultation with the Khoisan community in Bloemfontein.

Kora, spelled !Ora in the language itself, “was the Khoisan language spoken by the Khoi herders of the early Cape and the Gariep".  Those who spoke the language identified themselves as Korana and considered themselves to be a distinct community from other Khoekhoe speakers. 

“Kora, which is sometimes also called Korana, is an indigenous South African language which belongs to the Khoekhoe branch of the Khoe family. While it is related to other Khoekhoe varieties such as Nama, Dama and Giri (or Griqua), it differs from these dialects in many respects," explains Du Plessis. 

The language was first documented in 1879 and later studied by a number of linguists who engaged with Kora speakers about the language in the 1920s and 1930s. With the last recorded versions of the language made in the 1930s, it was thought to have completely died out. 

However, in 2007, the late Mike Besten, a historian at the University of the Free State, made a remarkable discovery – he found three elderly persons in and around Bloemfontein who still spoke the language. 

“Mike's discovery was groundbreaking in both a historical and linguistic context. Kora is the closest language, more so than Nama, to the language that was once spoken by the original Khoi inhabitants of the early Cape," adds Du Plessis. 

“Prior to his discovery, there were only two audio recordings of the language made in the 1930s."

Other documented sources were either out of print or not easily accessible and a lot of the Kora material had been translated only into German and sat in basements in university libraries. 

When Besten reached out to linguists to assist in documenting the language, Du Plessis, who was working on a PhD on the southern African Khoisan languages at the University of Cape Town (UCT), connected with him immediately. 

“We were presented with an almost miraculous last chance to obtain recordings for posterity of the original language of the early Cape and the Gariep."

Shortly afterwards, Du Plessis joined Besten on a visit to one of the speakers, who lived in the rural outskirts of Bloemfontein. For the next year, she juggled her PhD research with the work she was doing for Besten, while the two searched and applied for funding for the project Besten was driving. 

With only a few elderly speakers left, they knew that if they wished to capture the last remnants of the language, they would have to do something quickly. Du Plessis decided to record the language by interviewing two of the last speakers, Oupa Dawid Cooper and Ouma Jacoba Maclear, in 2011. Sadly both passed away in 2013.These  “rare audio recordings", referred to as a rescue documentation, are accessible as individual audio files – 800 in total – in the final online version of the book, which is also available in print format. 

For Du Plessis, the recognition she has received by being awarded the Hiddingh Currie Award is not hers to claim. 

“There was from the outset a degree of social accountability, since the very idea for the project had its origins in the context of the current social movement known as the Khoisan revival, and in the course of meetings with various people from the Griqua and Korana communities of the Free State. This personal connection with individuals keenly driven to reclaim their cultural heritage made it important to me that the book should be written in a relatively accessible manner, and that it should include far more than a straightforward grammatical description. The intention was to deliver as far as possible a complete resource in one volume," she says. 

The end result is a book that includes a collection of more than 40 texts in the original language as well as parallel translations and a consolidated two-way dictionary. It is filled with collective and personal histories as well as social and economic histories, accounts of crafts and manufactures in earlier times and folktales.

“The dictionary is there to assist readers wishing to work through the texts in the original heritage language, but also includes vocabulary of cultural interest, such as names for stars, or musical instruments, traditional garments, and the names of the months in the old lunar calendar."

A free, downloadable version of the book is available on South African History Online, who co-published the electronic copy, while the printed edition is published by Unisa Press under an Open Access agreement. Du Plessis has declined to receive any royalties.

When one listens to the passion with which Du Plessis speaks of an academic project that evolved into an act of cultural restitution that was equally driven and shaped by the Korana community as well as herself, it beggars belief that she had never planned to study Khoisan languages. Her road into academia itself was a rather roundabout one.

“My academic career is quite complicated," she says and laughs.

“My first novel,  A State of Fear, was published while I was still an undergraduate student in the English Department at the University of Cape Town.  At the same time, I continued on a path of political activism that I had begun while I was still at high school – where I was one of the co-founders of a movement called National Youth Action.  On top of everything else, I struggled with major episodes of depressive illness, and was often hospitalised during those early years."

“In spite of all this, by 1983 I was able to tutor in the brand new Linguistics Department, then just established at the University of Cape Town. I was also enrolled for a PhD, with a focus on semantic theory. But this was the very time the United Democratic Front emerged – and while I was living in an ivory tower, many South Africans were suffering under the brunt of apartheid and many more were involved in the struggle. We couldn't bury our heads in the sand and not get involved."

Between 1983 and 1985, Du Plessis, who had by then joined the local branch of the UDF in Observatory, was involved in various activities, helping to write and distribute pamphlets, making home visits to groups of concerned citizens who were not involved but wanted to understand more about the struggle, attending rallies and sadly, more and more often also funerals.  Around her friends were being arrested and incarcerated, while others were harassed. She lived in constant fear of being arrested or jailed for what were considered illegal activities under the apartheid government. Her second novel, Longlive! was published in 1986, but by this time the strain of trying to juggle a creative life as well as an academic life —on top of being an activist— was taking a heavy toll on her, and she withdrew from academia.

In 1990 she married Renfrew Christie, an anti-apartheid activist and scholar whom she had previously known during her early years in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), and had met up with again after his release from prison, where he had been held for seven years. Christie's intelligence gathering on behalf of the ANC had led to the bombing of the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in South Africa. He was incarcerated numerous times, tortured and sometimes kept in solitary confinement. Du Plessis and Christie had their first daughter at the end of 1990, followed by a second in 1992.  With her health still damaged – and struggling with what was eventually diagnosed as ME –

Du Plessis focused for the next decade simply on raising their beloved daughters, while her husband worked as a Research Administrator at the University of the Western Cape.

Once the girls were both in high school, it became possible for Du Plessis to start thinking about making a late return to her studies. 

“I had always studied European languages like Italian and German. But then, as a I started reading and exploring the idea of returning to complete my PhD, my focused switched. I started looking more at African languages, and in the process I discovered that there was a gap in the knowledge we had of the Khoisan languages. This is how my focus shifted to those languages," explains Du Plessis.

She returned to UCT, again enrolling for a PhD but this time focusing on the southern African Khoisan languages, taking a comparative approach. She received her PhD in 2009, and only after that was she able to focus more intensively on the Kora work. 

“My interest at first was purely in the structures of the languages," she says as she reflects on how that journey led her to connect with Besten, the Korana community and later author a book on the Kora language.  

“But somehow, it was impossible to stay detached and not get involved with real communities."

Mike Besten's sudden death in 2011 was a huge blow, but made her even more determined to continue with the project in his honour. Lack of funding was another major setback, says Du Plessis, but she was fortunate enough to finally receive a grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (the ELDP) at SOAS in London. This small bit of funding covered only the fieldwork, however. 

Luckily, another bit of timely support came when Du Plessis and her husband both received invitations to teach for a semester at the University of Kentucky in the USA.  Once back in South Africa, freed from financial worry, it was a simple task for Du Plessis to sit down and finish the Kora book.

“For me, the over-riding purpose of this work, which is envisaged as an act of cultural restitution, is to retrieve the all but discarded linguistic heritage of the Korana and Griqua people of South Africa – not only for the descendants of these communities, but for the benefit of all South Africans."

Photo: Dr Menán du Plessis (left), an Associate Professor in the General Linguistics Department at Stellenbosch University, was recently recognised for her work that led to the first extensive documentation of the lost Khoisan language, Kora. She will receive the prestigious Hiddingh Currie Award from the Senate Publications Committee of UNISA Press early in 2020. With her in the picture is Captain Johannes Kraalshoek, an elder of the Korana community in Bloemfontein, at the Literature Festival held as part of the Vrystaat Kunstefees in July this year.