The challenge for South Africans in the aftermath of another Heritage Day holiday is to ask what comes before and after the day if we want to build the foundations and practices of a culturally rich, tolerant and diverse country.

In the aftermath of a myriad of celebrations, two particularly interesting events warrant attention, both of which require sustained effort and institutionalisation. The first is an initiative by the Department of Basic Education in the Eastern Cape called Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education (MTBBE). The second was an event hosted by the Department of Science and Technology and North-West University on promoting indigenous knowledge systems in South Africa.

The Department of Basic Education in the Eastern Cape has rightly, through this programme, given effect to section 29(2) of the Constitution “Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.” In a largely Xhosa-speaking province, the MTBBE programme falls within the remit of the “Buyambo” initiative which translated, means “back to our roots, to our customs, our traditions and cultural activities”.

MTBBE is certainly not without its challenges since its implementation in 2012 amongst grade four learners studying maths and science. These include training of teachers, high cost of translating materials to Xhosa and the lack of officials at district level responsible for the promotion and oversight of the programme. Yet, despite these challenges, the programme has been rolled out in all education districts of the Eastern Cape, from an initial 10 schools per district, to 50 schools per district.

An issue that was highlighted in the reportage on the programme and which has global resonance was articulated by Amanda Msindwana, a speech and language therapist from the University of Stellenbosch. Msindwana emphasised that children educated in their mother tongue until at least Grade 3 or approximately age eight to nine years had a distinct advantage in comprehending critical learning concepts and tools and can, most crucially, read with comprehension. The psycho-emotional benefits of learning in mother tongue were summed up by the Eastern Cape Superintendent of Education, Themba Kojana, who based on feedback said that this process “has been helpful to instil self-belief among learners”.

The basis for learning and teaching in mother tongue is crucial not as a criticism against other languages that may be perceived as dominant but must be promoted in an affirmative and enriching pedagogical framework.

The second “Heritage Day” news story focused on the challenges involved in protecting and promoting indigenous knowledge systems in the country. An Indigenous Knowledge Systems International Conference was held in Pretoria, co-hosted by the Department of Science and Technology and North-West University, aimed at the promotion of indigenous knowledge. Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, Minister of Science and Technology, used her speech at the conference to discuss the issue, including providing a background to a pending piece of legislation.

The conference covered several issues including that traditional knowledge in South Africa has resonance in medicines and medical practices, food, music, design, agricultural and environmental practices among a range of other expressions, and traverse the multiplicity of communities and ethnic groups of the country.

The protection of indigenous knowledge has had long traction in Parliament, dating back a decade when a private members bill was introduced. The Protection, Promotion, Development and Management of Indigenous Knowledge Systems Bill, is, as its title suggests, wide-ranging in its ambit. The introduction of the Bill sums up its intent and remit and is worth a comprehensive quote from its preamble:

“To protect traditional knowledge as a new category of intellectual property; to provide how said intellectual property rights will be protected; to determine what is eligible for traditional knowledge protection; to provide for ownership of traditional knowledge IPR; to provide for the durations, nature and scope of traditional knowledge IPR; to provide for the enforcement of traditional knowledge rights; to provide for the establishment of a National Register of traditional knowledge; to provide for the establishment of a national trust and trust fund in respect of traditional knowledge; and to provide for the regulation of the applicability of the Bill to foreign countries; to provide for the protection of performers and to provide for matters incidental thereto.”

The passage of the Bill has been slowed by seeking alignment with the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Act. However,on 12 September 2018, it was sent to the President for his signature after being passed by both Houses.

The Bill seeks not only to preserve indigenous knowledge within and amongst communities and to transmit knowledge generationally and cross-culturally but crucially seeks to protect these from commercial exploitation, as has happened several times over to the San and Khoi. Simply retaining traditional knowledge within communities is not enough. This knowledge and practice must aid research, development and innovation, including by propelling commercial success, which cyclically will contribute to socio-economic development within communities and in the country.

The matters of mother tongue education and the protection and promotion of indigenous knowledge are issues with deep and powerful resonance – as has been outlined by both the Eastern Cape Department of Basic Education and the International Conference on Indigenous Knowledge Systems. They require ongoing commitment in order that they gain institutional traction. It is crucial that they are not only highlighted or referenced in our Heritage Day celebrations but acknowledged as issues that embody form and content of the peoples of the country and should seep into our collective daily imaginations and lives.

Zohra Dawood: Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity

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