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Lumka Oliphant's Insistence On Speaking Mother Tongue Was Nothing More Than A Tool For Political Arrogance

This was a cheap shot and we all know it.

06/03/2017 08:34 SAST | Updated 06/03/2017 14:16 SAST

ANALYSIS

Just last week we had one of the most celebrated writers of decolonisation speaking on the importance of using our mother tongue when rethinking the social hierarchy of the world. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was speaking at Wits University and his most powerful quote: "If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowerment."

On Monday morning, Lumka Oliphant was on Radio 702/ Cape Talk on Xolani Gwala's show. Gwala brought her on as the spokesperson of the Social Development Department to answer a few questions on how the Sassa issue would be resolved over the next few weeks. This comes on the back of a press conference Dlamini had on Sunday where she too was supposed to brief the media and therefore the country on the way forward.

Dlamini was not happy with some questions posed to her by eNCA journalist Karyn Maughan, and the briefing went south from there. Oliphant also stood by trying to stop the minister from responding to these questions, and she allegedly tried to stop journalists from asking certain questions.

Their conduct at the presser was disappointing, to say the least.

Oliphant's presence on 702 on Monday morning should have been a step in redeeming the name of the department but it wasn't. Oliphant addressed Gwala in isiZulu and said she was tired of speaking on this issue in English. Gwala asked for her to respect the medium and speak in English.

Not only did she conduct a presser in English on Sunday, she was on Morning Live just this Monday speaking to Leanne Manas in English. She could argue that Manas speaks English, but Oliphant made an attempt to argue that those affected by this matter understand isiZulu. If that was really why she wanted to speak in her mother tongue then she would go on every single station and speak in it regardless of who the presenter was. This was not what she did.

Yes. Gwala and Oliphant could have spoken to each other in isiZulu because they both speak it. Yes. Those affected would have understood and even if there were some who did not, there could easily have been a translation from Gwala. Even if it is 702's policy to be "English-medium", exceptions can possibly be made. Fellow talk station Power FM often has callers who are more comfortable speaking in their mother tongue. Ther presenter then translates to make communication easier. This is not difficult nor does it annoy the listener on the other side. In a country where the majority of the country is black, it should not be an issue for people to come on to "English-medium" radio stations and speak in the tongue they are most comfortable in.

But Oliphant is a spokesperson. It is her job -- one she gets paid for -- to address the media when there is a crisis. It is her duty and responsibility to account on behalf of the minister. It is necessary for her to clarify any matters that affect the constituency she serves -- no matter what the medium. She was avoiding answering the questions. Nothing more, nothing less.

It was Gwala's job to get the story and he made it clear what the best way to do it would be. A journalist should not have to go above and beyond to get a story if what is missing is the basics of a spokesperson doing their part. On top of her completely neglecting her job, she also tried to create a distraction using the important issue of language. Instead of looking like a champion for speaking mother tongue languages, Oliphant came across as arrogant and dismissive of the issue at hand.

Using a legitimate cause, especially one as important as the use of our languages for decolonisation and challenging spaces that are traditionally dismissive of black languages, is a low cop-out.

Language is important, no matter what the platform, but what Oliphant has done is draw attention to the use of mother tongue as a tool for her own arrogance.

In the words of uBaba: