OPINION | DR MAKHOSI B. KHOZA | Posted 13 March 2018


Towards developing indigenous black African languages into languages of prosperity

The oldest human fossils in the world provide scientific evidence that the earliest humans were likely to have been black Africans.  Almost as significant were the findings of two mathematical instruments from this early period, made out of bones that had been precisely notched and incised. The first, the Lebombo bone, in southern Africa, carbon dated to 40 000 years  and the second, the Ishango bone found  in the Democratic Republic of Congo, carbon dated to 20 000 years . Both these findings point to early black Africans having a high degree of numerical sophistication and intelligence. Interestingly, it seems the early mathematicians in southern Africa were women because the 29 incisions in the Lebombo bone suggest it was a tally of the lunar menstrual cycle.

The knowledge of black Africans’ ancient mathematical heritage prompted me to wonder at the dismal performance of present- day South African children in mathematics and science. In 2017, South Africa was rated 138 out of 138 countries. I realised that with such a poor mathematical and scientific background, South Africa and its citizens could not prosper in an age of algorithms and artificial intelligence. It seemed that tragically, black African people, who had had their intellectual development disrupted by colonialism, racial capitalism and apartheid, would remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.  

The devastating effects of such a disruption are summed up in the writings of the Tunisian philosopher Ibn Kaldun:  “Throughout history, many nations have suffered a physical defeat, but that has never marked the end of a nation. But when a nation has become the victim of a psychological defeat, then that marks the end of a nation.” A glance at South Africa’s colonial and apartheid history reveals centuries of reducing black Africans to sub-humans with inferior intelligence. No attempt was more calculated to denigrate them than in 1953, when Hendrick Verwoerd brought into law an inferior education for the Bantu. "There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.” he announced. ”What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?" Was Verwoerd’s alienation of black indigenous South Africans from mathematics and science a deliberate attempt to ensure their perpetual entrapment in psychological defeat? And now, ironically, in the era of South Africa’s independence and freedom from oppression, the emergence of an indigenous African élite as the new post-colonial rulers has entrenched this racial stereotype of black Africans being inferior. Through their misuse of state power and resources to enrich themselves, our new élite portray black South Africans as a people who share collective stupidity!

The only way to overcome the “psychological defeat” and bring about a process of true Decolonisation Reconstruction and Reconciliation (DRR) is decolonised, quality education. Mathematics and science would be at the core of this education, as would English literacy, necessary for international communication and trade. However, the most crucial part of the process would be to reconnect black South Africans to their proud language inheritance and the logic and intelligence their language embodies. Amongst the key systematic, psychosomatic, mental and total subjugation tools employed by the colonialists was the denial of the dignity and importance of indigenous languages. Consequently the reversal, an awakening of indigenous people to their language heritage would be a continuation of what was begun by the Constitution’s recognition of nine indigenous languages as part of the eleven official languages in 1996.

To this end and in response to the cry of the black South African university students and the entire South African population for a decolonised quality education, I have recently published UZALO: IsiZulu Grammar Textbook with Cambridge University Press. This textbook is premised on my invention of a new alphabetical logic order for the isiZulu language that is consistent with its morphological structure of words and is founded on the five vowel sets: a, e, i, o, u. IsiZulu is a vowel-led and sound-unit oriented language. Like mathematics it is sequential, methodical and systematic and could be reduced to the abstract science of number logic.

Studying isiZulu is like learning mathematics which is essentially the study of patterns. This book lays the foundation for developing competent conversational isiZulu whilst deepening the student’s problem-solving abilities and thus the mindset to cope with mathematical and scientific thinking. Developing such tools that source mathematical intelligence from our indigenous languages such as isiZulu signifies a major step towards South Africa’s Decolonisation, Reconstruction and Reconciliation.


Makhosi B. Khoza (PhD) is a former Member of the South African Parliament, and founder of her own political party, as well as the recipient of several awards, including the Ahmed Kathrada Excellence in Leadership Award. Her new book, UZALO IsiZulu Grammar Textbook (Cambridge University Press), is an innovative approach to teaching isiZulu that recognises its mathematical patterning.




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