South Africa has an impressive total of eleven official languages, which could increase to 12 if Parliament accepts a request to grant South African sign language official status. However, despite the numerous indigenous languages available in the country – such as Sesotho, IsiZulu and IsiXhosa, English remains the dominant language used in literature.

As numerous young people grow up learning English, it has become a common mode of communication. In some cases, the classification of English as a second language seems questionable; many use it as their first language and their indigenous mother tongue becomes a sort of second language. The South African Social Attitudes Survey found that, in 2018, about 65% of people believed that English should be the main language of official communication and instruction at schools.

This demand for English is apparent in the ratio of literary works published in English compared to indigenous languages. A report by the Publishers Association of South Africa in 2016 found that only 2% of children’s books were published commercially in an indigenous language in South Africa.

The market in South Africa for indigenous literature is incredibly small. In addition to competing with big name authors from overseas, indigenous literature also has to make do with a limited selection of consumers who are able to read in indigenous languages. This problem goes beyond simply selling indigenous literature. Many South African indigenous languages are heading in the same direction as Latin, which is now regarded as a dead language because there are no more native speakers. Languages which were originally passed down through oral tradition and later literature face readership loss and lack of reach.

Campaigns both by government and publishing houses in South Africa have called for increased awareness for indigenous literature and language. PDBY reached out to Penguin Random House, one of the largest publishing houses in South Africa, and asked them about the indigenous literature market. Penguin Random House states that “it is very important for us to be able to publish in indigenous languages and it’s increasingly more important in order to get young people to read in their own language. We are currently publishing a children’s series in IsiXhosa and IsiZulu”.

With fewer people reading in their native language, it poses the question of whether indigenous languages will be diminished to writings of the past, or whether enough will be done to enable young people to be educated and read in their native language to ensure that indigenous languages are preserved.

Image: Masehle Mailula

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Well I am Tankiso Mothopeng, final year International Relations student. I am 20 years old and prefer to do nothing. Literally my biggest hobby is doing nothing. It’s a miracle how I’ve made it to my final year but I made it. But when I’m not doing nothing, I like to dive deep and head first into people’s business. I like news. I like being the center of information and distributing that information. I guess that why I wanted to be a news journalist.