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Mthethwa lays bare roadmap for International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032)

In yet another welcome boost for the endangered N|uu language, Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa maps out the vision behind Unesco-led International Decade Of Indigenous Languages, which will be observed from this year 2022, to 2032.

Tuesday, October 11 (2022) was a momentous day for the Khoi and San people of Southern Africa – and cultural activists alike – who have been working tirelessly to save the language of their ancestors’ childhood from dying out.

Recognised by the UN as “critically endangered”, N|uu language has for decades been a serious matter of contention as fears intensified that the so called original language of southern Africa is at the brink of disappearing for good – as there was no record of it until recently, as a written language.

However, their efforts received a much-needed boost this week as (Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC), in collaboration with its Provincial Departments and various entities led the launch of the roadmap of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages at Ditsong Cultural Museum in Pretoria.

Speaking at the launch, DSAC Minister Nathi Mthethwa explained at length, the importance of the 10-year-long campaign, and what it means not only to South Africa, but to the African continent at large.

While the DSAC Ministry recognises the importance of not only having South African children educated in their mother tongue, but also ensuring that all citizens have access to their ancestral linguistic heritage, Mthethwa pointed out that the plight of endangered languages will take centre-stage during the campaign, with projects in place to support their survival and development.

Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa officially handed over the N|uu and Nama dictionary to the 89-year-old Ouma Katrina Esau (middle), one of the remaining fluent speakers.

“We are mindful and conscious that our country and continent need their own road maps towards the development of our languages. We also recognise the importance of cross border languages and the championing of the Pan African language agenda by the African Academy of Languages (AACLAN),” Mthethwa said.


According to UNESCO, the essence of this decade is aimed at ensuring indigenous peoples’ right to preserve, revitalise and promote their languages. It offers an opportunity to collaborate in the areas of policy development and to stimulate dialogues and to take essential action for the promotion of indigenous languages.

“On our African continent, there can be no doubt that our indigenous languages were systematically devalued and marginalised, while European languages were valorised. Consequently, language oppression played a sinister role in the colonial project.”


The continued favoring of European languages at the expense of indigenous African languages, he added, has disrupted the cultures and ways of life of African people. “For our languages are not only methods of communication, but also extensive and complex systems of knowledge that have developed over years.”

He also touched on the South African Constitution’s position on the promotion of multilingualism, which enables the full use of 11 official languages, with a 12th language, South African Sign Language, soon to be added to the bill.

“In addition to this, the plight of endangered languages also takes centre -stage with projects in place to support their survival and development.
Among these have been the N|uu, Nama, !Xun and Khwe.”

Five milestones to be achieved during the International Decade of Indigenous Languages


The following milestones have been indentified to help assist the DSAC in tracking its progress and also recognising potential bottlenecks within the project.

  • Development of a functional Terminology Register and A National Termbank: The Department will launch an online functional National Terminology Register for hosting terminology projects developed in the country in various fields/domains to assist with the pooling and utilisation of resources in the terminology development. The register will be used as a coordination tool which will fast track the development of the National Terminology Bank.
  • Strengthening Partnership with Language Research Networks: The Department is intending to partner with institutions of higher learning in terms of funding research projects that can strengthen multilingualism.
  • Prioritizing development of Sign Language towards officialisation: This involves initiating and supporting projects to document Sign Language data, to standardise South African Sign Language.
  • Archiving of South African Languages: The Department will provide financial support to projects that will record and document languages via durable and physical media, as well as to develop multi-language learning applications.
  • Streamline our roles through partnerships as government departments: so as not to duplicate efforts, but to ensure a co-ordinated approach. With this in mind we are embarking upon partnerships with the Department of Basic Education and its stakeholders on curriculum development in all official languages and beyond.
Ouma Katrina Esau has for decades dedicated efforts to teaching children N/uu in an effort to stop the language from becoming extinct.

Ouma Katrina Esau has ver the years dedicated her efforts to teaching children N/uu in an effort to stop the language from becoming extinct.

Mthethwa explained that for their efforts to succeed, partnerships with multiple stakeholders are important. “We recognise the importance of PanSALB and its efforts to bring organisations and individuals beyond the governmental sector together to assert multilingualism. With them we shall provide further recognition to those we consider to be language ambassadors in various sectors and sub-sectors.
We further recognise that the milestones we have already identified on our Roadmap are a start that will expand along the way.”

Another important milestone was unveiled on the day with the launch of the first ever N|uu dictionary, which showcases four languages of the Northern Cape. The dictionary is not only available in hard copy, but has also been developed into a free app version and online dictionary portal, accessible to both local and international users.

The Department also threw its weight behind the African Tongue and South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLAR), in their efforts to ensure that all children are educated in their mother tongue, while also making sure that SA citizens have access to their ancestral linguistic heritage.

Not only that, Mthethwa officially handed over the N|uu and Nama dictionary to the 89-year-old Ouma Katrina Esau, one of the remaining fluent speakers.

“We are proud to honour the efforts of Ç‚XuuÇ€eeki Katrina Esau, without whose efforts this dictionary would not have been possible. Today we are proudly honoured by her presence,” he aid, adding: “She has singlehandedly promoted her language to others and selflessly given her time and energy to language preservation and promotion. Without her efforts, the work of the academics, the researchers involved and the creation of this dictionary would not have been possible.

“It is with great pride that I shall present a copy of this dictionary to her, as a means of ensuring the protection of the cultural identity and dignity of her people and our people.”

Tankiso Komane
Tankiso Komane
A Tshwane University of Technology journalism graduate, Tankiso Komane has a vast experience in print & broadcast media business and has worked for some of the country’s biggest daily newspapers, including The Sowetan, The Citizen, The Times, and The New Age. Through her varied work as a journalist, notably as a copywriter for SABC1 (On-Air promotions) and as a publicist for Onyx Communications, she has developed an in-depth understanding of the nature of the media business and how to use it for the purpose of exposure. Her expertise in journalism across various disciplines, coupled with a good reputation, has laid the foundation of a new kind "trust in Journalism" as the media ecosystem continues to digitally evolve.
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