JACOB M NHLAPO
Perhaps there is no better way of appraising Jacob Mfaniselwa Nhlapo than by quoting his first serious essays which were a declaration of his entrance into, and subscription to, the New African Movement. That they appeared in Umteteli wa Bantu in the 1920s was not accidental, because it was in this decade on the pages of this great newspaper that the New African intelligentsia established the intellectual tradition of New African modernity. His first appearance on the pages of the newspaper coincided with that of H. I. E. Dhlomo (made his debut on October 18, 1924 with the article "Hardship and Progress"). Like his elder colleague (only by a year), Nhlapo entered this intellectual tradition by emphasizing the discursive system of the dialectic between modernity and tradition which was exercising the historical imagination of the New Africans: "Much is being said and written today about the disintegrating forces which are at work among the Bantu as a consequence of the advent of Western civilization. The loss of some of the good Bantu customs is being justifiably delpored and the resentment by the black man of the white man's ways is receiving daily expression. But the present state of affairs amongst our people demands more from our Native leaders than a mere recital of the fact that the Western civilization is the fount of the whole trouble. There are two enemies rampant among the Bantu today: there is the religious indifference and there is also drunkenness which has given genesis to the present low moral standards of our people. I am firmly convinced that if these two evils are eradicated the Bantu future will be brighter. Though many other Native races have died out as a result of coming into contact with the Western civilization the Bantu have not shared their fate" ("The Bantu Future", September 3, 1927). Coming from a young man of twenty-three, these words, surely, must have been pleasing to his senior colleagues in the newspaper: Allan Kirkland Soga, R. V. Selope Thema, H. Selby Msimang and others. A year earlier, in a Letter to the Editor, Nhlapo had noted that modernity had made the lives of Africans and Europeans inseparable from each other: "The attitude of the whiteman towards the Native is, to my mind, partially if not entirely, responsible for the difficulty and perhaps for the very existence of this problem for he will not give the Native any chance to rise, he will not give him the rights which he has by no means proved incapable of using wisely. . . . Further the Native demands that his colour should not be made a qualification for his exclusion from those privileges to which as a human being he is entitled. . . . The lives of the European and the Native have become so intertwined that in the endeavour to solve a problem which so greatly affects both races any other device than that of co-operation and mutual consultation is doomed to failure" ("Solution of the Native Problem", Umteteli wa Bantu, October 9, 1926). Upon his entrance into the New African Movement, Nhlapo, over many decades, was to display his multivalent talents. In an obituary appearing in the form of the Masterpiece in Broze series in Drum magazine, paid tribute to his intellectual endowments: "That grand old anachronism, Doctor Mfaniselwa Nhlapo, is no more. To understand him fully, one must see him by what he was not, every bit as much as by what he was. . . . Bachelor of Arts, Doctor of Jurisprudence, Doctor of Philosophy, Diplomatist in University Education and Bantu Studies, church leader, philologist, linguist, orthographer, journalist, Jacob Nhlapo was quite a phenomenon. But still an anachronism" ("Dr. Degrees!", by D. C. T., July 1957). In parenthesis: Jacob Nhlapo obtained his doctorate in the early 1940s from a controversial private/family institution based in Chicago, the McKinley University, for the dissertation: Intelligence Tests and the Educability of the South African Bantu. Although an intellectual of many talents, Nhlapo is renowned in South African intellectual history for his 1944 pamphlet, Bantu Babel: Will The Bantu Language Live?, in which he argued that all the major African languages in South Africa should be systematically combined into a SINGLE LANGUAGE. This proposal and thesis has fascinated many of our leading African intellectuals: from such a New African intellectual like H. I. E. Dhlomo in the 1940s to a post-New African intellectual like Neville Alexander in the early 1990s, on the eve of the historic date of 1994. In his excited response within a few weeks of the publication of Nhlapo's formulation Dhlomo wrote: "He deals with the delicate subject of Bantu languages. His plea is that Xhosa and Zulu (and the intermediate dialects such as Swazi, Ndebele, etc) made into one language. People who speak or write Xhosaised Zulu and Zuluised Xhosa, Nhlapo contends, should be encouraged, not condemned for they are the forunners of this unity. What he pleads for in the Nguni Group of dialects, he urges for the Sesotho Group also. He suggests that before this is accomplished, English should be---in fact is---the African Esperanto. I wonder what our purists, European experts and linguists, let alone the racialists, will say!" ("The Sixpenny (Bookman) Library", Ilanga lase Natal, March 18, 1944). Since Dhlomo was seriously engaged with the role of African languages in facilitating the making of African modernities, he returned again to the ideas of Nhlapo in another context ("Language, Literature, Liberation", Ilanga lase Natal, September 29, 1951). When Jacob Nhlapo re-articulated his proposition in a short brilliant essay ("The Problem of Many Tongues", Liberation, no. 4, August 1953), it elicited a remarkable response, which was paradoxically a deep appreciation and withering criticism, from Peter N. Raboroko ("The Linguistic Revolution", Liberation, no. 5, September 1953), which must stand as one the great essays of the 1950s. When Neville Alexander in the early 1990s proposed that Jacob Nhlapo thesis concerning African languages (The Sociology of Language with Special Reference to Language Planning for a Democratic South Africa, 1990, pp. 26; Language Planning in South Africa: with Special Reference to the Harmonisation of the Varities of Nguni and Sotho, 1991, pp. 44) should be embraced as a state policy by the post-apartheid government of Mandela, one is certain that he was unfamiliar with the political history of Nhlapo's proposal, especially its encounter with the intellectual power of Raboroko's historical imagination. This is not said in belittlement of Jacob Nhlapo's contribution to the making of African modernity, especially as Principal of Wilberforce Institute, a High School founded by Charlotte Manye Maxeke, and whose lasting effect has been incalculable.