It’s what you say, not how you say it

Journalists are not often aware of their power and influence, and quite often they say or write things that should be best kept private.

Andrew Barnes is the normally respected senior news anchor on ENCA, the 24-hour news channel which is a sister channel to eTV.

In an off-the cuff remark after a clip on the matric results last week, he quipped that somebody should speak to the Minister of Education, Angie Motshekga, about the pronunciation of “epitome”.

He was quickly suspended from duty by his employers, despite issuing an apology.

Part of Barnes’s problem is his assumption that English is the standard by which every other language should be judged.

It was pointed out to him very quickly that most black people in South Africa – and that is the majority – speak English as a second or third language and most white people do not know how to speak any indigenous languages.

I have never really bothered about pronunciations because it is the content of what people are saying and not how they say it that should be important.

Language prejudice could be seen as another form of racism, as evidenced when the SABC started employing black on-air staff, most with “non-English” accents. The outcry from white people was horrendous. It was like the world, as they knew it, had come to an end.

I grew up speaking Afrikaans in the Western Cape, until 1976 when, in protest against the police killing of students who were protesting against being taught in Afrikaans in Soweto, I decided to only speak English.

It was only after we became a democracy that I started to speak Afrikaans again.

But one of my biggest regrets – and one of the things that apartheid did very successfully – was to make sure that people such as myself never had the opportunity, when we were growing up, to learn to speak Xhosa, like people who lived in townships down the road from where we lived.

As a result, my knowledge of Xhosa is very limited, and I speak English with a strange accent (at least to people who claim English as their native language). But I have no problem with “murdering” English words, even if I’m on radio or TV or doing public speaking, because I have confidence in my beliefs and arguments.

I trust that people will look beyond how I say epitome, machine or anything else, and will listen to my arguments instead.

But because of my upbringing, I don’t only struggle with the Queen’s language. I also struggle with some Xhosa words and even some Afrikaans words, because the strand of Afrikaans with which I grew up could at best be described as Afrikaaps. “Pure” Afrikaans can be a very complicated language and most people on the Cape Flats do not speak “pure” Afrikaans.

My children, who had the benefit of a much better education than me, often point out my mispronunciations, but it is not something that has ever bothered me.

I only hope that next time Barnes, or any other journalist, decides to make a judgment on pronunciation, they consider whether they know how to say “Gedleyihlekisa” or “Mahlamba Ndlopfu”. We live in South Africa after all.