Llewellyn Kriel
Llewellyn Kriel

What will it take to get us talking?

Maybe rising to the challenge would be a good start. Sociologists agree that few facets of the human experience so effectively transcend divisions to unite people as being able to communicate with each other effectively.

To do this, a shared “language” is indispensable. Whether it be the spoken word, signing for deaf people, semaphore or Morse code across visible distances, radio (complete with its own internationally understood alphabet) or even symbols to communicate at a stunningly complex level with animals, being able to share thoughts, interpret ideas, debate and decide matters is essential.

The technologies unfolding before us like a tireless rose are opening new vistas day by day. We are learning new and better ways to bridge gaps, understanding the revelations of world around us (such as the complex colour transformations of squid, or the intricacies of the chemical conversations within a termite colony, or the delicate frenzied dance of bees or even the seemingly silly chatter of prairie dogs) and understanding the neuro-mechanics of how we internalise and recall messages. As well as what so frequently bedevils the incredibly complex thing we call the brain.

And yet we are also painfully aware of just how fraught with pitfalls and perils communication remains in our world today. From lovers’ tiffs, cocked-up corporate gobbledegook, bizarre legal decisions (such as last week’s risible and bizarre US Supreme Court decision around the flick Hillary: The Movie), to localised conflicts and wars bear blaring testimony to the problems inherent in communications.

However, as someone who has spent his entire adult life in communications and even represented his country and continent in the no-quarter-given battlefield of competitive public speaking, I can vouch that being able to talk with and not at or past each other is preferable to no talk at all.

There is no argument about the fact that, with a population of more than 40 million and almost 16 years into full democracy, South Africa is today more fractious and divided than it has been in recorded history. It is the price of freedom. Instead of the diaphanous misty chimera of a united and reconciled “rainbow nation”, researchers, analysts, academics and ordinary people speak of an “archipelago of islands of people”. Some even argue that there are more “islands” in this archipelago than Indonesia’s 2 000 or more fragments of land in a vast, vast sea. SA’s prosperity has added to the ethnic, tribal, linguistic and cultural melting pot as unceasing torrents of refugees well up and the horror of xenophobia continues to grow.

And that’s all the more reason why we simply must learn to communicate better with each other. And the need is greatest among the most affluent. Such has been the warped legacy of apartheid that more than 85% of our population can speak a “white” tongue, yet fewer than 10% of whites can speak an indigenous language. It’s also a fact that the older a person becomes the more difficult it is to learn a new language. Adolescents become fluent in a language within a few weeks. I’ve been trying to habla Espanol for years und sogar ist mein Deutsch nicht mehr so gut. So people need time to learn at their own pace.

Yet there is so simple a solution, it astounds me it hasn’t been done yet — use the internet and the stunning reach of social networking. Provide FREE, DOWNLOADABLE, SIMPLE, CONVERSATIONAL language courses online and Thabo’s your uncle.

All it really demands is money.

The software programs exist (though, as with most computer-related stuff in SA, they are obscenely overpriced). The technology exists — it’s called the internet.

And given the market demographic, most people will have access to the hardware on which to learn the language they need — Chris could master isiXhosa in Cradock, Priscilla will get around Setswana in Mafikeng, and even I could khaluma in isiZulu in less time than it’s taking me to habla Espanol.

And don’t tell me the government doesn’t have the money. That’s just an insulting and lame excuse. Forfeit a few lavish food fights, cut down on the pointless talkshops (that’s funny!) and brain-dead ANC lekgotlas and apply some speed (okay, that could be a tough ask, especially seeing that Barack did more in his first afternoon in the Oval Office than the Zed has done in 10 months in Tuynhuys). But with commitment to more than their personal bank balances, even our amoral MPs could do this thing. It could even be a reality before all those tourists hit our shores in June.

Then again, maybe this is just too important and the benefits just too enormous to entrust it to the government. In which case let’s pressure the hundreds of millionaires we now have to follow the exceptional examples already set by their American and British counterparts and ante up a few months’ worth of interest payments to fund the whole shemozzle.

And if our secret millionaires are too secret or devoid of the testicular fortitude to tackle this challenge in rands, Bill and Melinda Gates are calling for philanthropic projects at which to throw their millions of dollars.

Let’s give them a call. Surely we can do that.