Perils of losing our humanity

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As societies all over the world undergo dramatic, unforeseeable change, a dead languages walkway created in Durban has sparked debate about what we are losing in our pursuit for progress.  FRED KOCKOTT reports

Visiting Durban this week, GG Alcock, a white born, Zulu-bred, Third World child turned marketing executive extraordinaire, took off his shoes and treaded barefoot on a walkway of dead languages at Regent Business School’s new Institute of Entrepreneurship.

It was, in a sense, a prophetic gesture about what we are losing today.

Designed by Durban sculptor Andries Botha, the dead languages walkway forms part of an inner city revival process driven by network of artists and architects in association with the Regent Business School.

“We hope to be able to extend this walkway into public space,” said Yusuf Patel of the Architects Collaborative which assisted with dead languages installation and also designed Regent’s recently opened art gallery.

The gallery currently houses Botha’s Rhino Burning exhibition: a life-size steel sculpture of a rhino which will be filled with alien wood (wattle) and coal and burned to cinders in a KwaZulu-Natal hinterland later this year. In an associated series of Rhino Burning sketches, Botha shows the implications that coal mining has for the environment.

“We need to research and develop alternative and renewable sources of energy. Future business leaders have a huge role to play in making this a reality,” said Botha.

Explaining his vision behind the “dead languages walkway”, Botha said he had chosen language characters and extinct icons from a wide historical range of human thought. He said while these languages, from N’Ko (West Africa) and Phags-Pa (Mongolia) to Ancient Sanskrit (India), had passed into extinction, they represented a “seamless, and unbreakable chain of voices” that linked the very beginning of human existence to the present and a distant future that was “yet unimaginable”.

Ahmed Shaik, Regent’s managing director said it was inspiring to consider that thousands of feet would now walk across this history of human communication. He said while acceleration of technological innovation connecting billions of people worldwide was exciting, the dead languages walkway reminded us of the peril of losing our humanity.

“Our obsession with smart devices in a chaotically connected world threatens some of our quintessentially human qualities, such as compassion, reflection and meaningful conversation,” said Shaik.

In treading on walkway, Alcock said it also sparked questions about what was happening to indigenous languages of Africa – an issue that lies close to his heart.

Born and bred in a mud hut in the deep rural Zulu community of Msinga, with no running water, electricity or formal schooling, Alcock grew up  speaking Zulu fluently before English.

Made famous (or notorious) in Rian Malan’s book Resident Alien, Alcock has been at times a shebeen owner, political activist, community worker and African adventurer. He now runs a wide range of experiential marketing campaigns for clients such as Unilever, Parmalat and Vodacom and has written two books, KasiNomics and Third World Child.

KasiNomics is about third world economies and people that inhabit them. The term eKasi, derived from locasie, is slang for a township. Third World Child is a unique, piercing memoir about being truly African (albeit white) and bridging the divide between Africa’s tribal third world and a fast-paced, modern society.

“Language and culture forms an important part of all this,” said Alcock. “There are things – concepts – I can explain better in Zulu than I can in English. It’s a poetic language that uses deep parables in expressing deeper meaning. Sadly, it’s disappearing along with all its cultural components. There is no prestige in talking Zulu anymore, at least not the Zulu I grew up speaking.”

Alcock’s book, KasiNomics, and his memoir, Third World Child, are available at Exclusive Books and Amazon.

Now read: > A glimpse into ‘invisible economies

This feature package also appeared in the Sunday Tribune. Click here to view pdf.

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