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6 July 2018
UWC Gifted Priceless African Gem: CASAS Lifts African People By Lifting African Languages

Internationally-acclaimed sociologist, anthropologist and writer Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah entrusted the University of the Western Cape (UWC) with his legacy when he donated his Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS) to the University.

“UWC knows the work of the centre, they have been part of the work we are doing, and understand the project,” said Professor Prah during the signing ceremony on 5 July 2018.

“As I retire, I’m convinced that UWC will take this project forward - and that is why I’m very happy that this is going to be in the caring hands of an institution where I taught.”

CASAS is based in Rondebosch, and the donation speaks to one of the University’s major goals: cultivating the reintegration of the region through innovation partnerships, urban renewal strategies and closer links with local communities. This comes as UWC hosted the 28th Annual Congress of the South African Sociological Association (SASA) which got underway on 1 July.

CASAS’ core areas of work include the harmonisation and standardisation of orthographies of structurally and lexically proximate languages in Africa, development of monolingual dictionaries in African languages, promotion of local languages, education, as well as the production of literacy textbooks, the publication of research on African linguistics, language policies and the general intellectualisation of African languages.

Born in Ghana, Professor Prah has worked in several countries around the world, including Germany, Netherlands, China, UK, Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Kenya, Sudan and Ghana.

“While I was at UWC, I was already convinced that Africa can’t develop without the development of its languages. All societies that have made progress have been developed on the basis of their languages,” he said.

He used Asian countries as an example. After gaining independence they went back to using their own languages and have, as a result, seen rapid development.

According to Professor Prah, the issue of the development of African languages needs to be constantly and continuously debated. “If you throw your language out and take somebody else’s language then you are lost. There is no hope for you.”

The Centre has worked tirelessly, in conjunction with researchers across the continent, to harmonise the spelling systems of African languages. “We cluster languages that are more or less the same. Thus, instead of producing a book for one million people, texts can be produced [and] accessible to 20 million people.”

Professor Prah revealed that about 85% of the languages on the continent have been covered and the centre has produced over 600 publications, including 130 books. These spelling systems and some of the projects from the centre are now being used in countries such as Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

But there has been little action from other parts of the continent. “Everywhere I go and everybody I meet, government officials or ministers say: ‘This is a wonderful project.’ But they go back to the use of Portuguese, English and French. Yet they know that the use of their own languages is the only way to lift the people up - like D.F. Malan did with Afrikaans, when he said: ‘Lift the language and you lift the people.’”

Coming Home: UWC and CASAS

Professor Prah joined UWC in 1992 and held the position of senior professor and head of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. The Centre was established by Professor Prah in 1997, immediately after he took early retirement from the University.

“The safest place to see the further development of the centre is UWC,” he said. “The conceptualisation and the gestation of the idea for its birth took place at UWC.”

Professor Prah has maintained strong links with the University over the years,and helped set up a scholarship scheme for the training of Khoi and San linguistics students. Through this scheme, the UWC Department of Linguistics produced the first PhD Khoi-speaking student, Dr Niklaas Fredericks.

The donation comprises of a double-storey building opposite the Baxter Theatre - not just the equipment and furniture, but the intellectual property as well.

UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, said the University is deeply humbled that Professor Prah has entrusted the institution with  his life’s work. The University has committed to continue the work of CASAS and take over its staff complement.

“You’ve given us more than a facility,” said Professor Pretorius. “What you have given us is the greatest gift of all, which is knowledge - your library, your connections - and for that we are sincerely grateful. It is incumbent upon us in accepting this gift to prove ourselves worthy of it - and I give you my commitment today that we will treasure and protect your legacy.”