By Duop Chak Wuol
March 27, 2020 (SSNA) — In recent days, the newly appointed minister of health Elizabeth Achuei Yol has come under intense criticism from many South Sudanese, most of whom mocked the minister on social media platforms. The minister was condemned because she incorrectly pronounced the COVID-19 or Coronavirus at a news conference in the capital, Juba. The health minister’s English proficiency was also savagely ridiculed. Addressing the media to update the nation about Coronavirus pandemic, the minister was visibly struggling with English, trying to find the right words—it was unquestionably an embarrassment for a national minister in a public setting. Her performance at the news conference gave new ammunition to her critics, adding fuel to a seemingly slow-burning fire of her political career, which appears to have a convoy of fuel tankers lined up by mysterious political adversaries. In this opinion piece, I will argue that being fluent in a foreign language is not a measure of human intelligence and that those who lambasted the minister for her incorrect articulation of Coronavirus have missed the point.
There is a presumption, though not always reliable, that criticizing a person who is in power is good because it allows the person to make some leadership improvements. Minister Elizabeth fits within the meaning of this belief. However, nearly all the allegations that have been leveled against her because she does not speak what some of her critics branded as “good English” are absurd. This raises questions if those who denounced her English ability have a logical explanation to support their assertions.
Does South Sudan’s constitution ban anyone who does not speak perfect English from holding a national portfolio?
The above question speaks for itself. The constitution does not say only good English speakers should be in leadership roles. The ordinary citizens of South Sudan would like to know if English is a must-know-language for those who seek high-profile positions at the national, state, or local levels.
There is no question in my mind that English is the official language of South Sudan, but this constitutional acknowledgment does not prove that trashing a South Sudanese minister who does not speak good English. This thinking reminds me of some South Sudanese who shamelessly believe that knowing a foreign language or being fluent in English is a sign of good leadership. One wonders if the people who think in this wrong way know what they are talking about. I would like readers to understand that the Republic of South Sudan is a multilingual country and that accusing someone of incompetence because that person lacks the right foreign language skills is a mere joke. This is like Mr. X asserting that he only feels good whenever he listens to a song in a foreign language instead of his native tongue. This could be seen as a sign of low self-esteem—or perhaps, a classic display of cultural inferiority. Besides, those who believe that knowing the English language makes a good minister should also note that the people of South Sudan are globally recognized by their unique diversity and languages, not by how they speak in English. I wish minister Elizabeth Achuei addressed the nation in Juba’s Arabic. The people of South Sudan know Juba’s Arabic is a broken version of the Arabic language strictly spoken in South Sudan.
I can publicly admit that I do not speak Arabic, but sometimes I laugh when I hear a South Sudanese who speaks in Juba’s Arabic because I know how pure Arabic sounds. I wish minister Elizabeth discussed the Coronavirus issue in Juba’s Arabic so that we can see how fluent Arabic-speaking South Sudanese, particularly her critics, would react.
In light of this controversy, I would like South Sudan’s presidency to ask the national parliament to recognize major South Sudanese ethnic dialects as official languages. The presidency should also propose a referendum for South Sudanese to decide if they want to allow some of their ethnic dialects to be legally recognized as official languages. This idea, of course—if considered, would allow any person in a place of power like Elizabeth to address people in any constitutionally accepted language. This young nation would not be the first country that recognizes local languages. Many countries have constitutional provisions that consider some of their main local languages as official languages. For instance, Kenya recognizes Kiswahili and English as official languages. In South Africa, at least ten ethnic languages are constitutionally recognized. What I find interesting about critics of minister Elizabeth is that none of them says he or she did not understand the message she was trying to say. This is one of the reasons why most of the criticism against her are baseless. One thing is clear: Those who believe that all ministers must be good English speakers have directly or indirectly locked themselves in a moral ambiguity box, where they cannot identify the difference between a leader and a good foreign language speaker. Any rational person would agree that knowing a foreign language is not a validation for good leadership.
The health minister deserves to be criticized. However, criticism should be based on facts, not about her English skills. Those who think articulating the name of Coronavirus wrongly or having a questionable accent in a foreign dialect entails leadership’s immaturity should consult their conscience. The people of South Sudan have no time for this cheap argument over who speaks good English or who can say foreign words precisely. South Sudan is a diverse nation and no foreign tongue can claim credit for its diversity. This seemingly colonial-laced thinking should not be allowed as a basis for deciding who speaks what language and who fits to lead a ministry in the country. South Sudan’s presidency needs to preserve the beauty of our diversity by asking the parliament to amend the constitution and incorporate some South Sudanese main ethnic languages so that any capable leader who does not speak good English would be free to speak in any recognized local language. We should not permit fluency in a non-South Sudanese language to choose our political leaders. The critics of health minister should know that ‘self-hate’ is one of the most destructive social tools that can destroy a society. A perfect foreign language accent will never identify who is good or bad in South Sudan. ‘Moral stupidity’ is a cognitive, linguistic, and social disease—and it cannot be allowed to become a cousin of the Coronavirus. Embrace your local language; it is your identity. To hell with perfect pronunciation of COVID-19!
Duop Chak Wuol is the editor-in-chief of the independent South Sudan News Agency (https://southsudannewsagency.org/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: The views expressed in this article are his and should not be attributed to the South Sudan News Agency.