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Zim Xitsonga Revolution: Herbert Phikela, The Game Changer

By Titos Makondo

The narrative of the revitalization of the Xitsonga language in Zimbabwe would be incomplete without acknowledging the pivotal role played by Herbert Phikela.

Hailing from Mhlanguleni in Chiredzi South, Herbert Phikela stands as a cultural activist who valiantly championed the recognition of the Xitsonga language on the Zimbabwean landscape.

Amidst the whispers that echo his triumphs, Phikela stands as the beacon of liberation for his mother tongue, freeing it from the shackles of inferiority.

Mr H. Phikhela

He undertook the monumental task of translating the Zimbabwe national anthem from Shona to Xitsonga and tirelessly advocated for the inclusion of Xitsonga in the academic curriculum.

His remarkable achievements have earned him accolades not only within Zimbabwe but also in neighboring countries like South Africa and Mozambique, where millions of Tsonga people reside. However, for Phikela, the journey is far from over as he now endeavors to promote Xitsonga culture on a global scale.

Phikela During High School Days

Like many others around the world, Phikela was fortunate to receive an education and nurture his potential. He pursued his O-Level studies at Mhlanguleni High School in 1999.

Even as an O-Level student, Phikela was troubled by the absence of his mother tongue in secondary education and boldly raised questions advocating for the inclusion of Xitsonga. However, his queries often went unanswered or met with dismissive responses.

Driven by the hope that one day his language would find its place in the tertiary academic curriculum, Phikela, with a heavy heart, began working on Xitsonga literature during his A-Level years at an urban school, Chiredzi Christian College from 2000 to 2001.

During this time, discrimination against Tsonga students was rampant in urban schools, leading many scholars to conceal their identity to avoid ridicule. Yet, Phikela remained steadfast, undeterred by the mockery, and devoted himself to his studies, ultimately excelling and embarking on a journey towards becoming an educator.

Phikela During Temporary Teaching Days

Following his completion of the A-Level course, Phikela embarked on his teaching career at Masukwe Primary School as a temporary teacher. Here, he initiated activities to instill pride in the mother tongue among pupils by encouraging them to sing Xitsonga songs.

Moving from one school to another, Phikela remained committed to this principle. However, it was during his tenure at Alpha Mpapa High School that he encountered resistance from peers who opposed his vision.

When Phikela challenged the practice of singing the national anthem in Shona instead of Xitsonga, his colleagues, Mutangwira and Heribani, vehemently criticized him, accusing him of chasing after wind.

Undeterred by the criticism, Phikela, driven by his unwavering determination to realize his dream, calmly proceeded to translate the Zimbabwe national anthem from Shona to Xitsonga.

Phikela During Tertiary Days

Phikela’s passion for teaching, coupled with his love for African languages, led him to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Arts at Great Zimbabwe University (GZU) in 2003.

His profound knowledge and enthusiasm for African languages impressed Dr. Mabugu, a lecturer who supported his efforts to introduce Xitsonga at the institution. Together with Phikela, Steven Ndou, and other students, Dr. Mabugu formed the Local Language Promotion Club (LOLAPROC) to advocate for the revitalization of all Zimbabwean indigenous languages.

Fortuitously, Phikela was elected Vice President of the Student Representative Council at GZU, where he effectively utilized his position to engage with the institution. Through his initiatives, the university invited lecturers from the University of Venda, including Mangolele and the late Mathonsi, to facilitate the teaching of Xitsonga.

Phikela After Tertiary Education

Upon completing his studies, Phikela was deployed by GZU to his hometown, where he significantly influenced local schools to introduce the teaching of Xitsonga and to sing the national anthem in Xitsonga. He also collaborated with Ailess Baloyi, then a legislator of Chiredzi South, to spearhead Xitsonga promotion initiatives aimed at reviving and preserving the local language and culture.

As a result, the Machangana Festival was launched. Additionally, Phikela established the Centre for Cultural Development Incentives (Gaza Trust) in 2012, comprising members such as Khensani Matatise, Manatsa Kuzomuka, and Isaac Shimbani. Furthermore, the Limpopo Cultural Trade Fare was launched in 2013 to unite Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa in promoting Xitsonga culture globally.

In recognition of Phikela’s remarkable achievements, Munghana Lonene FM honored him under the theme “Mikondzo Ya Tigwazi” in 2016. Since then, Phikela, with a mission to promote African local languages, has embarked on visits to countries such as the USA, South Africa, South Korea, and many others.

In 2021, Phikela became the inaugural chairperson of Avuxeni FM when it was officially launched. He was also elected as a board member of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe.

Phikela has been at the forefront of every endeavor that has led to the revolution of Xitsonga in Zimbabwe. To date, Xitsonga stands as one of Zimbabwe’s official languages, taught up to the tertiary level, and has seen the emergence of numerous Xitsonga artists, enriching the melodic musical tapestry of Zimbabwe.

Special appreciation goes to local stalwarts who greatly supported the initiation of Xitsonga development, including Sibanda (Makanganise) of Shangani Promotion Association (deceased), Ailess Baloyi, Thomas Chauke (deceased), Thomas Manyoxi, Davison Makondo, Aleck Mapindani, Happison Chauke (deceased), Obert Mlungisi Sithole, Dr. Madlome, Mr. Mavhundi, Mr. Fana, Khensani Matatise, Isaac Shimbani, Manase Kuzomuka, and many others.

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