Zulu, Xhosa or Afrikaans?

2008-05-22 00:00

Not to be divisive in these times of xenophobia and the Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki camps, but there is a popular belief that, much like Afrikaners, Zulu and Xhosa folk can’t be bothered to engage others in their mother tongue.

No one knows just yet who’s worse between the 100% Zulus and the Xhosanistas — the accolade for arrogance is still being contested. But really though, when did Zulu and Xhosa become the lingua franca?

Generations scriptwriters should get a golden star for effort. In recent times I’ve noticed how different characters in the soapie have expanded their vocabulary to speak a number of African languages, including Afrikaans.

For example, the woman in charge, Karabo Moroka (Connie Ferguson), often greets and wars with S’busiso Dlomo (Menzi Ngubane) in smatterings of Zulu. And not so long ago we were entertained by Grace’s mother (Helene Lombard) when she delivered a plausible performance as a coloured woman from Cape Town who speaks Xhosa, Afrikaans and English. And even baddie Kenneth Mashaba (Seputla Sebogodi) has on a number of occasions duelled in Shaka’s language and spoken lovingly in Verwoerd’s.

There’s just one snag — it seems the language stream is flowing one way.

If my memory serves me correctly, I’ve never heard characters whose main language is Zulu attempt to be multilingual. Why doesn’t Ngamla (Menzi Ngubane) attempt to say something civil or horrible to the other characters in their mother tongue, I’ve often wondered?

One, of course, could argue that it wouldn’t be believable if say, a character like Khetiwe (Winnie Ntshaba) who started off as a farm girl from KwaZulu-Natal was suddenly to wax lyrical in Sepedi. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Paul Mashaba (Siyabonga Twala), who has a Pedi brother in the make-believe world, could actually utter a word in Sepedi, instead of always communicating in Zulu.

It does send a terrible message when all the Zulu-speaking characters don’t even attempt to converse in any of the other 10 official languages. It says that the Nguni tribe’s lingo is superior and that other languages enjoy an inferior status.

But to lay all of this on Generations’ doorstep would be disingenuous. The problem is deeper — the soapie is merely imitating reality.

Have you ever noticed how, say, a Venda or Sotho, is more likely to be multilingual? One might blame it on the Mfecane/ Diaspora or that other tribes are much smaller, that the Ngunis (because of their sheer numbers) by default, enjoy more space in the media and the government platform.

My friend made an observation about her workplace; although there are equal numbers of Xhosa and Sotho speakers, the conversation (if not in English) is almost always conducted in Zulu.

She also observed how the Sothos in the office are more interested in other languages, while she felt this is not reciprocated. I’ve also noticed that if two Tswanas get into a taxi, not knowing that they are from the same clan, they are more likely to chat in Zulu, even though they are both struggling to express themselves.

I’m also not without fault because, although I studied in Tshwane for four years, I rarely ever practise Tswana. I used to hide behind the fact that I was scared that people would laugh at me if I ever tried to string together a sentence in Sotho. My fear perhaps can be likened to the French who hardly speak any English lest they be ridiculed.

Whatever my reason, I don’t think it’s good enough. I’m no better than a white African who has his or her roots in this continent, yet he or she can’t say dumela or ndaa.

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