Language matters

In her presentation titled The 80s Kids: A Story of Collaboration as Disruption, given at the Ruth First Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, Nolwazi Tusini considers the ‘80s cohort’ – a generation of black learners sent to formerly white schools – and what they gained and lost.

As part of her research, she interviewed 15 learners. This is an edited extract:

It is significant that I am giving this lecture in English, because it is not just for ease of communication, but also because I cannot give it in isiZulu.

As a direct result of having attended historically white schools, I can no longer articulate these ideas in my mother tongue.

This is not the sole reason, of course. This is a violence that is enacted every time I open my mouth – particularly when I am in conversation with my sister, who was born in the 1970s and attended historically white schools at a much older age than I did, and so has maintained a good command of our mother tongue.

And also when I am in conversation with my little cousin, who was born in the 1990s and attended historically white schools as young as I did – but at a time when the way she communicated was acknowledged as a legitimate expression of blackness.

At some point, the story of the 80s cohort takes us to the violence they now carry in their mouths.

Respondents spoke about feeling as though accessing formerly white schools encouraged them, in varying degrees, to give up their mother tongue.

In her 2009 essay, Speaking in Tongues, Zadie Smith begins by exploring how the place you are from “sits in your mouth”, in your way of speaking.

She then unpacks how, when your way of speaking changes, you have, in effect, changed where you are from – and this, she argues, is read as a betrayal.

Here are some of my respondents’ thoughts:


“When I fill out forms I have to choose English as my home language, even though isiXhosa is my mother tongue.

"This is the language that my siblings and I speak to one another. It is crazy. I hate that; it gives me such a sense of loss … I used to be very resentful of my parents for sending me into these schools where I lost my isiXhosa…

"Now, as an adult, I am a little more understanding, because I have come to understand different ways of being and accepted that there are different ways to be black.”


“There is a sense of loss, because at some point I started dreaming and thinking in English. I stopped translating in my head; there is a loss there.

"But also, this language has allowed me access to so many things – my career, for one. And although I carry a kind of sadness, I do not want to act as though going to white schools is the worst thing to ever happen to me when it has given me access to so many things.”


“At my school they were very blatant about saying, ‘You leave that language at the gate’, which I suppose you can understand for an English-medium school.

"But then they took it further and sent letters home, telling our parents to speak English to us at home – the only place where I was really hearing and speaking isiZulu.

"Then, afterwards, they joke about how you cannot speak your mother tongue. I am glad, though, that I can speak isiZulu, even though I am more fluent in English. I am becoming more assertive about the micro-aggressions about my language, like the way people pronounce my name. I am starting to ask that they pronounce it right.”


“I was very angry with my parents for a long time about the fact that they prioritised English over our mother tongue, xiTsonga.

"It makes me incredibly sad that I have to learn it now as an adult. It makes having an identity difficult for me – here I am with English and I am not white, definitely not white.”


“My isiXhosa is not very good; sometimes I am embarrassed by that. And also frustrated, because I feel I did not do it to myself. Sometimes, expressing myself is difficult, because I will be speaking English and then I want to use an isiXhosa phrase that explains what I am trying to say perfectly, but I do not remember it.”


“After we moved to the Vaal from KwaZulu-Natal, I used English quite a bit because I could not speak seSotho. This was a big problem in the black community. I was called all sorts of names. At some point, one of the black kids called me ‘English’; it was crazy and hurtful ...”


“My name is not easy: Qhakazambalikayise is a mouthful. For the longest time, I just went by Mbali because it was easier, but I found that white people still would not make an effort to pronounce it right.

So, I have decided to go by Qhakaza and I insist that people try. More than anything, the language thing was frustrating because I grew up in the melting pot that is Johannesburg.

As a Zulu person, I was very conscious that my language had already diluted, almost like Fanagalo, but at least I could manage that. The ‘kasi Zulu’, at least. They took even that little bit away.”


“I am Xhosa in identity and I cannot speak my mother tongue. I only speak isiXhosa with people I trust, who understand my sensitivities and are helpful when I make mistakes.

"It has made me an outsider in my neighbourhood and with extended family. I have a son and I am scared that if I do nothing about it, he will end up without a mother tongue.”

* * *

The sense of betrayal that Smith speaks about was palpable in my conversations with the 80s cohort.

First, a self-betrayal – wishing that they had made a greater effort to hold on to their languages; that if they had known better – if they had realised that they were giving something up, as opposed to just adding a different kind of knowledge – they might have been more vigilant.

There is also a sense of having been betrayed by families, communities and parents who, as Qhakaza said, “were the ones clapping” as the cohort cut off their own tongues.

They were the ones who proudly pulled them out as goodie bags at Christmas lunches and other gatherings to “listen how well she speaks”, or saying “usikhipha ngamakhala isiNgisi” [you are fluent in English], but later ostracising them for this very thing without holding themselves equally accountable.

Can one belong in two places at once? And if you can no longer speak fluently to a place, the way Zukiswa cannot speak to Bizana and I cannot speak to KwaMashu, can you still belong there?

And if you can speak fluently to a place, the way we can speak to historically white places, do you belong there? Even when it does not fully reflect or embrace you?

These questions are what the 80s cohort seemed to be grappling with in our conversations about language. There is a very intimate violence in this dichotomy of existing in two worlds and yet not really belonging in either, and so always in tandem.

Perhaps this is why the 80s cohort is drawn towards collaboration as opposed to challenging, always seeking a middle ground – because it has become the place closest to home.

Tusini is a writer, radio producer and Ruth First Fellow

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