Everyday Zulu author Melusi Tshabalala on helping South Africans communicate better

Melusi Tshabalala (PHOTO: Drum)
Melusi Tshabalala (PHOTO: Drum)

Cape Town - It began with the love of a language, a sense of humour and liberal use of social media – and before long it had morphed into a one-man word factory with a book on shelves, an app in the offing and endless possibilities in the pipeline.

The brains behind it all is Melusi Tshabalala – and he still can’t quite believe all this is happening. He thought he was just tinkering with a few isiZulu words on his Facebook page and now, less than a year later, he’s well on his way to becoming a household name.

The 40-year- old is a partner in an advertising and design agency and all his free time is dedicated to Melusi’s Everyday Zulu, the mini-empire that started on social media and has been turned into a book of the same name.

“I started posting on Facebook around October last year,” he says. Each day he’d post a Zulu word and add an anecdote based on his experiences as a South African. The posts quickly became popular and through shares and word of mouth had soon expanded beyond his friends."

“The intention was just to have fun,” Melusi explains.

“Most of my friends on social media are black, so it wasn’t as if I was teaching them anything. We were just having a good time. Then suddenly I got a whole new audience.”

One thing he didn’t expect was a deluge of friend requests from middle-aged white women, which he admits he found a bit worrying at first.

“Because of all the things that have been happening on social media over the past few years – racism, Penny Sparrow and so on – I just thought, argh, I don’t need this in my life. Then I spoke to a friend of mine, a middle-aged white man, and he said to me, ‘Look, I suspect these people just want to learn.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, let me try it out’.""

Nine months later his Facebook page has had more than 6 000 likes and a growing following of 6 800. Pretty impressive for someone who started all this for a laugh.

Being in the spotlight isn’t always easy. Melusi has received the occasional nasty comment and has even been accused of being misogynistic. “I made a joke about makeup on my Facebook page and someone laid into me and said let women be. “I’d never thought about it from the perspective of a woman – I’d just seen women put this stuff on their face and I thought it was ridiculous, so I expressed that. But as I read the comments I realised maybe I should listen more.

 “I thought I was a good guy but this has forced me to look at some of the things I say about women. I now know I need to work on myself.”  Melusi, who lives in Fourways, Johannesburg, has been married to Thabile (33) for five years and they have two kids, daughter Azande (6) and son Akhile (5). He also has a 15-year-old son, Tumelo, from a previous relationship. So what does his wife make of his newfound fame?

As far as Thabile is concerned, this is all his doing and she wants no part of it, Melusi says with a chuckle.

“She reckons she doesn’t need this nonsense. She’s like, ‘Don’t mention me. Don’t post pictures.’ We’re pretty private people.”

Becoming famous was never Melusi’s goal when he set out on this journey, he insists – it was all just about his passion for language. He’s fluent in several African languages, including isiZulu, Setswana and Sesotho, and his aim was to promote his mother tongue. “When I say Melusi’s Everyday Zulu, I’m not being arrogant. It’s about the way I see isiZulu, the way I interpret it,” he says.

So when he was approached by Jonathan Ball Publishers to turn his posts into a book, he jumped at the chance. Melusi’s Everyday Zulu, featuring words and anecdotes selected from his Facebook page, is now on sale at all major bookstores. But this is just the beginning, he says – he’s also working on an app that’ll go hand in hand with the book.

“It’s one thing to know the word, but to use it you need to get the pronunciation right. With this app, you can scan the isiZulu word and you get the pronunciation.”

He loves the way his use of language is bringing people of all races, ages and classes together. “It’s got people talking – people who otherwise would have no reason to talk to one another. “At work we make assumptions about one another, but if your 60-year-old white colleague in the boardroom pipes up with, uyaphapha (when someone is being forward), it gets people talking, like ‘Where did you learn that?’” 

Apart from his book and Facebook feed, Melusi has a column in Finweek magazine. And he recently joined the East Coast Breakfast Show team to do an insert on isiZulu words. He’s also partnered with Media24 journalist Jo Prins to start a monthly initiative called Ubudlelwano, which means “relationships” in isiZulu.

Each month the pair invite people to join them at a venue in Johannesburg to get to know one another. “We chow and chat, but with the aim of working together to take this country forward,” he says. He has high hopes for his project and would like to see it become a global movement for all languages. “Another project I’m working on involves building a platform where people can share their own words and stories,” Melusi says.

“It’s about getting us all talking. That’s our biggest problem: we talk about each other, we talk across each other, but we don’t talk to each other.”

With a little love and a lot of language, he believes, the world will be a much nicer place.