"I am Ndebele but I struggle to remember our clan names and prefer to speak isiZulu"

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  • 24 September is Heritage Day in South Africa - a day when we celebrate the diverse cultures and languages of our country.
  • Our diversity can often mean that many South Africans come from multicultural families and spaek different languages to that of our native tongue.
  • Thobekile Masombuka is one such example - a Ndebele woman who speaks isiZulu. This is her story about her identity and exploration of how young South Africans navigate their heritage. 

I was probably around 19 when my mother taught me our family's (hers and my father's) clan names (izithakazelo), and I still haven't memorised them even though she wrote them down for me somewhere. 

Masombuka, Mkoneni, Jali, (and this is where I have to revise or consult Google to fill in the blanks).

I was probably around 21 when I started speaking isiNdebele on a conversational (read, elementary) level. All my life, under my father's roof, we've never spoken any other vernacular language besides isiZulu - apart from the exception of my dad romancing my mom in her native siSwati. 

You could only imagine how much I cringe every time someone asks me "So, what are you, like culturally?" and I have to bite my tongue and not blurt out "I am South African" instead of saying the tribe I've been raised to tick next to in application forms (when they ask you for your home language).

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The fact is, I am Ndebele - my family is from the Ndebele tribes that we praise in izithakazelo - but I do not speak the language, and neither do we practice the customs at home. I speak isiZulu, but I do not practice Zulu customs beyond what my father has encouraged, and neither can I boldly identify as Zulu. 

I'm so often torn between two worlds, two identities, and I know I'm not alone. The issue never lies in what new additions we make to the traditions we affiliate with, but rather in our own identities. My personal issue is not that I am asked that tedious question of which tribe I belong to, but that I often feel conflicted and at a loss of a solid identity because I'm not sure what to say.

Am I Ndebele? Am I Zulu? Is it possible to be both, or neither?

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We live in a society that is more culturally ambiguous than ever. While we're trying to learn more about our cultures as they are already, we're in a constant balancing act of who we are, and what we resonate with. From queer polygamist Christian traditional healers, to traditional healers who also specialise in psychology, there are more and more instances of individuals who are influenced by multiple cultures.  

In 2018, Toya Delazy received backlash for wearing ibheshu, which is traditionally worn by males in the Zulu culture. This is a 'modern' and personal twist to an age-old custom and while everyone else was not happy about what she wore, she says that her grandfather supported her regardless.

In an article on Channel24.co.za, she said that if a Zulu man, the prime minister of the Zulu nation [Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi], someone who is tribal to that extent, can grow and understand the world now, it is possible [for tribalism to end]. 

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We are a generation of 'hybrids', and it's no surprise that as things change, so will our definitions of tradition, culture, and customs.

I asked a few people how they feel about their cultures and tribes and this is what they had to say.

Kopano, a Twitter user finds questions about her identity difficult to answer:

Thokozile, who is isiZulu-speaking and Swati, says that the traditions and customs of a family should depend on the ancestors and on what the family is accustomed to doing:

Well I think traditions and customs are not different in some Nguni cultures (tribes) because most times, it’s about surnames and clan names; and the ancestors and how they left everything (like how and what they taught our parents to do when it comes to the customs that are followed by the family). You’ll find that there are some people who are like us who don’t even know which customs to follow so they just leave them altogether. I’m still confused about what tribe I identify with since I’m from a family of mixed breeds - there are also Sothos and Tswanas involved - so that topic of cultural ambiguity is actually a tough issue to address or deal with.

Sinethemba Makanya, an academic and traditional healer, says that the definitions of tradition and culture have evolved and are evolving, and that they don't mean what they used to:

I was raised as a Christian, so I didn’t really grow up with any teachings of Zulu culture or Zulu custom. Even my role as a traditional healer has less to do with the fact that I’m Zulu but more to do with the fact that I’m African. Another thing that I like to think about in terms of culture and tradition is the fact that it’s not static; it’s not trapped in a time. The way we do things now is not the same way we did things 300 years ago, because culture moves and being a Zulu now is different from when my mother was growing up. Culture is important, but not in the way that most people would think of in terms of customs and the traditions because I feel those have evolved. The fact that I’m Zulu has become more functional as a way to survive in Johannesburg, as opposed to how one would identify as a Zulu back home in Natal.

Is it possible to choose your culture? 

Mandisa Sibiya says yes.

If I had to choose, I would identify as Xhosa. My mom's from the Eastern Cape and my dad's from the Northern Cape. At home we spoke a mix of English and isiXhosa and Christianity was a bigger part of our lives than any cultural traditions. Hymns were sung and prayers read in isiXhosa in both maternal and paternal homes but my father says we're Zulu. I feel it's important for me to be able to choose and create my own identity considering the unconventional way we were raised.

As we celebrate Heritage Day today, I hope to ponder about this a little more, and perhaps create a suitable 'box' for me to squeeze into. Until then, I am certain of one thing: I am a multifaceted, multilingual South African woman, and that's okay with me. Maybe blended cultures is a more positive way to frame it.

Have you ever had trouble establishing your cultural identity? Do you agree that culture can be multifaceted? Tell us about it here

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