Building the nation one Zulu word at a time
With his daily posts and book Everyday Zulu, Melusi Tshabalala is celebrating SA languages and culture
Being able to plop a pithy word from another language into your normal sentences is a great conversational skill.
Apart from increasing your range of colourful colloquiums, it’s an ice breaker with people who assume you don’t speak their lingo, and a tool that shows willingness to expand your culture and better understand your colleagues.
Many people have gained that skill by following Melusi’s Everyday Zulu on Facebook, where Melusi Tshabalala posts words along with entertaining stories about their meaning. Over time, you amass a portfolio of amusing, clever or punchy words that can be lobbed in to great effect.
“People are throwing in isiZulu words and finding it quite fun,” he says. “One man told me he used one of the words in the boardroom and everybody laughed, and afterwards he had coffee with people he hadn’t talked to before.”
Sometimes Tshabalala comes up with a ridiculous story first, often involving his three children, and picks a word to build it around. Other times he thinks of an awesome word first and crafts a story around it, perhaps inspired by current affairs. For April 1 he used isiphukuphuku, meaning a fool, and said the elections should have been fixed for April Fools’ Day since we’re voting for fools.
A cross-section of people interact in the comments section below his posts, which often reveals how little we know of one another. “We live in silos. One black man said this is the only time he gets to interact with white people who aren’t his bosses and a white woman said it’s the only time she interacts with black people who aren’t working for her,” he says.
To break down barriers he hosts monthly Ubudlelwano (relationships) meet-ups for his followers to eat, drink and chat with people they would otherwise never encounter.
Tshabalala has worked in advertising for 21 years and is the co-founder of Studio 214. Melusi’s Everyday Zulu grew out of his annoyance at how African languages are treated as third-rate by the advertising industry, with English taking priority.
Initially he wrote an article encouraging companies to hire black advertising agencies rather than throw money away on white-run agencies that don’t care about or understand the black audiences companies want to reach. He thought his article was funny and hard-hitting, then realised that clients would just see it as whingeing. So instead he started to celebrate Zulu by posting a daily word.
“I wanted people to see the beauty of the language and the gems they are missing out on by not giving our languages the respect they deserve,” he says.
One morning after a post that poked fun at Robert Mugabe, he unexpectedly received a flurry of friend requests. “I thought, that’s weird, I’m not that interesting,” he laughs. “By the end of the day I had 2,000 friend requests, mostly from middle-aged white women.”
He feared they were racists tickled by his criticism of Mugabe, but he accepted the requests, thinking he could delete them if they were undesirables. Later he realised the flurry had nothing to do with Mugabe, just new fans who had discovered his site after it was featured on The Good Things Guy, a website covering cheerful news.
Now he’s trying to find people with the time and energy to launch similar websites for the other official languages. “IsiZulu is the flagship but I don’t want it to be just about Zulu, it’s more about celebrating and honouring and promoting and preserving South African culture,” he says.
While his Facebook page will not teach you Zulu, a new spin-off into proper language lessons will. After publishing a compilation book of words in 2018, many people told him they wanted to learn the language but were afraid to try. He recruited Zulu academic and anthropologist Thenjiwe Sibongiseni Mswane to develop a 10-week curriculum around the material, and together they ran trial classes.
“It’s proper lessons, which is why it’s not me doing the teaching, I’m there just to make jokes,” he says. The lessons can be delivered face to face or studied online, with a chat function to record yourself for feedback on your pronunciation.
He’s trying to persuade companies to subscribe to the online course for their staff. “I truly believe learning each other’s language is going to go a long way to gaining an understanding between citizens of this country, which will lead to a more harmonious existence. Once people start to learn more about other people they become less scared. White South Africans operate from a place of fear and black South Africans operate from a place of anger, but once we sit down together we realise we are all just people.”
Apart from a few missed days during recent family turmoil, Tshabalala tries to post six words a week. For him, the journey is as much about his family as it is about creating a more harmonious nation. “I’m going through changes in my life and seeking purpose, and this feels like something I’ve been looking for has arrived in a form I wasn’t expecting,” he says.
“It’s very important to me to leave a legacy for my family. I’m from a long line of domestic workers and gardeners and I want to change the story around my blood line, so in 200 years when my descendants look back we are no longer just run-of-the-mill South Africans who never made an impact.”