Roots: President Jacob Zuma has put Zulu culture centre stage, but the author says he may not know what that culture is. Picture: THE TIMES
Roots: President Jacob Zuma has put Zulu culture centre stage, but the author says he may not know what that culture is. Picture: THE TIMES

Mark Sanders’s rich and subtle book, Learning Zulu, is a real feat of transforming snooze-inducing materials such as footnotes to trial records, backstage frenzies at a school play and designing language manuals into a fascinating examination of the South African psyche.

A significant development went unreported in 2016, basically because it did not happen. Whereas in 2015, the Open Stellenbosch campaign was a key part of the student uprising, the language issue plummeted down the #FeesMustFall agenda in the following year.

It could be that the realisation dawned that the horse had bolted several years ago, that Stellenbosch was a de facto English-language university already, a safe space for white English-speaking students fleeing the "black invasion" at English-language campuses.

But a key aspect in the student call for decolonisation — an insistence on local-language tuition — could also have brought home the realisation that campaigning for English at the behest of opportunistic white academics was promoting neocolonialism and creating a morass of contradiction.

The country will not have decolonised universities unless they offer tuition in a local language — the University of Cape Town will not decolonise itself unless it offers classes in Xhosa and Afrikaans/Afrikaaps, the mother tongue of half of its feeder population. The students can only make a real impact if they put language at the forefront of their campaign; otherwise they risk achieving a mere simulacrum of decolonisation.

Learning  Zulu, A Secret History of Language in South Africa
Mark Sanders
Wits University Press

Sanders offers much evidence for the contention that the root cause of the student discontent, as with so many other problems in SA, lies in a deficient understanding of history, or one based on superficial slogans.

"Making good", a phrase he often uses, has come down to compensation in pecuniary or equity terms, with land seen as a capital resource. Making good for apartheid and colonial crimes in psychological terms is just as important, if not more, and language can be a key instrument to achieve it.

Sanders’ argument starts with the creation of Fanagalo in the late 19th century. It was supposedly an amalgam of local languages to facilitate communication, but "more of a macaronic English with Zulu words" meant primarily to serve as an instrument of command in what was shaping up as a command economy in the British colonies.

One of the justifications for its creation was that Zulu was too difficult to learn — an attitude that endures, also among Zulu speakers, about "deep Zulu".

The history of Bishop Andrew Colenso and his daughter Harriette, and their intercession in the trial of Zulu chief Langalibalele in 1873, shows how foundational language was to the separatist colonialist project that would later manifest itself in the repression of apartheid.

They tried to translate his Zulu properly to fight the falsehoods used in the court proceedings to manufacture a guilty verdict. They were accused of treason and ostracised from society for not accepting the meanings of words preferred by Sir Theophilus Shepstone, the Natal governor. The attitude became institutionalised that Zulu and other local languages were to be set aside for Fanagalo, since the command economy did not require more than a few words to be used to extract labour from the "worker races".

The part that she played in these events would have shown her that a method for making good by speaking Zulu … will never be separable from politics

Far from local languages just being too difficult, erasing them was a cornerstone of the repressive economic edifice, and rectifying this should have been a cornerstone of a new dispensation intent on reparation. As Sanders writes: "When Harriette Colenso explains ‘Kitchen Kafir’ is ‘not merely a measure of the harm done to the Native by contact with Europeans as he experiences it, but also a cause contributing to that harm’, she formulates a project for the European, who, having caused harm through language, can also undo that harm through language."

In the 20th century, there was a time when Fanagalo manuals were bestsellers, even as more and more voices spoke up to satirise its stupidities.

Its importance only began to wane during the homeland era, when the system’s architects practically banned its use, demanding that local languages be developed properly, with the aim of restoring black people’s humaneness — separately from white culture, of course. As JA Engelbrecht and D Ziervogel of the University of Pretoria wrote in the Journal of Racial Affairs: "If … our aim is to make the Bantu individual a good and independent fellow-countryman, we shall have to address him in something better than this jargon before he becomes convinced of our good intentions."

After 1994, too often South Africans communicate in a jargon of English commercialese that is more advanced than Fanagalo, but acts in the same way of erasing the deeper, subtler meanings of a mother tongue — with a suspicion of intentions often the sad result.

Writing about Harriette Colenso, Sanders adds: "The part that she played in these events would have shown her that a method for making good by speaking Zulu … will never be separable from politics."

Sanders uses the bridge of psychoanalysis to negotiate the vast areas covered by the loose term "politics". The outcome has many entertaining moments, as when he writes about his struggle to reconcile his ideas of manhood as a child with being made up like a Zulu maiden for a version of ipiTombi put on by his primary school.

Later, this would aid him to tease out the forgotten politics behind the musical, a breakthrough for the first mixed-race audiences the apartheid monolith allowed at the then Nico Malan Theatre, but which attracted protest overseas for presenting an image of "happy natives" in the aftermath of the June 1976 massacres.

Sanders revives an old translation for the ipiTombi title: "Where are the girls?" — it was a question tourists often asked when watching gumboot dances at Witwatersrand mines. They wanted to see the bare-breasted fare from travel adverts and the musical gave it to them. This superficial, vaguely eroticised version of Zuluness was adopted locally too.

Zuluness was brought into the centre of things by President Jacob Zuma. During his rape trial, he notoriously referred to the edicts of Zulu culture as compelling him to have sex with his victim. His supporters outside the court made it clear with their mock machine-gun phallic symbols what they meant with their slogan, "100% Zulu boy".

Sanders faults the state for failing to understand there already was an admission of guilt when his minions approached his victim’s family over compensation in accordance with a dubious rendition of tradition.

A more startling hypothesis he floats is that Zuma doesn’t know what Zulu culture is. Close analysis of Zuma’s testimony shows he was referring to "when I was learning Zulu culture …", and Sanders offers evidence for the claim that he might not yet have mastered it.

Many Zulu speakers, Sanders avers, believe they are unable to speak Zulu properly, and refer to "deep Zulu". This caused deadly ambiguities during the 2008 xenophobic riots.

Suspected foreigners were confronted with shibboleths, and a common one was to ask for the Zulu word for "elbow". Sanders contends that in modern urban Zulu, that part of the body is not named, it only exists in archaic form. The xenophobia ended up claiming a number of South African citizens as well.

Indeed, Sanders subtitles the book "a secret history", which attests to the failure to foreground issues of language when they have the knack to crop up during the most visceral of news events.

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