A Zulu elder wears an SA flag at a rally in Durban. Learning to speak each other’s language helps to bridge cultural divides, the writer says. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD
A Zulu elder wears an SA flag at a rally in Durban. Learning to speak each other’s language helps to bridge cultural divides, the writer says. Picture: REUTERS/ROGAN WARD

Miss Born-free and I struck up an intriguing conversation as we strolled from a gruelling court battle. She had recently graduated from university and was disappointed with the unfulfilled promises of the post-1994 “new” SA.

From her perspective, the racist apartheid regime had been replaced by a diluted form of “reverse apartheid” characterised by poisonous identity politics, where colonialism and white privilege are religiously blamed for contemporary ills. As a black person she felt vilified on campus amid the pernicious momentum of the mob, for criticising the narrative or sitting on the fence.

Our conversation was apposite amid the hubris of post May 8 electioneering; her views struck a chord because I don’t experience the day-to-day racial tension that politicians propagandise.

There is an element of factual truth to the political racial blame game. Politicians capitalise on public sentiment and have no trouble imposing on their supporters the views of a tiny minority. SA is sociologically complex; a post-apartheid turnaround would never be smooth sailing.

You can be ‘born-free’ no matter your age; the world is how you choose to see it

It is miraculous that we enjoy a vibrant democracy 25 years hence, something for which to be grateful.

I grew up on a sheep farm in the Karoo, allowing me to appreciate the importance of speaking Afrikaans to establish a bond with locals, a means of traversing deep-seated racial and cultural hurdles. Learning a language builds bridges, an antidote to cultural suspicion and conflict. The key is to be inquisitive, since everyone wants to be valued. Asking questions about language and customs is a powerful means to dignify. Reading and speaking Afrikaans is enriching, it has bettered my relationship with Afrikaans speakers and positively influenced my worldview.

As an adopted Joburger I am learning Zulu, an exceptionally beautiful language. The response has been astounding. In English my conversations are short and pragmatic, whereas in Zulu I am usually received with enthusiastic felicitation. It changes the mood, even if we spend most of the conversation speaking English; greeting someone in their mother tongue is akin to saying “your culture matters to me and thus you matter to me”. Racial and cultural differences become tools of alliance when you ask a security guard for a Zulu lesson, and a basis for division becomes a unifier.

I have experienced warmth in the most ice-cold environment: a tension-filled courtroom. Greeting judges in Zulu forms a bond, bringing us closer together as Africans.

It may come as a surprise for a white man to extend the olive branch in a regimented post-colonial setting. While English is the language of the courts, why shouldn’t I recognise a judge’s language and culture? As an advocate I already respect his position on the bench; I may just as well respect him as a person.

I need to address the elephant in the room: a professional in a formal setting may be offended by an African language greeting due to a perceived insinuation of insult, English being the language of formal education. That is his or her cross to bear since there will always be ego at play among a minority of individuals.

Our miracle democracy may be a shadow of its former self, but we can save it yet

This is rarely an issue within lower Living Standard Measures. Despite speaking English well they often show appreciation, humouring me despite my diabolical Zulu.

The level of English-speaking proficiency of the average South African is remarkable considering SA’s tattered education system. Millions of South Africans who did not matriculate speak English as a third or fourth language daily, which many white South Africans regrettably take for granted, not bothering to learn an African language. Unsurprisingly, politicians capitalise: a breeding ground for identity politicking.

A discussion with a friend returning from travels to India revealed, to my astonishment, that relatively few formally uneducated Indian nationals speak English on a basic level. That is remarkable in a former British colony that is a global economic powerhouse with a good reputation for science, technology, engineering and maths education.

This truth is apparent at my local barber in Emmarentia, where my Indian Premier League Hindi lets me down and no more than one individual in the shop can speak basic English. SA should be immensely proud of its English proficiency, a feather in her cap and an example to those that do not speak an African language that learning one is simply a matter of perseverance.

I encourage readers to think carefully about how they interact with others. You are an ambassador for everyone who looks and speaks like you. You can be “born-free” no matter your age; the world is how you choose to see it. Our miracle democracy may be a shadow of its former self, but we can save it yet. It’s all about respect or, as I have learnt, inhlonipho.

• Hayward is an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar.