Boo-ing Zulu taboos

A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, to paraphrase a famous bright spark whose name happens to elude me now.

I suppose by making this oft-quoted statement he was trying to say that without good newspapers modern society is ill-served and has shortcomings in terms of democratic inclinations.

I wish to build further on this proposition and say that the sign of maturity in any nation is its ability to laugh at itself, and to encourage that culture of updating its language and culture as it goes along.

It was therefore heartening when I recently attended an all-Zulu language comedy show where a coterie of young comedians made fun at the country’s laws and joked about such hitherto taboo subjects as sex and the recently enacted Civil Union Act – all of this in a historically conservative enclave that is the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Under the banner of 100 percent Zulu Comedy Show, the jamboree was the second of its nature and attracted 1,200 people of varying ages who were eager to see a new crop of comedians take the stage in this ground-breaking venture that took freedom of expression to another level.

What does the success of an in-your-face show of this nature tells us about the province? Are the people here over-coming the conservatism that has been part of Zulu culture, a culture also reflected in the newspapers?

First, let’s explain what I mean by conservatism. While Zulu language newspapers are trying more and more to be tabloidy in their treatment of subjects, there still is a parochialism, the refusal, for example, to call things by their names.

English language newspapers can get away with the usage of words such as vagina and penis in their stories. Zulu newspapers, on the other hand, would be more inclined to take aegis behind such euphemisms as ”izitho zangasese” (private parts).

One of the comedians at the show illustrated this coyness when he told a joke about this guy who, in the presence of his children, would say to his wife ”May I use the typewriter please” when what he meant was ”Let’s go and have sex”.

One day he was sitting in his bedroom, and called his son to go tell mummy in the kitchen that he wanted to use his typewriter. The boy ran to the kitchen only to be told by his mother that she was busy cooking.

The boy then relayed the message to the father, who then sulked. An hour later, the woman joined her husband in the bedroom, and said: ”We can use the typewriter now”.

”I’ve already done a handwritten job,” he replied.

Masturbation is not a word you will find in a Zulu language paper or on Zulu language radio. But with the lexicon of the market that the newspapers are trying to penetrate changing everyday, and with risqué words becoming mainstream, are the newspapers catching up? Or should they catch up? Or is the usage of these words indicative of a declining morality?

The contradiction is that the same radio stations that project a prim and proper facade will play an English language song that says ”I wanna sex you up”, yet they won’t be seen dead playing a Zulu equivalent: ”Ngifuna ukukubhebha.”

The same newspapers which argue that these words are too crude, are also the ones that use huge and colourful pictures of almost nude women on their pages.

One wonders just how much of an impact the new risqué comedy shows might have in the future language of Zulu media, and what residual impact this in turn will have on the Zulu community.

Fred Khumalo is an award-winning journalist and Sunday Times columnist and author of the autobiography Touch my Blood and Bitches’ Brew, a novel.

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