The all new Zulu
‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart,” intones the voice at the end of the marketing DVD for umAfrika newspaper.
It is a quote from former president Nelson Mandela, which has resonated with the literate isiZulu population in KwaZulu-Natal: this is reflected in the state of robust health of isiZulu language newspapers in the province.
According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures, for the first three months of this year, sales of Ilanga langesonto — launched in 2005 as the Sunday edition of the 104-year-old biweekly newspaper — grew a dramatic 61%, from 46 501 to 74 878.
Then there is the phenomenon which is Isolezwe.
Launched in 2002 by the Independent Newspaper Group, the daily has shown an average year-on-year growth of 21%. Its ABC figures at the end of 2002 stood at just below 30 000 copies sold a day while figures for the first three months of 2007 reflect an average of 95 990 daily copies sold.
So are Zulus rediscovering themselves? Is an upsurge in linguistic and ethnic cognisance behind the rise in newspaper sales?
Not necessarily, believes Isolezwe editor Thulani Mbatha: ‘Our readers have always known they were Zulu, we’ve just managed to cater for the modernising Zulu. Someone who may go back home to the rural areas to slaughter a cow to the amadlozi [ancestors], but is as equally comfortable taking his family out for dinner and a movie in a shopping mall,” he says.
The emergence of Isolezwe is made all the more remarkable when contrasted with the fortunes of other dailies, especially English language newspapers.
ABC research found that 47% of the dailies in the country showed no growth from the same period last year. That stagnation was reflected in the first quarter ABC figures of Isolezwe‘s stable-mates The Mercury (38 657 for 2007 compared to 38 614 for 2006) and The Daily News (52 108 compared to 52 023).
Mbatha attributes Isolezwe‘s success to it ‘being a paper of record” with a healthy focus on local football, entertainment and an impartial political perspective.
‘We’re a tabloid in format, but not necessarily in taste. If we touch subjects like ‘witchcraft murders’ we treat them as crime stories rather than sensationalising them like the tabloids do,” says Mbatha.
A paper that thrives on the grey areas where superstition and belief collide with tradition is Ilanga. Founded by John Dube, the first ANC president, it has a chequered past, including allegations of being an IFP mouthpiece during the bloody internecine violence of the Eighties.
Yet even the gogo of vernacular newspapers is modernising. Ilanga MD Arthur Konigkramer says the newspaper has been the ‘standard bearer of the Zulu language”, with its use of a purer form of the language, but has started a tabloid supplement, Ilanga le Theku, in its Thursday edition to ‘deliberately accommodate the young urban reader”.
This, he feels, is responsible for the reversal of the traditional trend of Ilanga‘s Monday edition outselling its Thursday product.
Konigkramer, who says Ilanga consults the isiZulu National Language Body assiduously with regard to linguistic correctness, feels ‘absolutely sure that pure isiZulu is not under threat” with the tabloid supplement.
Yet linguistic purity is a concern in a province where hierarchical interpretations of Zulu identity, culture and language are considered sacrosanct. Isolezwe uses a more urban form of isiZulu to reach out to its market, while Ilanga uses a more archaic form.
According to Professor Mpume Mbatha, head of the isiZulu dictionary unit attached to the University of Zululand, the literal translations used in isiZulu language newspapers are ‘generally lacking”.
‘I have a problem with newspapers saying they want to reach out to the youth and then polluting the language. Languages do change, but they don’t change with corruption or pollution,” says Mbatha who has a column in Isolezwe dealing with linguistic issues.
One person who believes that isiZulu is an intellectual language is Cyril Madlala, editor of umAfrika, which is positioning itself at the high end of the isiZulu language market attractive to the ‘quality Zulu black diamonds”.
Madlala, who in 2002 saved the paper, founded by Catholic missionaries, from liquidation, is single-minded in his vision for umAfrika: a quality newspaper that tackles the big issues and debates ‘in a very, very intense manner”.
One of those big issues was the Jacob Zuma rape trial last year, which Madlala says was pinpointed as an ongoing news story ‘to reintroduce the newspaper into the consciousness of readers”.
‘It paid off handsomely,” he admits. With the newspaper sometimes carrying as many as eight pages on the trial, its sales went up from about the lower 20 000 mark to averaging in the mid-30 000 mark at the height of the trial.