Do we want a nation of coconuts?

During a late-evening conversation with my six-year-old son, I was gobsmacked by his reasoning in asserting that he is not Zulu.

‘Dad,” he said, ‘I’m not Zulu, I’m English. I don’t speak Zulu and I don’t like speaking Zulu.” ‘But you are Zulu, you are Buthelezi for god’s sake,”

I yelled back at him, extremely annoyed.
By the look on his face, he was equally annoyed, but as the boss of the house my word is final.

Whether he speaks French or Greek, that doesn’t change his Zuluness: in his veins runs the blood of Ngqengelele, Shenge of the Buthelezi clan who built the mighty Zulu nation with King Shaka, I murmured to myself. As I reflected on this conversation, I was disappointed that it took the mind of a six-year-old for me to see the connection between language and identity.

As far as my son’s logic goes, there was no way that he could be Zulu because he doesn’t speak isi-Zulu; the fact that he speaks English all the time makes him English. This is despite the fact that his mother and I speak isiZulu to him at home, except on the few occasions when we correct his English sentence construction and pronunciation.

The only other language spoken at my son’s school is Afrikaans—hence the Afrikaans songs he likes to belt out when taking showers with me. I’ve thought of lecturing him about what the Afrikaners did to the Zulu people at Impi yase Ncome (The Battle of Blood River) in the early 19th century or the scores of young people who died in Soweto on June16 1976 in protest against Afrikaans as the medium of instruction at their schools.

And to address this dilemma of an English-speaking Zulu boy—what a mess—I have thought of taking him to township schools of Khayelitsha or Gugulethu. But this will not help either.

In Cape Town most township schools use isiXhosa and English as mediums of instruction. Packing my belongings and heading for the land of the Zulus is ideal but not feasible, given the fact that I have bills to pay.

The wife has suggested we hire a Zulu tutor. But given the recessionary economic environment, I have taken it upon myself to teach him the language of his mighty ancestors.

Dear reader, you might be thinking, what the heck is wrong with me? What pipe have I been smoking for subjecting my child to my prejudices and obsession with my Zuluness?

You’re probably thinking: ‘For goodness sake, it’s a new South Africa and I must just let my child be, whatever that ‘be’ means.” But being the stubborn Zulu that I am, I’m not about to neglect my fatherly duties of bringing up a proud Zulu man. I believe this mirrors the experiences of many African families in South Africa today, who have adopted former white suburbs as their homes.

In an attempt to protect his Pedi heritage a friend of mine embarked on a mission of maid-importing from Limpopo to look after his first-born son. This he did on three occasions and each time he had to take them back within a short space of time after they complained of boredom.

And life in suburbia—where you mind your own business and have unfriendly (white) neighbours—well, that could really traumatise a village Pedi girl. Granted, trying to preserve one’s unique cultural identity might seem like a futile exercise in the face of the onslaught of globalisation where boundaries between nations are becoming more and more blurred.

Probably, the obsession my Pedi friend and I have with our languages is misplaced. Maybe we should give up everything that defines us as people in exchange for advancement in commerce and trade.

But which nation has done this and earned the respect of other nations?

The French, Germans, Italians, English, Chinese and Japanese have advanced commercially without losing their cultural identities and languages. Today Mandarin is being exported beyond the borders of China, with Chinese economic influence and power. You can call this another form of colonialism by the Chinese—but as a nation it has every right to spread its cultural influence hand in glove with its economic power.

Let’s bring this conversation closer to home. You’re probably thinking, surely there is no way that South Africa can develop 11 official languages to the same status as English or French, which are used widely today in commerce and politics.

There is neither the political will nor the economic resources to carry out a project of this magnitude. But this matter was never about government in the first place.

I honestly don’t see them (Blade Nzimande, Angie Motshekga and company) attending to this matter with the seriousness and urgency that is deserves.

Unlike the Mandelas and Tambos of the past era, today’s leaders have discovered a new fetish for the finer things in life—luxury cars and sipping fine red wine at the country’s exquisite restaurants. They have sacrificed the noble project of nation-building at the altar of crass materialism.

And hence it is my belief that it will take the activism of my Pedi friend and many others like him in our country to reclaim the dignity of indigenous languages, and by extension, the dignity of black people.

Let’s bring back the spirit of activism and influence school governing bodies to introduce isiXhosa, isiZulu and other indigenous languages in former Model C schools. We certainly don’t want to build a nation of coconuts, do we?

Khaya Buthelezi is a communications specialist in the financial sector. He writes in his personal capacity

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