A vernacular rebellion on Twitter

Pushing multilingualism: Unathi Kondile. (David Harrison, M&G)

Pushing multilingualism: Unathi Kondile. (David Harrison, M&G)

‘Bad blacks’ is a phrase thought up by Zama Ndlovu, a social activist, columnist and management consultant. Known on Twitter as @JoziGoddess, her bio describes her as the ‘vanguard of the bad blacks’. It is a phrase with various synonyms including ‘angry blacks’ and ‘professional blacks’ – the latter coined by historian and journalist Jacob Dlamini, and popularised by Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille in her showdown with Simphiwe Dana last year.
It is the kind of expression that can mean whatever its speaker intends, depending on its intonations, the context in which it is said and the race of the person saying it.

This is the first in a series on #AngryBlacks

When the Goodman Gallery put up “The Spear” painting by Brett Murray, South Africa was riven largely into two warring camps. One of the voices that strained to be heard above the general din was that of Unathi Kondile, University of Cape Town journalism lecturer and Twitter contrarian. He wrote a thoughtful piece on his blog in which he wondered why a 2010 painting by Ayanda Mabulu, featuring the penises of President Jacob Zuma and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, had not elicited the outrage that attended Murray’s work.

Kondile wrote: “I would imagine such prominent penises would cause an outcry of bellowing proportions. But, alas, calm prevailed, largely because this work remained in the elitist confines of the art world. Protected from the underdeveloped minds of those who are not acquainted with fine art. Protected from uncouth admirers who would gobble this up all too literally. Safe. ‘Outsiders’ could not access it and the media could not give a toss about what some black artist had done.”

It was a rare departure from his usual jottings on Twitter, unfailingly delivered in isiXhosa. He had mostly written in English until he decided, in October last year – in a moment reminiscent of the decision by Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o to write only in Kikuyu – that he had had enough of Twitter in English.

“There is something very negative about Twitter. It tires one to be on Twitter,” he said as we sat at a café in Long Street in Cape Town. He could be referring to the arguments, delivered in a truncated 140-character word cap, that make it difficult to include context to most argumentative discussions. One of the reasons he switched to isiXhosa was because he was continually confronted by colleagues and friends asking him to elaborate on his tweets, which touch on race, a media agenda that seems divorced from the condition of the black majority and his iconoclastic takes on African culture. This week he tweeted: “Umkhuseli woluntu ukhusela oluphi uluntu kanye-kanye aph’eMzantsi?” (Which public is the public protector looking out for?) And “Iyandixaka lento yabahleli abacela ndibabhalele simahla kodwa. Iyandixaka. Bacing’ba ndizakutya i-‘exposure’ bethu?” – a gripe against editors who ask him to write and quickly mention that it is for “exposure”.

Why not us?
His “form of rebellion” cost him hordes of fans (known as followers in Twitter parlance) who were mostly white. He was surprised by the reaction. “People tweet in their own language. Why not us? The strange thing is that the people who complain the most about Xhosa tweets are black people.”

When he made the switch, I was one of the many who was piqued. But by using my working knowledge of Nguni languages and reading aloud I now have a passing understanding of what he is saying.

Kondile, who teaches new media, animation and web design at the University of Cape Town, said “right now we are pushing multilingualism in media studies”. He practises what he preaches. He will be writing a column in isiXhosa for the Dispatch in East London that will be tried out on the website and, if it proves popular, will run in the newspaper as well.

Along with social activist Songezo Zibi and educator Nomalanga Mkhize, whom he met on Twitter, Kondile put an advert in isiXhosa in the Dispatch appealing to parents and teachers about the education crisis. Many wrote to ask how they could help; he wonders whether the positive response had a lot to do with it being written in their own language.

With his fellow #BadBlacks and the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, they are looking at sourcing books for the children. It is not just books in English, or translating English books, but getting writers to pen isiXhosa books.
As Wa Thiong’o, scholar and ex-Robben Islander Neville Alexander and other language activists like him age, the fight to mainstream African tongues seems to have received momentum on Twitter from young #BadBlacks such as Kondile.

Follow Unathi Kondile on twitter. His handle is @UnathiKondile


Percy Zvomuya

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