The torment of being a ‘questionable’ South African




“Indololwane” (elbow in isiZulu) is probably a word you have never had to think about but, for Tsonga and Venda people, to know it and be able to say it can mean a safe walk home instead of being assaulted — or worse.

“What is an elbow in Zulu?” is a seemingly innocent question but it is not. It seems to have emerged in 2008, when xenophobic attacks rocked the country. “The 21st-century pencil test” headlined an article in the Mail & Guardian on May 24 of that year. “As attacks on foreigners intensified and spread across Johannesburg, mobs began pulling people out of shopping queues and forcing them to take ‘tests’ to establish their nationality.” The first was a language test. “During apartheid, officials used a pencil test to classify some coloured people as black and others as white.”

READ MORE: The 21-st century pencil test

Now, 25 years into our democracy, South Africans are using similar tests on Africans.

South African-ness is a concept beyond merely nationality or citizenship. It is a set of ideas, traditions, values and behaviours. The media, books, songs, film, institutions and all other agents of socialisation that inform culture and identity have left Tsonga and Venda identity at the periphery of the idea of black South African-ness.

The two groups are seen and treated as being incidental to South Africa rather than being truly of South Africa. In many films and television shows over the past few years, the Tsonga and Venda character is often placed for comedic relief and does not add any substance to the plot or narrative. Their language, accent and style are used as the butt of the joke.

In mainstream music, with the exception of the annual house song with a Tsonga hook, artists singing in Tsonga or Venda are relegated to provincial success. The history of Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Swati kingdoms are standard teaching in every history class, but the precolonial history of Tsonga and Venda people is forgotten.

The concept of othering in social psychology describes creating dichotomy in a society where the in-group is seen as the norm and the other group as the outlier. In the South African context, the reasons and factors that contribute to Tsonga and Venda people being part of “the other” are similar to those applied to people from other countries. This includes, but is not limited to, the disdain for the languages that are discernably different to the Nguni and Sotho languages, the overt and covert discrimination of people with darker skin and larger noses and even the disdain for the different dietary preferences.

For many it would be unimaginable that people who were born and raised in South Africa, people whose languages are part of the 11 official languages, would fear for their life in their own country. Whenever major waves of xenophobic unrest spring up in South Africa, Tsonga and Venda people understand that they may not be the main target but could easily be caught in the crossfire.

In 2013, an incident concerning Tumelo Mboweni, the son of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, highlighted the ways in which the othering of Tsonga and Venda people is tied to the othering of foreigners. When Mboweni was unfairly arrested for being “too dark” to be a South African, it spoke to not only of how Tsonga people (particularly those of darker skin) are othered but also of how being a foreigner is criminalised in this country.

So, when people finds themselves in the precarious position of being at the intersection of South African and otherness, it comes at a cost — sometimes safety, other times freedom or it could even be death.

To be a Tsonga or Venda South African is to live in perpetual limbo, oscillating between disdain for your fellow countrymen fuelled by decades of othering and a sense of pride and nationalism.

To be a Tsonga or Venda South African is to belong and be othered simultaneously. It is carrying a passport with the coat of arms and having your nationality regularly questioned. Not because of the country on your birth certificate, the colour of your passport or the address of your birth home but your language, your complexion and that, on any given day, should you be stopped in the street and asked what an elbow is in Zulu, you maybe too scared, too overwhelmed by fear to say “indololwane”.

Cairo Mathebula is a political ­commentator, writer, researcher and podcaster. She is doing her master’s in political economy at a university in London

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Cairo Mathebula
Guest Author

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