I grew up in the township. I was raised by my isiZulu-speaking great grandmother, Princess Nosulumane kaDinuzulu in Ulundi, KwaZulu-Natal. Like her, I spoke isiZulu as a first language. In fact, growing up, I thought, spoke, wrote, read, sang, dreamt, played and prayed in my mother tongue.
This means that most of my encounters with the English language were in the English classroom or what we called “i-period ye-English”. And even then, my isiZulu-speaking teachers taught me English in isiZulu, just like they taught me physics and mathematics in my mother tongue.
Eventually, I found myself in what was then called “multiracial” schools or what we called “ama-multiracial”. And it was there, that I was taught the fallacy that to have proficiency in the English language meant intellectual superiority.
In Parallel Times, Parallel Signs, Discordant Interpretations, a chapter in his book, Monarchs, Missionaries and African Intellectuals: African Theatre and the Unmaking of Colonial Marginality, the filmmaker and academic Bhekizizwe Peterson attests to the existence of this misconception around the English language. In his work, Peterson notes how English has historically been used as a language of power in South Africa. He says that in colonial societies in South Africa, English was not only accorded a “dominant status”, but was also “the language of tuition, industry and government”.
Even though Peterson’s observations specifically refer to early 20th century Natal, it is evident that the question of the dominance of English in contemporary South Africa is still relevant, even though 11 official languages are recognised by the country’s constitution. And in consideration of the reality of English dominance in South African universities and beyond, one can imagine how displaced I felt as a first-language speaker of an African language.
However, that feeling of being dislocated did not last for long, because I soon had a life-changing encounter with the writer NoViolet Bulawayo. In her novel We Need New Names, she aptly captures what it means to be required to make sense of the world in English when it is not your first point of reference. It is through a Black girl child character, named “Darling Nonkululeko Nkala”, that we hear these words that have convinced me to think and write from a place I call ekhaya … home.
Darling poignantly says: “The problem with English is this: You usually can’t open your mouth and it comes out just like that — first you have to think what you want to say. Then you have to find the words. Then you have to carefully arrange those words in your head. Then you have to say the words quietly to yourself, to make sure you got them okay. And finally, the last step, which is to say the words out loud and have them sound just right.
“But then because you have to do all this, when you get to the final step, something strange has happened to you and you speak the way a drunk walks. And, because you are speaking like falling, it’s as if you are an idiot, when the truth is that it’s the language and the whole process that’s messed up. And then the problem with those who speak only English is this: they don’t know how to listen; they are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying.”
Bulawayo uses the metaphor of “speaking like falling” to encapsulate the complexities of existing in a world in which one is expected to make sense of their context in a language or “mental universe” (as per the writer and scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s conception of language) that does not feel like home. In most South African universities, students are not only “supposed to” communicate their ideas in academic English, but they are also required to write while keeping in mind the conventions of their disciplines.
In many ways, there is a dangerous assumption that one’s grasp of the English language is synonymous with academic rigour. As an educator who is working in a historically white South African university, I have noted how terrified some students who are first-language speakers of African languages are to speak in a classroom in which voicing their thoughts may be read as “falling” or “speak[ing] the way a drunk walks”. And ironically, what we as educators in the university are there to do is to teach students that writing in the academy is not about ventriloquising the opinions of “big” scholarly voices, but that scholarship is a living organism and that writing is one of the key tools to fight for one’s voice and one’s world(s).
As the psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon suggests in his The Negro and Language, a chapter in Black Skin, White Masks, language is an expression of an “implied” world. In addition, the sociology and gender scholar Oyèrónkè Oyěwùmí’s book chapter The Translation of Cultures: Engendering Yorùbá Language, Orature and World-Sense (in the book Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader) states: “Language is a social institution and at the level of the individual affects social behavior. A people’s language reflects their patterns of social interactions, lines of status, interests, and obsessions”.
So, what does this mean when one finds themselves in a learning context that prioritises English as well as its concepts? As a Black student whose mother tongue is an African language, how do you navigate the difficulty of having to articulate your position and experiences in a world in which your language is not considered “academic”?
The marginalisation of African languages (which are languages of intellectualisation and theorisation) is reminiscent of the singer Maxy’s single Ingane yaMalume. In it, she exclaims: “Ingane yamalume ithi ayikwazi ukukhuluma. Ikhuluma isilungu kuphela. Ngabe izalwa ngabelungu na? […] Ngathi ngiyabulisa ngithi sawubona yathi, ‘What are you talking about?’ Ngathi ngiyabulisa ngithi sawubona yathi, ‘Don’t talk that silly language’.”
This song, which was popular in South Africa in the early 2000s, speaks about the internalisation of the assumed inferiority of African languages, which is in line with Peterson’s idea that English in South Africa has historically been granted supremacy over African languages.
Interestingly, in Maxy’s world, it is the Black figure who has imbibed the colonial idea that African languages are “silly” or unintelligent. And as a Black scholar and writer, I have had to think critically about my own long-held problematic assumptions about the “tongues of [our] mothers” (to borrow from the anthologist, writer and poet Makhosazana Xaba).
The realisation of my own complicity in the relegation of African languages to the periphery has truly humbled me. In fact, because I have not taken the language my great-grandmother taught me seriously, I have committed myself to a praxis that necessitates I continuously draw from knowledges of people who came before me; a practice the academic and writer Athambile Masola calls “ukuzilanda”.
Ukuzilanda requires one to locate themselves within a community, so it becomes much easier to avoid the pitfalls of exceptionalism or tokenism, as one realises that they are working within a long-established tradition of meaning-making among Black people in South Africa. In this regard, one understands that African words are not just “silly” expressions that exist outside the intellectual lives of Black people, but they are complex concepts that are imbued with intricate meanings.
As such, I have become unrelenting in my attempt to make choices that centre African concepts as ideas that are worth intellectualising and theorising. And, it is in this light that I view the place where my great grandmother raised me as a conceptually generative site that produces a language and grammar that open up multiple ways of thinking, seeing and being in the world.