Monday, August 29, 2011

The Joys of Being a Multilingual Whitey in South Africa

I was at a Spar in Hatfield, Pretoria yesterday, buying some bananas.

As I was standing waiting to pay, another tiller walked past and said something to my tiller in Tswana. I didn’t catch what the former said, but my tiller replied with a look of utter contempt on her face: “Ga ke Lekgowa.” (“I’m not a White”). She repeated this again a few seconds later.

I’ve never taken well to racism (black, white, or yellow). As I stood there waiting to pay, the smoke emerging from my ears must have been visible. The wheel in my head turned at full speed as I tried to come up with a response to this perceived racism.

Should I just leave without saying “thank you”? No, that would just perpetuate the stereotype that white people are douche bags.

Eventually the answer came to me.

As the woman handed me my change, I said: “Dankie, Lekgowa.” (Thanks, Whitey)

I’ll be the first to admit that I could have come up with a dozen better responses, but time was limited. Fortunately for me, when you’re a black-language-speaking whitey in South Africa, you don’t need to be a comedian to get a favourable response.

The tiller just put her head in her hands and burst out laughing. I turned around and winked at her as I walked away.

“You are naughty, neh?” she called after me with a big smile on her face.

Ah, job done.

As you can imagine, this wasn’t the first fun experience I’d had as a multilingual whitey in South Africa. Due to a lack of time and space, I’ll only share two memories that have stuck with me over the years.

When I was in high school, I was a boxing fanatic. I wanted to be the middleweight champ of the world one day. The only boxing gym in my town, Middelburg, was in the township of Mhluzi.

I would go to the gym to train 3 or 4 times a week. I would have probably gone more often if my Dad hadn’t constantly moaned about driving me into the township. Having said that, I’m still grateful that he allowed me to go at all. The reputation of townships as murderous places was, and still is, widespread among white South Africans. Most white South African parents would have laughed if their teenage son had asked them to transport him to a boxing gym in the township. The way many people spoke about the township (especially in Middelburg), one could have been forgiven for thinking there was a sniper at the entrance to the location waiting to pick off stray whites.

Anyway, I was walking down Reabotha Street with my trainer, Abram Lubisi, one day. Abram comes from a boxing family. He had fought for the SA Bantamweight title, his brother Oupa was the former SA Junior Featherweight champ, and his other two brothers, Bheki and Tsepho, were also professional boxers. So Abram was very well-known and popular in Mhluzi.

As we walked down the street that afternoon, Abram exchanged greetings with a random man who was walking in the distance. The passerby shouted in Pedi: “Ke bona gore o bloma le lekgowa bjale! O tlo ba mohumi!” (“I see you’re chilling with a white now! You’re going to become rich!”)

“Ga ke mohumi!” I replied. (“I’m not rich!”)

I got the familiar response of loud laughter.

Abram then explained to me what he said was a common perception in the townships- “If you make friends with a white person, you will become rich.”

The final anecdote comes from a day that I was studying for my matric finals at Middelburg’s library. Once in the entrance hall to this library, one can either go straight into the library or go right to a corridor that leads to bathrooms.

I was exiting the bathroom corridor and on my way out of the entrance hall. I saw a young guy holding the door open for a girl who was on her way out of the library, but still a few metres from the door. The guy became anxious when he saw me approaching the door he was holding open.

“Hhayi! Lo mlungu uzocabanga ukuthi ngivulela yena,” he said, in Zulu, to the approaching girl. (“No! This white is going to think I’m opening the door for him.”)

“Hhayi,” I replied. “Ngiyazi ukuthi uvulela lentombazane.” (“No. I know you’re opening for this girl.”)

A great deal of laughter was enjoyed once again.  I actually ended up becoming friends with the guy as we studied at the library almost daily for our upcoming exams.

It may seem like I’m giving black South Africans a hard time for gossiping. However, I think it’s natural for many humans to gossip when they think their victim can’t understand them.

I look back with a tinge of shame at the amount of gossiping I did in Afrikaans when I spent a year working in England. I lived with five Afrikaans-speaking individuals, and we thoroughly enjoyed speaking about whatever we wanted to without consideration of the people around us. Of course, we were caught out on a couple of occasions by other South Africans visiting the UK.

The moral of the story? I wish more white South Africans in the country could speak black languages.

As Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

Having said this, I know that it takes a supreme effort to learn a language. I spent countless hours listening to Zulu radio, reading Pedi books and speaking Tswana to my friends. One of the reasons I had to do this was because my school in Middelburg didn’t offer black languages as subjects. I had to learn them as an extramural activity. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and shout at my parents for not insisting that our domestic worker, Lettie, speak Zulu to me as opposed to English when I was a baby.

I couldn’t wait to get to university so that I could study languages in an academic institution. When I started studying at the University of Pretoria in 2008, I took Zulu and Pedi. After 3 years of “studying” these languages, I was probably less competent in them than I had been when I started university.

One of the reasons for this, I believe, is that all of my lecturers were white. Yes, you read that right. All of my classes were conducted in English or Afrikaans unless absolutely necessary to speak a few words of Zulu or Pedi.

Compare this to the Spanish Department at the University of Pretoria. When I started in first year, I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish. By the end of my third year, classes were conducted exclusively in Spanish and I could understand almost every word and speak the language competently. So could all of my classmates.

I mean, how ironic is that? The university could get highly qualified Spanish lecturers from Peru, Argentina and Spain, yet they couldn’t find a mother tongue lecturer of Zulu or Pedi?

As far as the Zulu classes were concerned, I’d be surprised if any of my white classmates can even venture past a greeting in Zulu. The only reason I can do so is because I could already speak it before varsity.

To be fair, I was forced to take beginners classes in Zulu and Pedi when I got to varsity. When you get to university and want to study an African language, you are classed as either a beginner or a mother tongue speaker. No middle ground. So, despite already being a fairly competent speaker, I wasn’t allowed to attend the mother tongue classes and had to attend the beginner classes.

The reason why most of the lecturers at the University of Pretoria are white is, in my opinion, because there is not enough interest among black South Africans to become academics/experts in their home language.

I believe there were black lecturers for some of the mother-tongue classes, but obviously I can’t comment on the quality of these classes as I didn’t go to them.

English is seen by many as the language of upward mobility. “I can already speak Zulu, why should I study it now?”

The reason you should study it is this: I fear that without more mother-tongue teachers of African languages at university level, our wonderful languages are at risk of fading into obscurity.