Review: Learning Zulu

Mark Sanders: Learning Zulu. A secret history of language in South Africa. Wits University Press 2016.

This is a book, good to read and most informative – not just teachers of language – and not only because it was my wife’s idea of a great birthday present. She was right of course, because this book is about learning the language most spoken in Southern Africa – not just in KwaZulu and our nation, but across the borders in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi – and about lots more. It’s an eye-opener for students learning the language like me, but also for citizens and others, who want to make some more sense of our situation and people. It’s very helpful, because it uncovers layers of vital knowledge and wisdom, which normally are not raised when learning a language – never mind isiZulu.

Mark Sanders is professor of comparative literature at New York University and has written extensively on South African politics, language and race issues in a scholarly fashion, enlightening, surprising and provocative. He’s come a long way from playing a minor role in that controversial musical “Ipi Tombi” at his school before it’s put on national stage and became the first “open to all races” concert at the Market Theatre.  However, it did get lots of flack overseas, so that the cast had to proclaim unequivocally: “Our entire cast is against apartheid.”[1]

The author goes far back even when tracing the steps taken “Learning Zulu, starting off with Bishop Colenso and his daughter Harriette, who surpassed her father in the proficiency of isiZulu and got more involved in the local politics and legalities than him when standing up for the persecuted Zulu monarchs in yesteryear.

He contrasts the two different ways of learning this language – either “the right, meet and salutary way” as proposed by the sage and somewhat purist Sibusiso Nyembezi (“Learn Zulu” and “Learn more Zulu”), who states: “Kudinga ukuba sifunde ngokucophelela.” (It is necessary that we read with great care) (44) or the depreciative and discriminative Fanagalo[2]: “With Fanagalo, as with the language Crusoe teaches Friday, we have an archetype of racist exploitation, and of a dehumanising of blacks by whites…” (24).

In this scholarly research, the professor shows how the initial project of “making good for historical wrong” through learning language becomes somewhat the opposite during apartheid after the ideologues have changed the purpose of language to separate the people into distinct and apart groups. Language becomes the basis for ethnic identity and separate development (Apartheid). This was very different from the initial object of getting into isiZulu. A fascinating example of the “revolt of nature” (Horkheimer).

During his long road to learning Zulu, Sanders searches for the initial owner of his 2nd hand copy “Learn more Zulu” and finds a German Lutheran Hedwig Eschen born in Germany in 1925 and working on the mission station Emmaus in Natal from 1953. “In 1974 the Berlin Missionary Society seconded her to the Bible Society of SA to help with the translation of the Bible into Swati.” (36) Just as Sanders learnt Zulu when studying Xhosa, so Hedwig learnt Swati as she was learning Zulu. The Swati Bible was published in 1996 and so Hedwig returned to Germany and before she departed, “she donated her books to the South African library.” (ebd.)

He addresses several other dictionaries and grammars e.g. P.W. Wanger (My father’s favourite and not only because it’s in delightful German, but also in such great detail and meticulously rich in examples and insightful diversity of fauna and flora, history, custom etc. Wanger was a Trappist monk from Marianhill 1917) and Doke’s “Textbook of Zulu Grammar”, “IsiZulu soqobo” etc.

Sanders goes into Zulu novels, written by his teacher Sibusiso Nyembezi: “The Rich Man from Pietermaritzburg” and especially “Mntanami, Mntanami” contrasting them with Alan Paton’s “Cry, the beloved country”, which is translated into isiZulu by the same Nyembezi. Both have the theme of paternal protest, but deal differently with the guilt and debt involved. Whereas Paton attaches strong positive value to rustic paternalism, Nyembezi cries out loud for the coming generation. Paton values the great language abilities of Jarvis – the white protagonist and the “good white man’s exceptionality” as does Nyembezi, but the latter demonstrates in his translation, how this exceptionality remains flawed and somewhat foreign, politically and morally ambiguous to say the least[3]. J.M. Coetzee calls it “Phantom Zulu” and others “Bible Zulu. It remains fascinating, how these novels reflect remarkable differences, subtleties and highlights (51ff), which Sanders picks up, because he is an attentive reader, good listener and able to argue his point too. An excellent example of a teacher if ever there was one.

Here’s an example of his insightful musings: “One learns, and then one thinks that one knows. Is it possible, in all rigor, to speak or write without claiming to know, or even to know better? There have been times when I have, imagining I know more of the language than them, assumed toward my race-kin the air of superiority and election hardly different from what one discovers in Colenso and other missionaries of his era. Learning Zulu seeks to emphasize learning – and that means relinquishing the profession to better knowledge if it connotes moral superiority. One may attempt to make good, but finally one cannot make oneself good. That is in the hands of the other.” (63 cf. 67)

And another for good measure: “This fear – a projected fear of being deprived of one’s language – is something that Khumalo appears to disavow, but he has already uttered the word ukuncima, as if the one whom “Nyembezi” has made good, threatens to become, if not his better, perhaps then his rival. Is this outcome generalizable – to all the fears of a deprivation of substance, and their allied mutual fearful projection, of fathers and sons afraid of mutual annihilation that besets these Cold War books, which leads to the phantasy of the murder of the father and the murder of the son?” (68)

Johnny Clegg – the “White Zulu” or “The White Zulu Man” (81) and his Zulu mix and music from “Juluka” and “Suvuka” fame is contrasted with the above-mentioned musical by introducing his “secret history” (82) e.g. studying under the very David Webster, who presented Sanders teacher in Jozini, Musa Mthembu, with a “bed as parting gift” (85) and wrote in his diary before his infamous assassination something well worth considering by all those, who want to learn Zulu and learn it well: “It is clear to me that my Zulu needs a ton of improvement. It must go very high on my list of priorities.” (86)

The book takes another fascinating tur, when Sanders addresses the “100% Zulu Boy” (96), who is now our president accused, but declared innocent of rape of his deceased friend’s daughter. In this chapter Sanders addresses the quandary arising, if we try to be 100% Zulu – even if not along the lines of Antjie Krog’s “Begging to be black” (96) – and the president tells us, what it really means to be a Zulu man especially in relationship with women and girls. Questions about Zulu identity and inter-personal relationships are answered by him in a way, that makes one sceptical of the exemplary role of being Zulu and talking Zulu well.

The president on his part argued that he and his Zulu tradition and culture were on trial. The victim – herself a declared lesbian – dared to contradict and question these values as outdated and illegal even. The issues were complex and not only because one of the opposing parties was obviously lying in the face of the other, while the other was just as obviously being taken for a ride. Who was who and what was the truth? The Afrikaans judge, who switched to isiZulu as he passed judgement, switched codes and played on certain symbolism himself keeping the attempts at explanation, interpretation and evaluation very academic and rather ambiguous. Sanders brings in Foucault for clarification: “being a point at which sex becomes a subject’s truth, object-choice can be used as a verifiable fact in order to test whether a subject is telling the truth.”[4] (104)

The fact that the victim’s mother was brought in, because she was legible for compensation and reparation by the offending “uncle” (Malume), didn’t make things easier to understand. “The codes of ilobolo and inhlawulo reduce everything to a set of heterosexual assumptions, functioning within a patriarchy, but more importantly – like the idea that if one is raped one must be a lesbian – they tend in practice to leave aside, or negotiate away, the matter of consent.” (109) In the end, Zuma put his Zulu education on the line. Waetjen and Mare evaluate this as a feeble excuse on his part and his cheap attempt to demonize a “vindictive woman” by declaring it a Zulu cultural commonplace to equate leaving a woman in a state of arousal as being “tantamount to rape” (112)[5]. Perhaps De Beer puts it best: “That is not Zulu tradition, it is Zuma’s tradition.”

The final chapter of this 200 pages book deals with the xenophobic attacks of 2008, which also had a very “Zulu” spin, touch and flavour. Sanders put’s this as a problem and wants to find out, whether this was inherently Zulu or just projected on to them as a suitable “black sheep in the family” cf. Inkatha. He describes, how foreigners are tested in public and on the road by letting them utter “Shiboleths” of archaic and somewhat obscure Zulu custom. Making “Zulu the language of xenophobia. Zulu is being used to discriminate against, and to deprive.” (117)

Sanders shows how 2 very influential editors in Zulu national Daily’s (Professor O.E.H.M. Nxumalo in Ilanga and Ngeso LikaVolovolo in the Isolezwe) took their stands addressing this issue again and again as these attacks on foreigners unfolded across the nation. This is a very fascinating bit of research on current affairs and reveals issues hidden to those, who can’t read Zulu daily magazines and are not privy to the insiders take on domestic matters in the Zulu landscape and ethnic enclaves and backrooms. Sanders shows that he’s got a good sense of humour, but also that he really does want to “Learn Zulu” to make things good – and not just sweep black spots of “secret history” under the carpet of “political expediency.”  In the end, he comes to a surprising judgement. Just read and see!

My highest accolades go to Sanders and I really do recommend this book to all, who want to make it good and continue learning the language of “Ubuntu” and the path to the other through this or that language.

[1] Chapter 3 goes into this history in greater detail, (74ff) but these words by Matthew Bodibe are quoted on page 77.

[2] Fallitaal, Tsotsitaal (69)

[3] “In an excellent essay on Paton, Tony Morphet shows how that fear (inherited from our forebears WW) arises from unacknowledged feelings of guilt connected to a history of colonial dispossession.” (56)

[4] “If the truth of culture is produced by the expert, say the ethnographer, just as it will have been produced by “customary law”, then propositions about culture, like those about sex, become subject to procedures of verification.” (107)

[5] The fact that Zuma compared himself to Jesus going to Calvary is not just megalomaniac, but idolatrous.

About Wilhelm Weber jr

Rector of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Tshwane
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