LET MY WORDS CREATE THE RIOT
Words are very powerful. Even as a first language English speaker, I am still very intimidated by the language. It can be very frustrating when you have so much to say, but can’t articulate it well enough. I rely on simple words and sentences to get my message across. I spend a lot of time reading political blogs and I enjoy reading books about things like race and gender. Often, I feel envious of the way these authors build beautiful sentences to express their equally beautiful ideas. I have been lucky to have been afforded a good education that allows me to even access these authors.
In South Africa, my English is good enough to get by. I can return a product to a store and explain with confidence, in my mother tongue, just why I am unhappy. I can go online and understand most social, business and government websites because they are in English. I know that when I am harassed because of my long “rasta” dreads, all I need to do is whip out my fancy Southern Suburbs, UCT English, and I’ll be okay.
BUT I AM STILL INTIMIDATED BY THE LANGUAGE. Sometimes I don’t engage in online wars between my academic friends because I lack confidence in my language. It takes a lot of confidence and certainty not only in your belief, but in your ability to properly express that belief, to be able to use words as a weapon. I admire people who are good at it. In any language. It’s a cool thing to be able to do.
I feel frustrated when I can’t say what I mean. I think a lot of South Africans feel the same way too. Recently at a group discussion with teenagers in my NGO, a young girl answered the question “Would you call yourself confident?”.
“I am confident, but I struggle with English. I want to say so many things about the government but when you talk about such things, you must use English, and the words run away with me.” Despite the ten year age gap between us, her words resonated with me. It also got me thinking about the fact that the majority of South Africans, just like her, do not practice English as a first or even second language. It dawned on me that my frustration with the language could not compare to hers- English is my FIRST language. Suddenly I remembered having to accompany my grandmother to Home Affairs at about 10 or 12 years old so that I could speak English for her and help her with her business. My granny’s first language is isiSotho, then isiZulu and then isiXhosa and English fell somewhere around fifth or sixth. I admired my granny for speaking so many languages. But the people at Home Affairs would get really frustrated at her when she didn’t understand everything. Not because she isn’t smart, but because English is not her first language. So I would interpret it to her in simple, sometimes broken English. And we got by.
I know that this language barrier frustrated my granny. My cousins and I were lucky to be able to speak decent English and Afrikaans and I know this makes her happy.
What I am getting at is this: I think that so many South Africans are made to feel like outsiders because they do not speak English or Afrikaans. English is the official language of commerce and science in our country, but it is only spoken by 9.6% of the population. I know that a lot of businesses make accommodations for African languages (they are also regarded as official languages), but it is always just that, an accommodation. It is always done as a favour. It is not the rule. This can be so frustrating. You can’t speak your own damn language in your own damn country! It is so limiting. How do you say what you mean? How do you make people take you seriously?
When I was at school and some of the white teachers couldn’t pronounce the Xhosa or Zulu names properly in assembly, people would laugh. And I went to a pretty decent school (S/O to the teachers who made an effort to learn the clicks). It’s this kind of disregard for African languages and elitism of the language of the colonist, that I believe frustrates many South Africans. I know that our president is an isiZulu man and that a large amount of the bureaucrats in government speak an African language. But this is still part of a larger problem.
I feel confident that I am able to access my rights as a South African because I can go online and research why it’s not okay for police to search me for no reason. I can can download the constitution. I can access documents from the Department of Social Development online in English. This is because of my class, race and language. It’s easy for me.
It’s not that easy for all South Africans. My frustration with English in South Africa is incomparable compared to someone who doesn’t even speak the language.
I don’t excuse violence. I don’t excuse the riots we had in CT recently. But I understand the frustration of not being heard. I understand how mad it must make you that for every one step 9.6% of the population (who have it good) must take, you must take three. I empathise and recognise that in South Africa, as a black person, your voice is barely heard. I understand the frustration that leads to violent rioting.
I encourage South Africans of all languages to keep using THEIR language until people are forced to listen.