KZN University Decision will Build more Bridges – Justice Malala

untitledHis name was Bubhesi (Lion). He was my best friend. I don’t remember much about his family. We were kids, five years old at the time. He spoke isiZulu and I spoke only Sotho. But we were best friends and I have wonderful memories of the wordless games we played in the mining village we lived in.

Then my family left Johannesburg to live in Hammanskraal, a Setswana-speaking area, and I never saw Bubhesi again. But I have carried him with me all my life, that young boy, and he has made me a better man, a better human being, a better South African, than I could otherwise ever have been.

He first came back to me when, in the early 1980s, “black television” was introduced.

Suddenly, on TV2 and TV3, we were watching black people speaking Setswana, Sepedi, isiXhosa and isiZulu. Most of it was dubbed from German and American series, but there were our languages on the screen.

Whereas everyone else in my village watched TV3, which broadcast in the Sotho languages, my family also loved the Nguni language programmes on TV2. Only about five families in the village had television sets, so we would all go to our neighbours to cluster around their set.

My brother “Johannes” would say to the young lad whose lounge we were packed into – “Please can we watch Senzekile?” The 20 or so kids would moan: “But we don’t understand isiZulu or isiXhosa.” That is when I realised that Bubhesi was with me and would always be with me.

Senzekile was an isiXhosa drama on TV2 and only my family and I understood the Nguni languages. We understood them because we grew up with Bubhesi and his family around us. I did not realise until then that I could speak some isiZulu and isiXhosa. Yet when the language was spoken my brain just clicked into gear and I understood. Being able to speak a language other than my parents’ has been one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given. In Johannesburg, a multilingual melting pot, I have been able to interview people I would never have been able to.

In the early 1990s I reported on the trouble spots of the East Rand. I spoke to hundreds of war-hungry hostel dwellers aligned to the Inkatha Freedom Party, angry young malcontents of the ANC and many others. An ability to speak both Sotho and an Nguni language was my best friend. Crucially, it allowed me to enter my interviewees’ worlds. They were not “other” objects of my reporting. I like to think that I wrote about them as my fellow countrymen and women, that they were part of us, wretched as their lives and conditions were.

From the age of nine I was taught Afrikaans at school. We hated it. Yet the other day I came across some new Afrikaans poetry and I was moved. I once heard businessman Patrice Motsepe speak at a function in Afrikaans, and I knew he had entered another world, a world of empathy that his audience – most of whom could not understand a word of Setswana – would never understand. I felt deeply sorry for them. They were millionaires, and yet they were poor.

So I support the decision by the University of KwaZulu-Natal to make isiZulu a must for all first-year students from next year. There are many reasons to applaud this decision but, for me, the key one is that our country needs more understanding, more bridges across the language divide. I have been saddened by doctors who treat patients and yet cannot explain to them their ailments; journalists who try to speak to a grieving mother and yet cannot have a stab at her language; people who cannot greet each other and, in so doing, humanise each other.

On Friday I had lunch with a friend. He greeted me: “Sawubona, Justice.” What a beautiful way to start a conversation. The greeting, literally translated, means “I see you”. Much more is embedded in there: “I recognise your humanity; you are alive to me”. I spent three hours with him.

En route to New York 12 years ago I learnt some Spanish. They say: “Hola! Como esta?” (Hello! How are you?). Just knowing that made my life meeting Hispanic Americans a joy. I know that the young ones in Soweto and elsewhere say “Hola!” in greeting too.

I don’t use my isiZulu, or my native Sotho, or Shangaan or Afrikaans, much. Yet when I do, even if it is once a year, the world is complete. This is what UKZN is trying to achieve for our children.

Scroll Up