Hey gang, this week I’m putting together an application for study leave that has had me looking to my roots for some inspiration. So since I’m already meditating on aspects of my culture and identity, I thought I’d do a bit of a mini comparative study of my own on how life as a Joburg Zulu is different in the two countries I’ve called home. Maybe as I ramble and explain a bit about who I am, it might shed some light along the way about why I chose A Joburg Zulu as my blog name.
Growing up in South Africa as a Zulu girl in the Johannesburg area has always come with a mirage of assumptions about me, my family and my history. Some of these include:
1) Zulu people don’t think I speak Zulu
This is my favourite because wow, I think this is as close to American as I’ll ever feel. The same way that Americans are always shaded by British English speakers for not speaking “English” is the same way Joburg Zulu’s get shaded by KZN Zulu’s for not speaking “Zulu”. It’s kinda sad that people don’t understand that the way language is set up, dialects of a language tend to form due to changes in location and cultural surroundings. This is what happened to Zulu in Gauteng, the language gained a few words and lost a few others along the way, maybe the accent too, but essentially it remained the same language.
I say it’s my favourite, but honestly, it’s just my favourite one to hate because it ends up being such a barrier to communication. Instead of people listening to the thoughts and ideas you have to share, they get caught up in the technicalities of how you are saying things. This just causes a breakdown in communication because one party feels ignored and the other is usually too arrogant to notice what has happened.
2) People assume we all “come from” Kwa-Zulu Natal
If people were products, Kwa-Zulu Natal would be considered the base factory for Zulu people. Because of the way our history is set up, that’s where the majority of my people have been born and bred for the past few generations. I, on the other hand, am a 4th generation exodus Zulu, which means my family hasn’t been “from” KZN for close to 200 or so years. A lot of things happened in South Africa gents, some negative, some positive, people moved around, started new homes in new places, it happens. Again, the way language and culture is set up, you don’t stop being a thing just because you no longer have ties to the “motherland”.
[insert meme about internal discrimination]
I get irritated with this one because when people find out that you don’t have any ties to KZN, they tend to want to revoke your validity of being a Zulu person. This is often done with little care or consideration for the chaos it causes to the other person’s sense of identity. I get it though. I realise that it’s a difficult concept to imagine for some.
3) Since I’m a Joburg Zulu, people assume I grew up in Soweto
Soweto is one of Joburg’s largest townships and home too to many of the Gauteng provinces black families. This said it is not the only home to Gauteng’s black families. I was born in Johannesburg at a time when my family lived in Spruitview,(slightly east of Joburg) before this my family had lived in the Vaal (a city south of Joburg) in Sebokeng. If I remember my family history correctly, my mother and father’s families were both living in the Sebokeng and Evaton area while they were growing up. I didn’t spend any significant time in Spruitview since my dad’s work had us move to Witbank when I was about 4. But, from that time I remember taking long drives to go see my cousins in the South and attending various funerals and weddings there while my family lived ‘away’. Over time, even though I had never lived there, it began to feel familiar, almost like home. In this time, of course, we would also go see my other aunts and uncles who had moved on to make a life for themselves in Soweto (slightly south-west of Joburg). We didn’t go as often. The place seemed foreign to me if I’m honest. And I guess that’s why I’ve always had a feeling of unease when people have assumed that just because I’m a Joburg Zulu, that I have some sort of familial ties to Soweto, much like the assumption about KZN.
Much of the unease also comes from not wanting to be a lier. I don’t want people to look to me for information about things that I don’t know, experiences that I don’t know and even local customs I don’t understand.
4) People think Zulu people like imposing their language on others
In a country of mass discrimination and oppression, you often find remnants of old and incorrect ways of thinking seeping through to our current society. Growing up, my parents always taught us that all people were equal and that we should never feel less than anyone because of colour. And that’s how I’ve tried to live my life. Of course, this pep talk about race did not prepare me for the prejudices of my own people. I remember on various occasions while going home from school on the combi that was my school transport in those days that I would spend the ride home laughing at the stories the Tswana girls would share. At this stage, I couldn’t speak the language at all but I could listen and that was okay with me cause I wasn’t a big talker, anyway.
During these times, I’d get confronted about my silence and sometimes I’d offer that I didn’t have much to say because of the language barrier (a lie because who wants to be the weirdo who hates talking?). This would, of course, cause an uproar. How typical of a Zulu person to not know other languages. I would then get a lecture about how Zulu people thought they were better and expected everyone to know their language. I would go home on those days and share this with my parents. My dad would then tell me about a time when that was true. When Apartheid was still the flavour of the day, a lot of language oppression and strife was encouraged, anything to keep those blacks from ever coming together yo. He would tell me about how migrant workers, particularly Venda and Tsonga people from the north, were often shamed for their languages. They were often called ‘Kwere-kwere’ (a derogatory name for a foreigner) whenever they would speak their languages in public. They had to conform. Conforming meant speaking the dominant language of the day which was Zulu (over and above Afrikaans of course). This culture carried forward into our current taxi environments where the drivers would often shame passengers who tried to communicate with them in a language outside of Zulu.
A small part of me wanted to understand the toxic feelings leftover from this experience but I couldn’t do it. Looking around at non-problematic members of our society (yes taxi drivers are often problematic), this is just another stereotype of the modern-day Joburg Zulu. I have found that it is not true. We are all on some level multilingual now, all of us, Zulu and non-Zulu. We live in what is called ‘The melting pot’ of our nation. We have so many culturally and ethnically blended families that having people growing up knowing and speaking upwards of 4 languages is the norm rather than the exception.
This stereotype isn’t super harmful but it can be isolating. I hope one day as people we can move past such things as looking at our differences as a disadvantage. It really is great being different, it does tend to make you the most interesting person in the room. Unfortunately, during this long ramble, I’ve almost forgotten that I’m meant to be comparing my experience as a Joburg Zulu in South Africa with my experience in Japan and this post has run a bit longer than necessary. Luckily next week is still promised so I’ll continue this study in a follow-up post for then. Hope you enjoyed reading.