Gaaning Aan About Xhosa Again

A few weeks ago I went to the Baxter theatre to see a play someone who reads my blog urged me to go and see called Death of a Colonialist. It’s about a white history teacher in Grahamstown who gets a little obsessed with the Xhosas and the frontier wars and whose teaching methods, as a result, get more and more unconventional until he’s removing his shirt and covering his face and torso with red ochre like the warriors used to do before going into battle and – to the bemusement of his pupils – emulating battle scenes in the classroom. And the play is multilayered and has many themes – white voices and their relevance in the present day, the role power plays in our recordings of ‘history’, the deep love for a country which isn’t, by rights, ours and the emigration of young South Africa people. And it’s a very apt piece of theatre as it addresses so many issues we’re dealing with right now, and I related to many of the demons the protagonist was battling.

As we entered the auditorium this music was playing, Xhosa songs sung by men with deep voices, a magical sound resonant of the earth and the red sand and green fields and rivers and the overarching African sky. It was a sound less like people and more like ancient and forever, and again I started to think of this language issue because – like we saw in the case of Afrikaans and how this new, malleable language was modified and used as a weapon of power and oppression – the words we speak and the way we speak them are what ultimately constructs our reality and defines our world. And what I don’t get is why, in 2014, 20 years of democracy later, my daughter in Grade Four is instructed in Afrikaans three times a week and in isiXhosa, one. And I love that she’s learning Afrikaans, but one isiXhosa lesson a week is just not going to cut it. She’s not going to master this language beyond the sad, inadequate molos and usaphilas I was taught at my apartheid regime school back in the year dot.

And I don’t understand this decision by the Education Department because – if you’re going to call South Africa your home – isn’t that language actually the most important one to know? Because can we ever really attain equality with people when they are consistently having to compromise and speak to us in broken, accented English while ours is all proper and hootah hooh when the least we could do is meet them half way and speak crappy isiXhosa back? Implicit in these interactions we conduct in our mother tongue while the people we’re speaking to have to struggle and use bad grammar are assumptions and something very much like arrogance. And if we were all – and I include myself totally – were that committed to change in this country, to integration, to real egalitarianism, wouldn’t learning Xhosa be the very least we could do?

Because language isn’t just about words – it’s about concepts and ideas and ways of interpreting the world. In many ways it holds the key to who people are inside. Language unlocks belief systems and unveils truths about how reality is perceived. As those of us who speak Afrikaans know, it’s impossible translating this language into English, especially in its orginal Kaaps form. It just won’t bend the right way. While you could spit on Denmark from Sweden, the different way Danish and Swedish have developed tells you a lot about the people you’re dealing with. In Denmark, for example, the fact that there is no word for ‘please’ is an important clue that these folk are direct, no-nonsense types who like to call a spade a spade.

When you speak to a Swede, by contrast, not only will they say please (‘snälla’) and thank you very much (tack så mycket) a lot, their sentences are peppered with the word ‘käns’ (pronounced shence) which means ‘feel’. Being generally more sensitive than their cousins across the ocean, for Swedes feelings are paramount, and you’ll hear a lot of ‘I feel…’ or ‘how did that feel?’ in conversation, whereas in Danish the equivalent word doesn’t exist. In that language, instead of a ‘käns’ there are words for ‘I think’ and words for ‘I believe’ – which tells you they’re less interested in the emotional aspect of things.

And – like most of us lazy, swak white South Africans – I don’t know isiXhosa so I can’t use examples from that language, but by the way many Xhosa people speak English and Afrikaans you can hear there are vast differences and from that infer that a lot is getting lost in translation. And while I love the sound of this language and have a read a little bit about how complex and nuanced it is, and sometimes when I drive I practice the different clicks to myself and think it’s big fun to say, ‘hayi suga wena’ and ‘jonga!’, I don’t google Xhosa lessons in Cape Town and go and sign up and learn how to speak it like I should. And I don’t know why I don’t. Laziness and intertia, I suppose. But I think it really would make a difference.

I couldn’t find the exact song on YouTube (it’s called ‘Nontokasi’), but this has a similar sound.


16 thoughts on “Gaaning Aan About Xhosa Again

  1. You know.
    An you know how many English school just take the escape route of offering Afrikaans as the additional language? That’s the case in my boys’ current school and the one they’ll be going to next year.
    I know the logistics of teaching a 3rd (4th, 5th?) language is horrific – in my eldest’s school there are 29 mother tongues represented! And the sad thing – so many of the black kids are just being brought in English; they won’t be able to speak their parent’s language. What to do then? i plan to scrape out the old Zulu 100 text books and just in again, with the kids.

  2. I get what you are saying… but Xhosa is not spoken in all of our provinces, and for the same reason as some Afrikaans-speaking folk wont speak English and vice versa, you will find some Zulu/ Sotho not wanting to speak Xhosa. I read somewhere that other than English, Afrikaans is the 2nd biggest language in South Africa, because it is not just spoken by white people, in the western part of the country it is the most spoken language as a matter of fact. it is a language spoken even in Botswana. We officially have 11 languages in our country, and depending on which province you are in, that African language is the one offered in the schools. So the logistics is just frightening. This is, I think the way that they can be exposed to another language. If you have a nanny/domestic that speaks an African language then let the child learn from them, it is in fact probably the best way to learn it.

    1. Obviously I mean different regions would learn different languages, and yes, it might be tricky, but not impossible when you consider the benefits. I do think, however, that expecting the nanny/domestic to also be the language teacher is a little unfair. Unless you’re going to pay her overtime and offer an hourly teacher’s wage. But then it becomes rather a different job.

  3. First off, love the blog I read it a lot.
    Next thing, I’m not associated with this lot at all but you can learn Xhosa in Cape Town! They seem to offer some great courses, but unfortunately they are not available in JHB!
    I think learning an “African” language is a must in South Africa, as otherwise you cannot communicate effectively with a large portion of the population, and it is unfair of me to expect everyone else to speak flawless English.

    1. Also in Cape Town: started by a friend from school who trained as and practised as a Sangoma. A whitey nogal.

  4. Zulu is the most spoken first language in SA followed by Xhosa, English and then Afrikaans. Afrikaans is the most spoken second language, followed by English – there’s a lesson these somewhere!

    1. To me this means that Zulu and Xhosa should be the language of choice to be tought at school, but then by competent teachers who know their subject. Its a great pity that Afrikaans is so neglected, any language you know opens up a new world of understanding one another.

    2. Steuart is right to point this out. Personally I think all schools should teach at LEAST one Nguni Language (Zulu and Xhosa the obvious ones) or a Sotho-Tswana language to cover the majority of the various Southern Bantu language speakers (

      If Afrikaans were retained at least at a rudimentary level as well, and presumably English as it now is, that would mean the vast majority of people could communicate at least basically with one another in their home languages.

  5. hello. song at baxter play could be the late busi mhlongo’s crocodile (off her urban zulu album) -though this was the one that played during intermission at my attendance.

  6. My daughter had some years of an African language at school, way back (not that she can do anything with it). Her two daughters never had a single lesson at school. If you are at an Afrikaans Highschool, from grade 10 you can choose to take English at mothertongue-level, therefore I cannot understand the philosophy of the Education Department. Girls High in Pretoria engaged an African lady during the time of the previous government to give lessons in an African language spoken up here in the afternoon, apparently that worked well. Unless you learn a language at a young age, it does not work too well. Pity!

  7. I si agree with you! Not only Xhoza, but Zulu as well, or at least fanagalo. In Fact, English is not among the 3 most spoken languages is SA, and it is also not endemic to South Africa. I find it such a pity that evderything must now be English instead of Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Zulu. Iand I do not understand why it is so neglected at school either. In this new South Africa, my children did not even have it at school, not even one period a week. So they are where I was way back in the fifties.

  8. hi, i have been following your blog for quite a while and thoroughly enjoy your viewpoints of our world and society!!..we accidently ended up living in Brasil, sounds weird i know..but what i want to comment on is that despite there being about a zillion people living in this vast country, there is only one official language, a common denominator linking all here with some kind of equalizer..and it makes ALL the difference. South Africans are at a huge disadvantage having such huge language barriers…such a pity, and an issue needing urgent attention….either by schools as you say, or by self motivation..not easy!!

  9. Here in Joburg, my son had to chose his 2nd language in Grade 3 already (Afrikaans or Zulu) There is probably a 50/50 split in terms of the number of kids. In our case we went with Afrikaans as Dad is Afrikaans and I owe it to his family that at least one day Dylan will understand it a little ( Growing up in the north of Joburg you NEVER hear Afrikaans and my poor kids are “rooinek” as can be despite the Afrikaans surname) Hubby would prefer that he does Zulu, but bless his heart, Dylan is not much of a language child and Zulu is pretty complex grammatically. Besides, both hubby and I grew up in the Cape with only our smattering of Xhosa.

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