Learning Zulu

The author, a German journalist new to South Africa, writes about her first impressions and experiences, especially with local whites; so different from anything she knew or experienced before.

Downtown Johannesburg. Image credit Kim Davies via Flickr.

The plane hits the tarmac with a brief thud. I have landed in South Africa, for the first time. As I exit through the sliding doors of the baggage claim area, an elderly woman is waving at me. She works with Amnesty International, one of the organizations I have come to volunteer for, and she has kindly offered to host me for the first couple of weeks of my stay, until I find a place of my own.

She is talkative. On the way from the airport to C.’s home, I am told a variety of colorful and impressive stories about her life. I presume they are meant to give me (a) an introduction to my host and (b) an insight into the recent political history of the country. C. is not shy to talk about her achievements as a liberal white in the anti-apartheid struggle. And she has every reason not to be. She was a member of the Black Sash and had many black friends, who she didn’t hesitate to drop off in townships after curfew, when demonstrations ran late, even though her husband thought it too dangerous. To defy segregation and unfair apartheid laws, she also went swimming with black friends on a whites-only beach, risking arrest. According to her husband J., the apartheid regime soon took such a strong interest in C.’s political activities that its spies rented the house opposite their home to be able to watch her every step.

As we pull into the driveway of their simple face-brick single story in an upper middle class neighborhood, I am made aware that C.’s house is the only one in the area that is not surrounded by a fence. One can walk straight up to the front door. C. and her husband make a point not to be one of those post-apartheid whites who lock themselves in … and others out.

Needless to say, I am impressed and feel blessed to have found a host with such an impressive life story. These first weeks as C.’s guest will be an incredible opportunity to get to know South African life from a critical, politically aware point of view, I think to myself.

C. shows me to my room and after I have dropped off my luggage gives me a quick tour of the house so that I can make myself comfortable. Room by room, she explains where I can find what and about the daily routines of her household. I quickly gather that C.’s life is organized down to the tee, according to a well thought out system and schedule. And I am expected to quickly catch on so that I can make sure to fit in. From 12h00 to 13h00 every day, for example, is J.’s “sacrosanct hour,” I am told, and during this time, no-one is allowed to speak to him. Not the domestic worker, not me, the guest, and not even his wife. It begins to dawn on me that this stay will be an interesting one from more than just a political perspective.

We proceed to the kitchen, where I am shown how to find my way around. C. explains based on what system the fridge and the scullery are stocked. She also shows me where to find glasses, plates, cutlery and so on. Then, she opens the cupboard underneath the sink. Next to neatly stacked cleaning paraphernalia is placed a lonely, chipped set consisting of a plate, a mug, a fork and a teaspoon. The teaspoon is important because ‘they’ like to drink their tea with lots of sugar. C. is speaking about her domestic worker, who, she explains, does not eat from the same crockery and cutlery than the rest of us. I am a little shocked but say nothing, only too aware of my role as a guest, who has come from another continent, who knows nothing about how life is lived in the New South Africa and who better be grateful for the generous hospitality offered. How dare I question or criticize?

I go to my room and lie down on the bed to rest from the long flight. My first impressions and experiences of this country so different from anything I know float through my head until I fall into a deep, exhausted sleep.

I am awoken two hours later by a gentle knock on the door. “Dinner is ready,” says C., popping her head into the room. When I walk into the dining room, I am introduced to J., an elderly gentleman with refined features and a welcoming smile. A black woman is carrying bowls of food from the kitchen and places them onto the elegantly laid-out dining table. I am briefly introduced to S., the domestic worker. Then, we sit down to eat, while S. retreats to the kitchen. I imagine her sitting all by herself on a wooden chair with her chipped plate on her lap.

After we have dished up, J. notices that salt and pepper are missing. He opens a little drawer next to his place at the table and takes out a silver bell. Ding, ding, ding it goes and a few seconds later, S. emerges from the kitchen to inquire what is needed. Apologetically she scurries back into the kitchen, to re-enter the dining room with a set of salt and pepper shakers. For the second time in the day I am flabbergasted. For the second time, I don’t say anything. Is this really the house of the liberal anti-apartheid activist who risked arrest by protesting discriminatory apartheid law?

The next morning, I am awoken by the warm rays of the sun that shine through my bedroom window. Even though it is winter in South Africa, it is nice and warm. T-shirt weather. When I step out onto the veranda to breathe in the fresh morning air, I come upon J. who is reading the newspaper in a wicker chair in the shade. We get to talk about this and that, the news of the day, the quality of South African newspapers and how I am planning to spend my time in this country. “If you truly want to understand this country and its people, you should learn isiZulu,” J. suggests. That’s a good idea, I nod. J. gets up to search for an English-Zulu phrasebook he would like to lend me. Five minutes later, he is back, holding a thin book in his hand. “Here you go,” he says as he hands it to me.

I only get to sit down for my first isiZulu ‘lesson’ in the evening, after a day of taking in the sights of the city and familiarizing myself with my new surroundings. I open the cover page of the book and see that it is divided into several chapters around the home: the kitchen, the garden, the garage and so on. I turn to the first chapter: the garden. “Fetch the watering can” the first sentence reads. “Don’t dig here” the next follows. “Clean your boots” reads the next one. I can see where this going. It suddenly dawns on me that what I am reading is not a Zulu phrasebook to understand a culture and a people but rather a tool for a white baas to give orders to his staff.

With a sigh, I close the book, realizing how many shades of grey there are between black and white.

Further Reading

Art in dark times

Interview with historian Dan Magaziner about his new book, The Art of Life in South Africa, about one of the few art schools training black art teachers under Apartheid.