Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Should black women learn their husbands’ language?

By Melo Magolego

The taste of tepid Tupperware-scented tea is one of the more vivid memories of my formative schooling years in the rural village of Ga-Mampuru — in the Sekhukhune region of Limpopo. I had until the age of four lived with my maternal grandparents in a township bordering Pretoria to the north-west. It was during this time that my father asserted his masculinity and sent a delegation to my maternal grandparents to request that I go live with my paternal grandparents. This was ostensibly because my paternal grandmother had sought occasion to know me. Of course this was a communicative pretext since my father would not brook, both personally and socially, a first-born son who could not speak Sepedi. It was then that my father sent me to learn his heritage and language, and as a four-year-old, I got to rock Ga-Mampuru with a psychedelic-yellow, plastic bottle filled high with tea.

The quest for an authentic source of heritage is not unfamiliar to the South African black. Browsing through the eponymous biography of Cyril Ramaphosa written by Anthony Butler, one finds that Ramaphosa, having been born near and having lived in Soweto, had attended high school at Mphaphuli High School in the village of Sibasa — in the Venda-speaking region of Limpopo. Butler reports that by Ramaphosa’s own confession he had gone there to imbibe the authentic traditions of the Venda-speaking peoples.

Black patriarchal tradition has meant that children will, by convention, be reared in the heritage of the husband and ostensibly speak his language. This convention was buttressed by the norm that wives are seen as marrying into the husbands’ family and hence the expectations that a wife will not only immerse herself in his tradition but also advocate it. Given the role mothers have traditionally played, this advocacy requires fluency on her part. Notwithstanding my story, the typical quest for this acculturation is, for the most part, not outsourced to some distant theatre but rather acted out in the household of the couple.

The turn of democracy has, by empowering women, challenged this tradition of kids learning without question the ways of the husband. This is because certain women are now more economically empowered, educated and not as beholden to their husbands as might have been the case previously. This empowerment has created a collision with conceptions of black male masculinity, which have held that kids should be imbued with his heritage.

A storied example of this is the cover story of the August 15 2013 issue of Drum magazine where Winnie Modise (Khethiwe in Generations), says her Setswana speaking husband would get angry because she refused to forsake IsiZulu and learn his language. She further says he became apoplectic when she would allow their son to watch cartoons whose dialogue was in IsiZulu. This political stalemate is becoming more prevalent.

Firstly, township living as opposed to rural life is often given to nurturing the polyglot. As a result one can easily become a polyglot notwithstanding the political stalemate about language raging in one’s home. However, upward social mobility has located many township blacks behind the electrified walls of good neighbourliness that characterise suburban SA. This then means that being a polyglot is not as easily acquired because of the isolationist nature of suburban life.

Secondly, I contend that the monoglot tendencies manifested by throngs of black born-frees are in small measure because of this stale-mate. I have seen cases where women in an act of passive aggression speak strictly English with their kids so as not to be accused of frustrating the husband or to actively support his cause.

Thirdly, as Butler also points out there is a perceived hierarchy of languages in SA. He notes that there is a certain “warrior” exceptionalism in isiZulu speakers, which dictates that everyone should always learn their language and never vice versa. He says isiXhosa speakers also have this tendency. It would be inaccurate to say this is a big factor between lovers but nonetheless incomplete to say it is not a factor.

Fourthly, a lot of black families tend to have a system of assigning names to children in accordance with ancestral lineage. This is often further accompanied by rituals through which the new-born child needs to be put. These rituals more often than not invoke the ancestors of the husband and not those of the wife. Hence the ancestors’ beliefs may be at tension with feminist aspirations.

Fifthly, learning a new language as an adult is not the easiest of tasks. The labour migration occasioned by democracy means that someone who might have grown up in a linguistically homogenous region of SA might meet a partner from a different linguistically homogenous region in SA. It is often impractical to convert adults.

Penultimately, perhaps a good question to ask is what role should black men seek to play in rearing their children? Clearly the assumption of mothers seen exclusively as pliable domestics is proving problematic.

Lastly, the debate is often less about language and more about perceived concessions of masculinity or rather perceived encroachments of feminism. I believe it is easier to rear a new generation in the intellectual aspirations of a current generation than it is to transform the current generation with such intellectual aspirations. There is a raging but silent debate within families of what language should be spoken in the home. I speak one language to my mother, another to my father and yet another to everyone else at home.

Melo is also a Fulbright scholar with an MSc in electrical engineering from Caltech. Twitter: melomagolego

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