By Siphumelele Zondi

Last week President Jacob Zuma joked about people who cannot pronounce Nkandla but now constantly use the word Nkhandla in conversations. The way in which the two words have been written is to emphasise the difference in how a Zulu-speaking person will pronounce it. There have been many debates about whether he acted in a presidential manner when he made the joke and some have been questioning the relevance of the statement.

While it was a joke and some might have found it to have been in bad taste, the president was also making a statement about South Africans who refuse to learn the pronunciation of names. Someone will easily pronounce Kobus properly and make the right emphasis on the “K” but it will then get softened to the English “K” in Nkandla when it should remain the same as in Kobus.

Those that refuse to pronounce African words and names include people with homes in Umhlanga and those who visit the area often for short holidays. You hear them saying Umshanga as opposed to Umhlanga and one wonders why they do this when 80% of people in KwaZulu-Natal, an area they own homes in and live in are Zulu, which would mean they hear the right pronunciation of Umhlanga on a daily basis.

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

This is the case with the names of people. I write this because I have the same problem, my name is Siphumelele. Many white South Africans will immediately ask me if I have an English name, which I do not, or if I have a shortened version of my name which would be easier on their, as one put it, “European tongue”. It confuses me how someone who was born in South Africa and has spent their whole life here would still be using a “European tongue” as a defence for their lack of effort to pronounce African names. I wouldn’t cringe when my name was butchered until I lived and studied in England where all my British classmates taught themselves to pronounce Siphumelele correctly, a Zulu name that is foreign to their land.

What those who fail to make an effort forget is that African names have meanings, Umhlanga is “reed” and Siphumelele means “we have succeeded”. Umshanga means nothing. Those that choose to say Sipho as opposed to Siphumelele have changed my name to “gift”.

When I was in Tanzania recently, I was surprised to find white, Arab and Indian locals speaking Swahili. I also met an Arab man from Botswana who was speaking fluent Tswana. When I asked him who had taught him the language, he found the question ridiculous, “I am a moTswana so I grew up speaking the language and I did it in school as well.”

This made me think of South Africa where I have received blank stares from some Indian, white and coloured people when I have said sawubona to them, a common Zulu greeting. They do not greet back in any language, as if they do not know what sawubona means. Black South Africans will greet back in whichever language they speak because, even those that are Pedi, Tswana or Xhosa acknowledge knowing the greeting but then show me they cannot speak the language by greeting back in another language.

It does not make sense why many South Africans battle to learn a language foreign to them and then some people aren’t making an effort to at least meet them half way and learn greetings and names. The way I see it, everyone that grew up in the Free State should at least understand spoken Sotho, as it should be the case with Xhosa in the Eastern Cape and Tswana in the North West.

Siphumelele Zondi is a senior producer and anchor of Network, a technology programme on SABC News. Twitter: @SZondi


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