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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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  1. Everyone Everyone 12 August 2013

    Great article Melo and applicable to all races and cultures where people marry across language or other lines . I married into an Afrikaans family and we had the same battles you describe. Different language and culture. We refused to give family names and all of our children got brand new names. Today I have three completely bilingual children who are comfortable in any company, but with no discernible cultural leanings. The world is changing and some traditions just make no sense at all. We need to have the guts to face the opposition and let them go. Not easy.

  2. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 12 August 2013

    One has to feel for the dyslexic or autistic children of Africa. When one language is hard enough to learn, a multitude of languages being thrown at them must be murder.

    It is called ‘mother tongue’ for a reason.

  3. bernpm bernpm 12 August 2013

    If and when you marry, I take it that you try to build a family.
    The requirements to do so with a chance of success demand that you try to understand each other……not just in language but in cultural habits, religion and last but not least the other family.

    “Should black women learn their husbands’ language?”
    A silly question. The answer is an outright “YES” but followed by the question :
    “Should black men learn their wife’s language?” .
    The answer is an equally outright “YES” and not just the language but all the other family habits, culture, religion and so on.

    If the answer from one of the partners is not “YES”, do NOT get married. You either end in divorce or you will be miserable for a long time.

    I once attended a Hindu marriage where both families had an evening ceremony by themselves. Both partners to be and their families prepared a popcorn. On the evening of the formal union the families mixed the pop-corns as a symbol of the couple uniting both families in their marriage.

    Your question seems to suggest that you build a marriage around diversities (and how to deal with them) rather than a unification in love and care. So sad!!

  4. Melo Magolego Melo Magolego 13 August 2013

    @Momma Cyndi in the situation where the mother and father have different home languages then what is the mother tongue? If like Epainette Mbeki she is Sotho but she lives deep in Eastern Cape then is it fair to assert that Thabo and Moeletsi’s mother tongue should not be Xhosa?

    I think stating that the mother’s language should be privileged is indirectly asserting that women should play primary role in child care (hence entrenching domesticity). Saying that the father’s should be the mother tongue then that is asserting old patriarchal patterns where the way of the husband is privileged. So deciding a priori is fundamentally inconsistent with feminism. The only way is for the couple to decide in consultation with each other – hence a posteriori determination.

    For me I find it amusing with each census how hardly a generation since democracy there is a large number of blacks that self-identify English as a home language. Hence in such a case would English be the mother tongue?

  5. Mbonisi Mbonisi 14 August 2013

    But why has marriage in the past and even to a large extent in the present entailed the wife adopting the husband’s surname? Surprisingly this is almost universall worldwide – why?

    To my mind, this has been due to the fact that marriage was always been understood to mean the wife leaving her family, literally that is and joining her husband. I have never known of a husband taking up his wife’s surname.

    This modernity and faminism are messing up with the very essence of marriage, that is why there are so many divorces. How can you want to be identified with your husband’s surname but refuse to identify with his culture as depicted by his language? To me this is just a contradiction in terms.

    If people women want to keep their identifies, they are free not to marry. Marriage is not a MUST – its not compulsory!!

  6. Judith Judith 14 August 2013

    More and more women, Mbonisi, choose not to take their husband’s last name because of the reasons you state. The marriage relationship is then one of equals

  7. Mbonisi Mbonisi 14 August 2013

    We might be different, but as far as I am concerned men and women have always been equals within the constraints of their genetic make up. You can never fight nature, no matter how modern you think you are. There will always be those things that women can do, that man can not do and there will always be those things that men can do that women can not do – even if all opportunities are freely availed to both gender. This is how, with our differences we compliment and support each other for progress of mankind. Equality will always have its limits, due to the fact that we are different and as such perfect equality in the true sense of the word is a myth.So as far as I am concerned, marrying and identifying with your husband in both surname and language/culture does not in anyway negate equality in terms of human rights between the two of you. Many feminists’ ideas of equality are actually a receip for failed marriages, because in most cases its almost about competition and the desire to continuously fight nature’s designs. This to me is ridiculous and stupid – why get married then – just stay out of the kitchen if you can not stand the heat. As I said, marriage is not compulsory!!

  8. michael michael 15 August 2013

    Melo, teach them English.

  9. Sicelo Sicelo 16 August 2013

    Melo, your argument is premised on an interesting assumption which you articulate without question: “The turn of democracy has, by empowering women, challenged this tradition of kids learning without question the ways of the husband.”

    On the face of it, the assumption is that “democracy” has liberated women – and specifically SA black women – from all conduct that in any way defines them beyond feminity. It follows then, confused as it is, that you find separation of “husband” from “father” as perfectly acceptable in the context.

    Explain this then, how is it that your liberated women stick to their father’s surnames (identity) in marriage without apparent recognition of the contradiction in their refusal to assume that of their husbands? Is it because their “father” with whom they will die before disassociating with is any different to the “husband” they are quite happy to marry without identity? Could it be that the “father’s language” makes more sense to a liberated woman?

    Secondly, marriage in the black communities at least has always been closely associated with homes – be it the groom’s or the bride’s – as a critical factor to assessment of strengths of survival. In other words, the languages of both the would be “wife” and “husband” would need to be understood by all concerned parties. An inexplicable quest in human relations, would you say?

    Indeed, in the light of the foregoing is there such a thing as a “husband’s language” as…

  10. Sipho Sipho 16 August 2013

    i take it Melo that ilobolo was paid for your mother and your mother took your father’s family name when they got married. When you were born you took your father’s family name, and ethnic grouping, and as far as I can read your rebellion hasn’t made you denounce your father’s family name and adopt an English one. You seem to defer to English for solutions for whatever you consider to be African traditional challenges. Personally I take a dim view of African people who pick and choose aspects of African culture. they’d be proud abaPedi, amaZulu, abaTswana, avhaVhenda, when the so called superior nations reverts to their ways. To umPedi you have to speak sePedi, otherwise everyone can be umPedi. You approach to the language thing is technical – the need to include oneself in conversations supercedes any external prompting to learn a language.

  11. melo magolego melo magolego 16 August 2013

    @Sicelo very deep and incisive commentary.

    (1) I think is unfair to equate a father’s surname to that of a husband. (a) That is because the father’s surname was acquired at birth by the time women become conscientised/politicised it is already a core of their identity. There are case where this identity gets challenged and that is in cases of divorce; however for the most part most women have little reason to challenge it. (b) Politicisation or rather questioning of historical norms by women has not taken issue with father’s surname. Maybe it should be a feminist pet cause. (b) A husband’s surname mostly comes in after politicisation and also after woman has constructed an identity (a process since childhood). This constructed identity collides with the identity which the husband is trying to negotiate.

    (2) History and recursion: the point of current generation of wives taking the surname of their mother instead of their father’s I think is impractical because of the patriarchal “contamination” introduced by history. That is how do we know the mother of the wife she herself did not take the surname of the father (wife’s maternal grandfather). That is to say the problem becomes recursive. This recursion means that a philosophically/logically clean solution is not within reach. Hence the only fair point would be to make a cut and say from now on we are going to try alternative schemes. One such scheme exists in Latin America where kids take the surnames of both…

  12. melo magolego melo magolego 16 August 2013

    (3) On the need to learn a language because of in-laws I think that is one very valid point which I have not addressed in my write-up. A if we view marriage as a union of families then it provides a compelling reason for cross-learning by both.

    (4) On whether democracy has created condition for ferment: I think the manner in which democracy has done this is rather indirect and through economics. By improving the collective lot of blacks it has also improved the lot of black women (because black women are a subset of blacks). Of course the comparative improvements between men and women may be disputed. This then has altered the power relations in the home all other factors remaining the same. These altered relations are, in my view, what is precipitating some of these questions. So I don’t like other people thing this is mostly because of progressive legislative accomplishments. Nonetheless restraining orders, maintenance payment laws, improvements to laws governing inheritance and chieftainships would no doubt also bring some relief.

  13. melo magolego melo magolego 16 August 2013


    I think your comment that people can’t cherry pick things in their tradition which they choose to form part of their present day culture is romanticism. Chinua Achebe has said many times that part of his aim with Things Fall Apart was to present a fair account of pre-colonial Africa. He then further says we can’t pretend that everything was peachy before colonialism nor can we accept the view that it was hell. If it were peachy then surely the implication is that all famine related issues, pain from disease, pain from watching loved ones succumb to disease, etc were already solved before colonialism. This is patently false. Our culture is not cast in stone but it is rather a living culture that each generation needs to wrestle with, grapple with its implications and live it (such that ironically a future centuries-removed Sipho would say but that is not how they did it in the 2000s).

    It is a fallacy to pretend that there is some core which characterises African tradition and anything else is alien. What we today call the traditional dress of most language groupings within South Africa is a product of colonial interaction (i.e. in the form of synthetic materials)

    I’d be interested to know what is it that you think I am rebelling against? Progress?

  14. Sipho Sipho 19 August 2013

    @melo magolego # – me thinks we are not on the same page. I have never claimed that culture doesn’t evolve assuming of course we share the same definition of what culture is. In my book culture and tradition are two different things – washing your teeth every morning is your culture, being umPedi is your tradition. Culture is always dictated by social conditions and our response to the changed conditions determines our survival. Me thinks you’re using the words culture and tradition interchangeably.
    Being umPedi or umZulu and speaking the language is part of your tradition, and it’s a luxury that you can do without if push comes to shove. Avoiding kissing your girlfriend in front your elders is part of your tradition, you can overlook it and no harm will be done on your relationship.
    As for the past being peachy, I’m not sure where’s that’s coming from (me thinks you it’s either an age thing or you read too much Jehoviah’s Witness’s magazines. The past has never been peachy and the future will never be peachy. There’ll always be existential challenges. Denouncing your traditions for western or eastern thinking is like singing Hossanahs it won’t take you to heaven.
    Personally I’m yet to realise any aspects of my amaZulu, amaSwazi, amaMpondo, abaPedi, amaXhosa traditions being an impediment to progress and modern lifestyle.

  15. melo magolego melo magolego 19 August 2013


    (1) I see culture and tradition on a single continuum. Culture I define as the solutions to present day problems. Those problems can be identity, hunger, boredom, social living, etc. That is to say culture would for example be how one alleviates boredom and hence perhaps a culture of singing/dance comes about.

    Tradition I define to be solutions of yesteryear which were at a certain point valid but changing conditions might have rendered them irrelevant. This then would be how people would consider Zulu boys in leopard skins to be their tradition much like Japanese wearing Kimonos. This would be how Bapedi would consider going to initiation in the mountains to be their tradition and Zulus not (well at least since Shaka). This would be how people would consider treating the elderly respectfully to be their tradition. Not all traditions become irrelevant and some survive multiple generations and hence form the then present day culture. It is precisely this mixture of the old (tradition) and the now (culture) with which each generation must grapple (as good example is the case of Zuma and his multiple first ladies).

    I have a suspicion that your definition of culture is what we would call in Sepedi “setjo” or is Nguni (“isiko”). But this is a false distinction to think that tradition is something separate. The two are interlinked by transmission from one generation to the next.

  16. melo magolego melo magolego 19 August 2013


    (2) It is a fallacy to think that the dichotomy between culture and tradition exist as you have defined it. Because in forsaking certain aspects of our tradition to form a new culture more often than not in the African case we are adopting a foreign tradition/culture. A good example would be of the suits that we were to formal functions. Hence part of our culture now incorporates other people’s solutions to problems.

    I think this is a fundamentally important point because it bring to the fore the question of whether certain solutions (i.e. single and specific aspects of a culture) are superior to others. And I think if you want to run a marathon in the Basotho blanket the more power to you. But there is clearly a better solution in the form of synthetic materials. This too was in the education practices why the Romans numeral system was abandoned because the Arabic numerals which we all currently use are in fact superior.

    (3) Sometimes even though aspects of tradition are irrelevant they form a core and pivotal element of our narrative as humans and help shape us into confident individuals with a sense of history. This is why it is still relevant for Zulu boys to be running around in leopard skins much like the Japanese on occasion wear Kimonos.

    (4) Being a moPedi, etc. is a subscription to a group identity. This subscription although partially voluntary, if one is steeped in it from a young age certain aspects of it become part of you. So yes you may…

  17. melo magolego melo magolego 19 August 2013


    unsubscribe/opu-out of a group identity. That is theoretically posibble. But of course this would mean constructing your identity in other ways (which inevitably meaning judicious stealing of aspects of other cultures that you admire)

    (5) As for tradition never having hamstrung you from progressing nor leading a modern life, I think that is patently false. If your family had a tradition of herding cows and you are now not herding cows but are on the M&G website, I don’t see how the two don’t contradict. What I believe you to be saying is that subscribing to an identity with some flexibility for modern times is not an impediment to progress. But that is tautological since in the premise you admitted flexibility hence progress is implied. There always has to be flexibility because things change. But we can engage in nostalgia and practice irrelevant tradition, if for no other reason than to help us grow as confident young citizen who are proud of having a history and narrative which does not doom them to the rubbish heap of society

  18. Sipho Sipho 20 August 2013

    melo magolego # me thinks your take on tradition is superficial. All traditions are enduring remnants of culture. Being umZulu or umPedi is much deeper than wearing traditional attire. When you’re born to a amaZulu family there are rituals that are performed and reinforced as you grow, and they influence your worldview. We are raised to be proud of who we are but at the same time not undermining other people’s cultures. Modernity doesn’t belong to any specific group, it’s part of human evolution.
    Whatever part of culture survives evolution becomes tradition. Herding cattle was a culture of my family and moving to the cities, the culture had to evolve, cows in the kraal were replaced by money in the bank. Money doesn’t belong to one specific tradition, it evolved from some form of exchange to what it is today, and it is in transition. People have always been trading, moving from one form of currency to another. There are no contradictions here. Getting married is part of our tradition, and there are elaborate rituals that are specific to each community on earth regarding the process of marriage. You’re a product of that elaborate tradition and you’re most likely to follow it despite the fact that you can ‘vat en sit’ which is much easier and cost effective.

  19. Sipho Sipho 20 August 2013

    Another point to shed light on the culture/tradition debate. I’ll consistently use amaZulu as I’m most familiar with culture and tradition. AmaZulu had to evolve and stop going to the mountain for initiation since their existential challenges forced them to abandon the tradition. Fighting wars became their main preoccupation and it subsequently became part of their culture and tradition. They also had to abandon piercing their ears and stretching the earlobe for identity purposes since there was no longer a need to forge physical common identity. Traditions that survive are those that do not compete with our desires for progress as a people. Traditions like ilobola,marriage, ukuhlabela madlozi, ukufaka isiphandla, imbeleko, umemulo, cleansing ceremony, ukubethela, will always be with us for a long time. Traditions like polygamy, ukungena, ukuthwala are dying obviously with permutations – because they are economically and romantically unsustainable.

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