Pretoria High School for Girls: Black hair politics and the battle for dignity

It was just last week that my friend with a daughter in Model C high school in the northern suburbs of Cape Town was telling me about having to send an e-mail to the Mathematics teacher because the teacher made comments about the daughters hair. The daughter’s hair is in a natural mini Afro.

So when I was reading about the protests by black girls at Pretoria High for Girls this weekend, I immediately thought about my friend’s daughter. The administration at Pretoria High School for Girls, like many white South Africans, does not take seriously the dignity of black people.

Maybe it is good a good time to insert here that the South African Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, guarantees for everyone – including black girls – a right to human dignity. It reads, “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.” The administrators at Pretoria High School for Girls and other Model C schools in South Africa seem to ignore this important right while formulating “general appearance” guidelines.

In South Africa, lip service is paid to the idea of human dignity but there is a lack of respecting this right in practice. In other instances we speak of human dignity, but we have caveats, we say human dignity for all but not for the sex-worker, not for the homosexual, not for the gender non-conforming bodies, not for the black foreigner, not for the poor, and not for women.

Instinctually I want to say, how crazy is it that South Africa has a population that is more or less 80% black, but it is that black 80% that needs to modify to fit into European beauty ideals. I stop myself because although it is “crazy” because it is unjust – because it should not be so – it not crazy in that there is a history that leads us here. It is 350 plus years of colonization and then apartheid that brought us here. It is years of missionary education that was premised on racism. South Africa has a long history of denying black people their dignity, hence the specific inclusion of human dignity in the Constitution.

In South Africa we don’t always acknowledge the full impact of colonialism on present day society. In South Africa we are discouraged from engaging the history of colonialism. The history of colonialism is often neglected in discussions about race and racism and the creation of a democratic South Africa. Statements such as “we need to move on” are often used when colonialism is brought into a conversation.

What have those years done to our collective historical psyche?

What we need to interrogate and ask is why do we not engage more with colonialism and the effects of colonialism? We have a museum for apartheid, we have one for District Six, we have the Voortrekker Monument, but as my Boyfriend once asked, where is the museum or memorial for colonialism? Are we to pretend that the 300 years preceding 1948 never happened?

I suspect the answer to the colonialism museum question has to do with who has the power, – monetarily, socially, and otherwise – to realise such a museum. Building a colonialism museum would imply that there will be a place where we can go and engage with colonialism and its legacy. And yes, it would be a museum of horrors. It would be a museum where the violence of whiteness is on proper display, where it is obvious.

Instead of thinking hard about colonialism and then apartheid and their legacies, in South Africa we are encouraged to “move on” and “leave the past in the past.” This is a futile exercise of course because the past is not in the past; the past is here with us and the protests by black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is evidence of this.

You might ask what does colonialism and then apartheid have to do with the protests at Pretoria High School for Girls?

Everything.

We are often blind to the ways that we are all affected by colonialism. The fantasies that white South Africans still have about black people are palpable. You see part of what colonialism has bequeathed on us is the investment in an authoritarian Christian nationalist ethos. The bizarre notion that imposing rules on how you look will instill “discipline” and make students excellent – as if you think with your hair. South African schools really need to rethink the dressing codes, the school prayers, the school songs, and school traditions that were part and parcel of the colonial and then apartheid regimes. The problem at Pretoria High School for Girls is real and its 3 centuries in the making.

The rules and regulation of grooming practices for black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls has everything to do with our colonial past and then apartheid. These grooming practices were established during colonial and then apartheid years. The idea that black people’s grooming practices must be monitored is as old as 1562. The ways that black girls are treated at Pretoria High School for Girls, and other Model C schools is rooted in the ways colonialists and then the apartheid regulated the “neatness” of black bodies.

The language of “neatness” is still part of the guidelines of Model C schools. It is used to discipline black girl’s bodies in order for their bodies to closely reflect the dominant European ideal. It is when the black girl’s hair does not reflect the European ideal that it’s “neatness” is called into question. Talk about a need for decolonising the South African schooling system.

The black girls who get into trouble with Model C school administrators are not black girls with “properly” combed European looking weaves, it is not black girls who do their hair in the “ordinary” way – an ordinary that pleases the white administrator. It is the black girl with an Afro. It is the black girl with dreadlocks. It is the black girl whose hair pronounces I am black and I know it and I love it.

Many white South Africans, including white teachers at Model C schools, have not caught up with a post-apartheid South Africa that is supposed to be rid of racism. How is it ok for a white schoolteacher to think that it is acceptable to call a black girls hair a “bird next”?

Some white South Africans might have missed it, but whiteness just isn’t what it used to be. But you see blackness is also not what it used to be. As demonstrated by #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, and now #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh with regards to whiteness and previously whites only institutions, it is not business as usual anymore.

The black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls are a clear demonstration that blackness is not going to be lived in ways that pleases white administrators at Model C schools. Black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls are fighting back. They are fighting for their dignity. They are fighting to exist in a South Africa where their being is not measured against European standards of beauty disguised in discourses of “proper grooming.” Black girls shouldn’t be policed like this. In fact there’s already too much policing that girls experience what with the patriarchal culture that we live under, teachers cannot and shouldn’t be part of the policing. They should be helping high school girls forming positive body image.

What is taking place at Pretoria High School for Girls is shocking because black girls in high school shouldn’t have to protest for their dignity and their identity to be valued and respected. However, what is happening there it is not surprising. Model C schools have been mistreating black pupils all throughout the post-apartheid period. We have had reports of schools not allowing black languages to be spoken in class. We have seen schools with very questionable admissions policies.

Who can forget Simphiwe Dana deciding to move from Cape Town to Johannesburg so that her children can have access to good schools that offer black languages? So, no, this is not surprising. The black students I have met at university who went to Model C schools speak of the racism experienced at these schools. They speak of the pressure to assimilate to whiteness. Students are denied the Right to speak their mother tongues in Model C schools, and in addition they pick up a distinct “Model C English” accent. For most of us high school was tough, but there is a particular self-loathing that is produced by Model C schools.

The reaction from the school authorities towards the protests by black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is disgusting. It is apartheid style tactics of making the school a victim with teachers speaking of being “threatened and scared”. This is a typical whiteness response when white people and white institutions are called into order about their racism.

White South Africans are so used to treating black people and black people’s bodies with disregard that when black girls demand to be treated with dignity, white teachers speak of feeling “threatened and scared.” Of course the irony is that the white teachers are blindly unaware of the “threat” they pose to black girls identities and self-worth. They are blindly unaware how “scared” the black girls must be to have to put themselves in the line of fire with the school administration. Also, what about the fear that the teachers place on black girls who have to extensively calculate the “appropriateness” of their hair with every new hair do.

It’s impossible to miss the gendered nature of hair “guidelines” or “general appearance” guides for schools as they are often designed for girls and much less is said about boys. Since Pretoria High School for Girls is a girl’s school, I imagine the policing must be doubly intense. We are already aware of the many ways that black women’s bodies are surveilled in society. Places like Pretoria High School for Girls institutionalize the policing of black girls bodies under “dress codes.”

In the policing of black girls bodies at this school, how do they deal with the diverse ways that gender is experienced and lived. I shudder to think how pupils at places like Pretoria High School for Girls who have gender non-conforming identities, or who are forming gender non-conforming identities. The violence that must be visited upon such pupils at a school that has dress and hair policies that are admittedly “conservative.”

The “rules must be followed” and “all schools have rules” response to the protests by the black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is telling. Although it is a typical response from many South Africans who value authority and rules for their own sake, it is problematic. That “rules” must be followed even if the rules are unjustified, colonial, and affect the dignity of black girls is unacceptable.

This type of discourse is of course not unlinked to the “children must be seen and not heard” nonsense that allows for the silencing of children, where children learn to be silent even when they are being hurt. Rules do not exist in isolation. People create rules. Rules are created by appointed structures, by society with a particular agenda. Rules are set to encourage a particular way of being, of dressing, of styling. Rules are ideological, they embody the world view and assumptions of the economically and socially dominant group who govern institutions. They are underpinned by a certain way of seeing the world – what the world ought to be like. Rules are not objective. So rules that are anti-Afro are rules that are anti-black. Rules that are anti-dreadlocks are rules that are anti-black.

The problem with the white administrators at Pretoria High School for Girls and other Model C schools is symptomatic of the problem of white South Africa. White South Africans are not invested in, and they show no commitment in fostering a nonracial South Africa. It has been lamented time and time again that the people involved in the post-apartheid rebuilding of South Africa is black people.

White South Africans are more interested in living in gated communities with electrical fences and security guards than engaging with black people. In post apartheid South Africa white people still have not taken the time to learn more about the black cultures around them. The poverty porn in Cape Town and Johannesburg galleries and the occasional Sunday braai at a place like Mzoli’s doesn’t count.

White South Africans are still living with strangers, an ideologically far away people. There is very little effort from white South Africans engaging meaningfully with black people and black cultures, and that is why in 2016 schoolteachers can say racist things about black girls hair. That is why administrators are poorly handling the protests at Pretoria High School for Girls. That is why when black girls are screaming to be treated with dignity; they are met with “rules must be followed” responses.

There is a total disregard of the black girls personhood. In this climate, in this culture of ignoring the dignity of black girls, Maliaka Eyoh’s words, a grade 12 pupil at Pretoria High School for Girls, become that much more prophetic when she states, “When we stand together, our message is stronger. We understand that we cannot trust two old white men who work for other old white men to stand up and combat the injustice and incite the change we need.” Maliaka Eyoh understands that she has to fight for her dignity and the dignity of other black girls. She understands the poverty of white South African’s will to meaningfully engage with blackness.

Many South Africans are proud of the black girls of Pretoria High School for Girls. We are excited for the world these black girls envision for themselves. A South Africa that is not anti-black. A part of me, a big part of me wishes that these black girls didn’t have to do what they did. And as I wish this, I am reminded of one of my mother’s favourite 16-century English proverbs, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” A luta continua.

Boet/Sissy – Black. Queer. Xhosa.

I was introduced to Majola’s album, Boet/Sissy by a friend who tagged me on Facebook. I immediately went online to have a quick listen, and then bought the album instantly. The subject matter of the album is of particular interest to me. The album focuses on the experiences of a black gay man, trying to make sense of the world. The album is the life journey of a black gay man predominantly sung in Xhosa. I love this album and I am with Majola in the politics of this album. This album is the epitome of being young, gifted, queer, and black. In this piece I embrace and celebrate Majola’s work talking to all the ways that this album resonates and inspires me. Boet/Sissy is a poignant reminder of the artistic talent in South Africa, but also of the myriad of stories we are yet to tell about what it means to live with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, in post-apartheid South Africa.

The first thing that grabs your attention about this album is the title. When I read about the album I was first amused and then really moved by the title Boet/Sissy. You see as an effeminate gay man, I know all too well the weight of the term Boet/Sissy. I’m also acutely aware of the venom that usually accompanies this phrase. Growing up in Xhosa culture (I believe this is the case in other black communities in South Africa) Boet/Sissy was, and to some still is, a derogatory term that is used to bash gay men, especially effeminate gay men. The phrase is directed at effeminate gay men for being men who “act” like women. So Boet (or in Xhosa Bhuti) represents the male side, and then Sissy of course represents the effeminacy. It is a term that is often used interchangeably with “talase” which is a word people call gay me. It is a term that suggests one has both male and female genitalia. So then Boet/Sissy and talase are used as derogatorily synonyms for each other. People who use these words as putdowns often don’t care about the “real” meaning of the words, but are only interested in using the words to shame and to hurt whoever is perceived to be of a different sexual orientation. With the risk of sounding too postmodern, Majola is reclaiming this phrase; he is taking back the power. For me, Majola uses the Boet/Sissy in a productive way, similarly to the ways in which we have reclaimed the word queer. The use of Boet/Sissy is also similar to the way academics and artists have found productive use of shame, shame associated with same-sex sexuality. Majola’s use of Boet/Sissy is a queer thing to do, therefore immensely political. The fact that the album is mostly sung in Xhosa, which means it is directed to a black audience, speaks profoundly of the politics Majola is engaged in. When I saw the name of this album, I immediately thought about the piece I wrote about the complexities of sexual identity and the Xhosa language. In the piece I try to come to terms with having no specific Xhosa words in everyday language to talk about the diversity of sexual and gender identity. This piece sparked a number of conversations over the radio, and it seems the conversation of sexual identity and language continues in a different form with Majola’s album.

boet-sissy1

In the beginning of the album, in the first interlude Majola is standing in front of a judge before he is sentenced to jail. So his first utterances in the whole album is “I stand in this court a man, fully aware that manhood is a narrowly defined subject within society.” This opening lines targets the narrow definitions of manhood, particularly black manhood that often positions black gay men as outside of manhood. And then Majola goes on to define what he thinks is a man. Although I like what he says, and I think that he is politically astute to issues of masculinity, I find the five interludes in the album interruptive.

After the first interlude Majola then proceeds to the first song, track number two. The track is named Khanyisa, and it starts with the birth of a boy named Khanyisa in 1985 (which incidentally is the year I was born). In the song he does this haunting repetition of “kwazalwa indodana” – a boy is born. As Khanyisa grows up, experiences life, trying to discover himself, he gets lost wondering through life. Khanyisa eventually meets a woman called Nobanzi who saves Khanyisa’s life. The friendship that Khanyisa has with Nobanzi   restores him, as this woman loves him. The affection with witch the lyrics are delivered warms the heart. The song is almost homage to the relationship between black women and effeminate black gay men. I have these relationships. These relationships are what got me through high school. I would be nothing, nothing without the love and support of black women. The song sets the tone for the album in a way, as he deals with issues of light and darkness, getting lost and found, and eventually loving yourself.

The third track called Bawo – father – the word is also often used in reference to God. This song is an affirmation of the gay identity. Majola talks about a boy who is cursed out, really chased out by his father for falling in love with other men. Majola begs in this, asking why the father is rejecting the gay son, where will he go? What is this boy to do? There is a theme of redemption in this album, and in this song Majola then continues with the narrative of being lost and found. The gay boy who is cursed out by the father finds his way to the big city and his life spirals out of control. This is a powerful song that speaks to the lives of many lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) young people who escape home because of abuse. The homophobia experienced by young people is sometimes so intolerable that they would rather live elsewhere with friends or on the streets. Majola begs, and pleads for acceptance in this song. The piano keys coupled with Majola’s voice especially as the track fades towards the end has an incredibly haunting sound. I feel like this song is also speaking to the difficult relationship gay men often have with their fathers. A relationship of course that is mediated by the culture of patriarchy which often renders the gay boy useless, not man enough, and therefore not a good son. Having never had a real relationship with my own father, I can relate to this song. Majola is really engaging us in a conversation about masculinity and what it means to be a father to a gay kid.

The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid cloves. In the song Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate in the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.

The second interlude is track number five where Majola talks about being different and the journey to self-love. “I have always felt different to other males, stares of disdain, the name calling, distant affection from elder males and sometimes the violence inflicted on me confirmed that I was indeed different. The price I paid for being different is the excruciating loneliness I felt. Accompanied by guilt, shame and stigma, I overacted being a man and still wasn’t man enough to many … I was a secrete friend to some, and a secrete lover to many. I thought I was deserving of secrete validation, someone had to take a stand for me, and to my luck that someone turned out to be Me.” – Poetic.

Then there’s the title track where Majola captures the anxiety of growing up gay in the township. He speaks of the warnings people often give to visibly gay kids where they warn the young gay about their deviant sexuality. When I was growing up, people would say that you will grow up and become like uNokuku. Nokuku is an effeminate openly gay man that lived in New Brighton and was well know in Port Elizabeth and the surrounding areas. I believe Nokuku still lives in Port Elizabeth. Nokuku is what all young gay kids were warned against, he was used as an example of what one should never be. Nokuku had cult status as an openly gay person in Port Elizabeth, the only gay in the village kind-of status. Majola also references the other warning issued to gay boys that they must not become like the men who are on the Felicia Mabuza Suttle show. You will remember The Felicia Show had a number of episodes that were about members of the LGBTI community. The reference made by Majola of course means that he grew up in the 1990’s, when Felicia Mabuza Suttle was a big talk show host assisting South Africa through the transition to democracy. In the song Majola also makes a reference to “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve”. Homophobic heterosexuals often quote this line as if it’s the smartest line ever invented. The phrase ‘it’s not Adam and Steve’ is often accompanied by unintelligent smugness. This phrase needs to die and be buried. In the chorus of the song, Majola repeats “ndingu boet/sissy” –I am Boet/Sissy. He asserts and affirms himself in the song that he is he what he is, “and so what?”

Imbali is the next track. It is a track about love. It’s a lovely tune, but it doesn’t do to me what the other songs do. It is a soft song, and Majola holds himself back as he sings the song. Which I suppose is a good thing for an artist to be able to have restraint. It’s plain song for me, and it is preceded by some really marvellous tracks, so it doesn’t shine that much.

Throughout the album there are references to bible scriptures. There is an interesting way that Majola plays with church references. “Khulula ezombadada” is the line said to Moses by God that he needs to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Sondela is a slow jam. It is about two men making love; it is made that much sweeter by the Xhosa lyrics. Majola speaks of listening to the body parts of his lover, and how these body parts encourage him as they become intimate. The song is beyond courageous. Majola poetically croons about his manhood and the manhood of his lover and all this is done with a persistent haunting sound in the background. My heart skipped a beat when I heard this song for the first time, I had to go back and listen again to make sure what I heard was correct. I am not going to even pretend that hearing a black male artist talk about two men being intimate on a record in Xhosa is not a bit of a mind fuck.

In the third interlude Majola does not shy away to speak directly to the political situation of the African gay. He directs his words to those that prosecute gays all over the African continent. Majola states: “My sexuality is used as political fodder to dissuade from real political issues. Men whose crime is to love other men fill up prisons that should be filled by men who snatch bread from hungry mouths. Who rape and murder daughters and sons of this land. Love is one of the greatest virtues to be possessed by any human being. To be prosecuted for the courage to love is the highest crime committed against life itself.”

After the third interlude there are three tracks that are similar in mood, Ndindedwa, Luthando, and Andizoncama. It is in these tracks that you hear the influence of church or choral music. Although the influence of church music, particularly black Methodist, is felt throughout the album, there’s something about these three tracks for me that really captures that essence. In the title track Majola does make a reference to the Methodist church where he carries the cross in the church procession, but is afraid when he leaves the church that there is a boy that will taunt him on the way home without anyone there to stand up for him. The influence of church music in the album is undeniable. Of course Majola follows in the footsteps of many black artists whose artistry has been “honed” in the church.

Interlude number four is all about loving men. Majola states: “I love men, I love the feeling of being held by another man. In another man’s arms I find comfort, safety, healing, escape, release, pleasure, and unspeakable joy.” These words reminded me of the beautiful piece written by Fumbatha May called a love letter to the black man in the Mail and Guardian. Fumbatha May writes a loving and inspired piece. After speaking these words in the interlude, Majola proceeds to one of the two up-tempo songs on the album. The name of the song is Zithande – Love yourself, which is really an anthem for gay people to practice self-love. Living in a world that is dominated by heterosexist institutions, it becomes political for LGBTI people to love themselves. Majola sings “funda ukuzithanda” – learn to love yourself. In this track I find Majola’s lyrics affirming and reassuring. The way he articulates ‘”learn to love yourself” one can’t help but think of the message of black consciousness, where black people are made to realize that loving themselves is a political act. So in the same way that black love is an act of resistance so is black queers loving themselves.

In queer circles, especially black queer circles Simon Nkoli need no introduction. In the song Simon Nkoli, Majola praises Simon for his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle, the gay liberation struggle, and also his involvement in HIV/Aids activism. Simon Nkoli was a hero and Majola gives him the honour and respect he deserves. In this song Majola gives Simon Nkoli the same reverence that Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela receive in Thandiswa Mazwai’s Nizalwa Ngobani. Also in this song Majola continues his narrative of darkness and light as he speaks of Simon Nkoli as a light in the darkness. And for many black LGBTI people, Simon Nkoli was just that, a light. The up-tempo beat gives the song a celebratory feel, celebrating a man’s life spent trying to conscientise South African society. This album will now be part of the archive of black queer lives in South Africa, and the fact that it pays homage to legendary people like Simon Nkoli makes it even that much more poignant.

The fifth interlude is the sentencing of Majola from the judge who he stood in front of at the beginning of the record. The judge then proceeds to read his sentencing.

The closing track Majola sings about Ikhaya lam – my home. In this track he goes back to his melancholic sound that was interrupted by the two previous tracks. Interestingly, the question of home has been a topic of conversation within my friendship circle. I was born in Port Elizabeth. Many of my friends come from diverse backgrounds and different cities from all over the world, and the question of what is home is always a topic of discussion. Although I call Cape Town home, it is never without qualification. Majola asks for his home to take care of him, to protect him from the world. Home for Majola is a place where he finds safety, a place that offers protection. In this song Majola concludes with the narrative of darkness and light, talking about wanting protection from the darkness of the world. Again, it is hard to miss the biblical undertones. Bible references and all, Majola has given us an amazing piece of art. The album is a bold queer statement. The subject matter of this album is about what it means to be black and gay and live in South Africa. Majola takes us on a journey of a black gay boy, negotiating manhood, falling in love with other men, and experiencing rejection from family. Although one can claim universality in the experiences described by Majola in this album, this is an album about the life experience of a black gay boy. Majola bares himself and speaks his truth, and in the process holds a mirror for me to see myself and I am grateful for it.

 

Indigenous language complexities with LGBTI terms

This week one of my pieces titled, iGay, iLesbian, iBisexual – Xhosalisation of English, which focuses on the trouble with indigenous South African languages and the derogatory terms they use to describe and talk about LGBTI communities was discussed on different platforms. The piece also tackles the way that African languages in South Africa are not evolving as fast as they should and their evolution is not documented. I use my mother tongue IsiXhosa as an example, that there is little to no academic work in the vernacular.

The piece was picked up by three other publishing websites. Holaafrica picked it up and then it was picked up by Voices Of Africa and lastly picked up by The Guardian. This obviously exposed me to more readers and subsequently more people engaging with the piece. This is something I am happy about because it means that we are having a broad conversation about this issue.

Towards the end of the week Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk requested a conversation with me about the piece and the issues it raises. Here is a recording of that interview.

The feedback from the piece has been awesome. People have challenged my assertions and some people have affirmed my arguments as they also have experienced the lack of vocabulary in indigenous languages to talk about LGBTI issues. Some people on twitter have argued that some of the derogatory terms in IsiXhosa referring to LGBTI people are not in fact derogatory. Many others and I obviously disagree. In this process I have learned of a new Xhosa term for gay that I didn’t know before that may not necessarily be derogatory from a friend on Facebook, the word is “Omakhanukanodwa” which loosely translates to “those who want their own.”

Here are some of the issues raised and feedback from people while discussing the issue of language and LGBTI terms.

“It’s broad and the issues are varied and intricately intertwined. It’s a conversation that needs to happen at all levels and we, as the LGBTI population should lead it. I think you nailed by linking the derogatory language and discourse used to talk about the LGBTI population and the oppression of African languages in referring to how Western languages and discourse has been nurtured to evolve while “Other” languages have be ignored and not given space to evolve. Or how such evolution is not documented…because in everyday life in the streets the languages remain dynamic.”Thiyane Duda

This is a great exchange I had with Fumbatha May on Facebook:

  • Fumbatha May: There are words like “amakhanukanodwa” and “oodlezinye” that aren’t necessarily derogatory.
  • Lwando Scott: First time hearing “amakhanukanodwa” which is very descriptive. And I’m on the fence with “oodlezinye”. But all in all this language thing is something we should wrestle with a lot more. Particularly in bridging the “culture” gap between LGBTI & Afrikan. Thank you for engaging. I’m learning as I go.
  • Fumbatha May: I enjoyed your article immensely. I have long dreamed of turning the former Pick n Pay building in Bhisho into an Africana library that would house a think tank to tackle the issues you raised in the article. I do, however, disagree with your point about academia being the source of new words to describe human behaviour. Yes, for less “obvious” or “tangible” phenomena like gender identity for instance, it does become necessary for academia to give us the words to describe and explain them. However, we should not preclude the possibility of regular folk coining the phrases and popularising them (e.g. the two words I mentioned in my other comment). Also, social networks are making that process a little easier as words trend like wildfire (e.g. ukutowna – a word that existed only in East Londond, Mthatha and surrounds until it was popularized by Khaya Dlanga).

 And lastly here are some exchanges on twitter:

 

iGay, iLesbian, iBisexual – Xhosalisation of English

A few months ago I received an e-mail asking my advice about IsiXhosa equivalents of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender. IsiXhosa equivalents of these words do not exist, and I am not talking about derogatory terms. Growing up I had no language to talk about sexual identity; even the concept of having a “sexual identity” was a revelation in my late teens. Although visibly gay while growing up, there was no concrete articulation of my gayness as a sexual identity. I have often struggled with articulating sexual identity terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) in my mother tongue.

I have had an on-going conversation with my close friends about the issue of not having a “language” to talk about LGBTI issues. The language we use to talk about LGBTI issues and the terms we use to classify sexual identity are English language words. When people use the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) in the vernacular people just add an “i” or “u” in front of the English word. So gay is then iGay (a gay) or uGay (he is gay), or iLesbian (a lesbian) or uyiLesbian (she is a lesbian). The same is done with all the other letters in L-G-B-T-I.

Now, although there are no specific terms, all of the terms in the L-G-B-T-I acronym can be described in the vernacular. Which is something people do when they talk about LGBTI people – they describe what gay people “do”. So if I am to answer the question – what is a gay man – in the vernacular, I would describe a gay man in the vernacular as “umntu oyindoda othandana namanye amadoda” which translates to “someone who likes or falls in love with other men” which means gay. There are multiple ways in the vernacular in which people say “gay” by describing what the term means – or what the person who is gay “does”. This is more or less the same process or application to the other letters in the L-G-B-T-I acronym.

Homophobes People have often raised the issue that because there are no equivalent specific terms in indigenous languages for L-G-B-T-I terms, homosexuality must be a Western import. This is a complicated point and needs to be addressed carefully. While it is true that the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transgender are all from the English language, what these terms name and describe is a phenomena that takes place in many cultures around the world. So although there are no equivalent words in the vernacular for gay, lesbian, or transgender, that doesn’t mean that, there are no gay, lesbian, or transgender individuals amongst Xhosa people. So saying that because we don’t have a specific word for “transgender” in the vernacular therefore transgender people do not exist is lazy logic that won’t move us forward in making sense of the world.

Equally important is keeping in mind that the words gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual are also “new” words in the English language. The word “gay” and the word “lesbian” only become a reference for homosexuality in the late 19th century and increasingly in the 20th century. These words are less than 200 years old. The word “transgender” is even more “new” as a word because it comes to life in late 20th century and increasingly becoming part of our daily vocabulary.

New words are introduced into a language as new human phenomenon is discovered. New words are introduced as cultures find ways to explain people’s behaviours. Life is constantly evolving. The problem with IsiXhosa and other indigenous languages is that there are not enough people who are writing and producing knowledge in the vernacular, which is one of the ways new words are coined. The irony is not lost on me that I am writing this piece in English discussing IsiXhosa language issues. It pains me to admit that as awesome as my Xhosa is –I can read, write, and speak- it’s not as good as my English. It takes me twice as much time (if not more) to write a Xhosa piece than it does an English piece. Glancing over at my bookshelf I can’t spot a single Xhosa book. I used to read more Xhosa books when I was younger, but that changed as I grew older and went to mixed school and was required to read English books.

The language issue is a national issue, or at least it should be treated as such. IsiXhosa like all other indigenous languages of South Africa are not evolving by additional words being added in the language. Instead we see what my friends and I call the Xhosalisation of English words (which is a phenomenon that needs dissecting). Xhosalisation takes place in different ways, one of the ways it happens is the placing of the prefix “i” or “u” on English words. There is also the creation of “new” words by amalgamating English words with IsiXhosa words like the word “Xhosalisation.” Xhosalisation of English is useful for immediate everyday conversation but I wonder about its sustainability.

It is impossible to talk about language in this country without talking about the effects of colonisation and apartheid on indigenous languages. These systems of oppression have negatively affected the organic development of indigenous languages in epic proportions. Unlike English and Afrikaans, there are no structures in this country to ensure that indigenous languages continue to evolve. Universities like Stellenbosch are bastion of the Afrikaans language and ensure that the language is moving with the times. There are no equivalent indigenous language institutions.

The post 1994 government has also failed to prioritise education and indigenous languages continue to be neglected. I think we need to think of ways in which we can articulate the struggles with gender inequality, sexual identity, and the changing culture in this country in indigenous languages. We need to be able to articulate the complexity of human sexuality in indigenous languages and maybe this will lead us in a direction where people gain a better understanding of sexual diversity.

It is a big problem that no academic work takes place in indigenous languages, as this is where ideas and new ways of being are articulated. This is not to say that people in the streets are not contributing towards the evolution of language, but it is knowledge producing centres that coin terms for human phenomenon and in the process helps us understand that human phenomenon. A few years ago for the first time at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University a PhD thesis was written and submitted in IsiXhosa. The sad reality is that even if you wanted to write a sociological PhD thesis in IsiXhosa you will struggle to find supervisors who would be able to read it. Not to mention the struggle you would encounter with trying to explain “deconstruction”, “queer theory”, or “intersectional analysis.”

There are ways in which we could try and improve the language situation in this country but that demands political will and that is sorely lacking. Universities in this country are in a good position to create language/cultural centres for indigenous languages. This could start a project of taking indigenous languages seriously and slowly introduce knowledge production in indigenous languages. Universities could collaborate with people who speak indigenous languages to learn more about the languages and the cultures behind them. At times it seems to me that the 9 indigenous languages of the 11 official languages in this country are only decorative. Imagine if all 9 of the indigenous languages had a language institute.

Also as people who speak indigenous languages, we should really seek ways in which we maintain indigenous languages in our everyday lives. Imagine a South Africa with IsiXhosa book clubs and IsiXhosa reading rooms at universities in the Western and Eastern Cape. Imagine a South Africa where students can study sociology in the vernacular. Having IsiXhosa centres could also serve as great instruments in diffusing the alienating white supremacist culture of former whites only universities in this country because black people will then feel part of institutions and not just needing to adapt to a white world. What we need is a vision of the kind-of South Africa we want to live in and work towards that vision. Creating language institutes will probably not be easy, but creating a healthy South Africa that is content with itself requires hard word and an on-going conversation about our difficult past and where we want to go. We also need to make piece with the fact that the great South Africa we want to create will be enjoyed by future generations. Just like we are enjoying a democratic South Africa that was created in part by many people who died in the process of creating it and never had a chance to experience it.