Heritage Day? Shaka Day? Braai4Heritage? Cat Pritchard wonders if we are all speaking the same language.
It’s that time of year when the idea of a public holiday that celebrates our shared heritage awakens private guilt in thousands of monolinguals across the country. Eish. Hai wena. How do you say “Happy Heritage Day” in isiXhosa again?
Welcome to Heritage Day slash Shaka Day slash Braai4Heritage (previously known as National Braai Day), depending on which side of the Drakensberg you happen to stew your cultural pooitjie pot on.
Heritage Day is like New Year’s Day – the day we promise to learn another language and get more culturally fit only to find ourselves slouched on the couch watching yet another American series a few weeks later. At least the craft beer in our hands is local. And lekker. The truth is that most of us mlungus speak better American than we do isiXhosa or IsiZulu. No-one has to tell us what happens behind “the bleachers” or explain that a pie is a tart and jelly is jam.
I am a Model C citizen, which is to say I am not a model citizen at all. I speak two of my own country’s 11 official languages, one more conversationally than any Afrikaaner hopes to endure. Tweetalig is an inside joke that only my CV understands. I am not without many attempts at overcoming this global “English-please” phenomenon. I was once moved to action by the stilted words of Thabo Mbeki who said, “I don’t believe that one can be African and not speak French.” I think it was around the time that African Renaissance became the “phrase de jour” and everyone was getting in on the revival. Besides, who doesn’t want to say fromage instead of cheese or practice pursing your lips like a champagne flute so that your words bubble over instead of fall plat like a pannekoek on your palette. What I didn’t understand at the time (apart from the grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation) was that a bi-weekly course for three months had as much chance of getting me to speak French as a dating a Frenchman years later. Both were short lived.
Years later my struggle continued in the boardroom where the lingua franca was now Zulu, a language I could actually practice on (“with” would not be accurate) my colleagues. Initially this “learn at work” method did breed some sort of camaraderie among us, as we all stumbled through the clicks and cases that we hoped would eventually lead to something that sounded like a useful phrase instead of a cruel form of punishment. But complex schedules and even more complex egos got in the way and the result was a few choice phrases we reserved for smoke breaks (back in the day when this was still culturally correct). And so many Heritage Days later, the question remains: How is it that 20 years into democracy I can order food in France, ask for the toilet in Thai and still not click along with my local culture? I am ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I am in need of my own cultural Reconstruction and Development Programme.
Perhaps, for some, the plan is to wait for the local languages to come to us. A new-age colonizing of sorts. English speakers are already five words closer this year thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary adding papsak, mahala, tenderpreneur, whoonga and zef to its esteemed pages. Sadly the selected words make us South Africans sound like a bunch of bleary-eyed drunks who are too corrupt to do an honest day’s work and too stoned to know the difference between a mullet and a free haircut. So much for culture, shared or not.
It seems the only language we have in common nowadays is statistics. That and a shared distaste for corruption, fear of crime and frustration with our failing leadership. Moaning is also becoming a common language that I am hearing more and more. I don’t know about you but I don’t want South Africa to be the only joke we can share around the braai. I am not sure how we Braai4Heritage or how we stoke the fires of tolerance from the ashes of apartheid. But I do know, from personal experience, that Nelson Mandela was right. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” And I know our country could do with a whole lot more people speaking from the heart than fighting from the head.