‘You know what is the biggest tragedy amongst our youth? That so many of them cannot speak their language,’ says every Southern African adult. The words may be different, but the sentiment is the same. We, the youth, are a disgrace to our ancestors. We are a product of Westernisation, an ungrateful lot who refuse to speak our mother tongue because we are too lazy to learn and because it is not deemed ‘cool’ enough for us. At least, this is what I have been told by countless adults as they sip imported beer and munch on nyama choma, all of whom prefer to psycho-analyse than to introspect.
To them, I am the perfect example of ‘ashamed African youth.’ My accent is too British, my gaze is too defiant, my wardrobe too avant-garde and most of all, I cannot properly speak Shona, the language of my father, nor can I speak Ndebele, the language of my mother.
Like many of my peers, my grasp of the spoken language is fair but it is a lack of practice, and a mix of anxiety or embarrassment that prevent me from speaking it often. This is only made worse when I do attempt to speak it and I am met with laughter and mockery. However, my inability to speak runs deeper than shyness or fear. It is a widespread and systemic problem amongst my generation.
The year before my birth, the Apartheid government was abolished in South Africa. As a friend once put it, all of us are “post-apartheid black kids.” Unlike the “’90’s kid” title that young netizens so desperately cling to, this title does not come with the shared nostalgia of an idyllic childhood, one filled with boom boxes and shoes that light up when we walk. Rather, it comes with a weight on our backs that is barely addressed and often misunderstood. When apartheid was abolished, South Africa did not miraculously turn into a tolerant society overnight. The institution may have dissolved but its effects are still strongly felt, even now in the so-called ‘rainbow nation.’ Worse still is the burden for non-South Africans, because the effects of segregation in Zimbabwe were just as prominent, but often over-shadowed by South Africa’s “progress.”
Being a post-apartheid black kid meant that we grew up with the burden of apartheid without the claim of the institution. According to our rotund leaders and politicians who repeatedly claim that they ‘died for this country,’ as they use our earnings to light their “firepools,” our struggle is unfounded because we did not live directly under the apartheid government. Worse still, we have willingly rejected our culture, and that is an unforgivable crime.
When our parents were growing up under post-colonial, apartheid Zimbabwe, it was an accepted truth that ‘British is better.’ They were told that their bantu accents, their African surnames, their ubuntu-ism, and their very blackness was lesser. They were taught that they had to rid themselves of such if they ever wanted to achieve success.
Determined that their children would never suffer the same burden, they sent us to the best schools they could afford, where we would get Anglicised accents, wear neat pinafores, learn French and Afrikaans, and play the violin. They gave us English names so that our white teachers and majority-white classmates would never struggle to address us. We read Huckleberry Finn and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and when the television was allowed on weekends, we watched Little Einsteins and Peppa Pig. We had play-dates with Megan and Jessica, and on special sundays we would have high tea in our spacious back yards, where there was a jungle gym and a small dog that was never allowed into the house.
Whilst they never explicitly told us that ‘British is good and Bantu is bad,’ we internalised these cues before we could even fully understand them. We never spoke our language at home, and our house help would be reprimanded if they didn’t always address us in English. Afrikaans was a mandatory subject in school, whereas Zulu and Sotho were optional, and we’d have to miss art class to take them. Our fathers played golf and led ministries whilst our mothers held ladies’ breakfasts and Bible study groups. We would watch the stereotype-filled news about suffering and poverty in Africa from the comfort of our leather couches and wide-screen TVs because in post-apartheid Southern Africa, we, the black middle-class, had "finally made it."
Then one day, when their children started dating blonde-haired, blue-eyed mlungu, and they were repulsed by the sight of raw meat, and they didn’t know how to cook sadza, the concern set in. However, it wasn’t until they returned to their homestead, kumusha, and their kids nervously laughed, greeting their grandfathers with broken phrases, and outstretched left hands, that the older generation realised there was a problem. Their children were not "African enough," not "black enough," and no one could understand why.
“It must be those cartoons they’re always watching,” one chimed. “It’s their teachers at school, they’re all white women you know!” the other shouted. “These kids don’t think it’s cool enough to be African!” Yes, that was definitely it! We, the post-apartheid black kids who had been conditioned to hate our kinky hair, our big noses, our dark skin and our strong-smelling traditional food, we who wanted to be better than Kelly in ballet class and to have a boogie board like Chad and to have our own pony like Shelby, we were to blame. It was our fault that we could not speak our mother tongues.
My inability to speak my mother tongue is not my fault. It is not my father’s fault. It is not my mother’s fault. It is the product of a colonised mind. In his work, The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon speaks of the ‘de-colonisation of the mind.’ It is the most painful remnant of colonialism and apartheid that we rarely ever address. Though we may cover our scars with tailored suits or makeup by NARS, the scars run deep. And those who can afford to cry in air-conditioned cars are the lucky ones, because our privilege sheltered us more from the systems of institutionalised racism and internalised self-hatred that still exist today.
It is only now, two decades after independence that many of us are finally learning how to love our countries, our blackness and our mother tongues. It is only now that we can fully embrace our heritage and roots without any apology or hesitation. It may be too late for some of us to learn our languages, but our cognisance of this, our conscious decision to de-colonise our minds and undo the damage from years of segregation and oppression will one day enable our children to grow up loving our countries and our blackness the way we wish we had learnt to sooner.