13.05 - 12.06.2022
I am not Zulu even though I am descendent from Zulu people. An ocean of Westernisation separates me from what it means to be Zulu. The language I grew up speaking cannot be called isiZulu, as authorities such as Fred Khumalo have lamented. In Soweto – the apartheid state’s largest township – we communicated with our Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, and Xhosa playmates in a patois that used as its framework the language of isiZulu if you resided in the Zulu section of Zone 1, Diepkloof. In the Sotho section, the core of the patois changed to suit the dominant tongue. It was the same in Zone 2, which was predominantly Tsonga, and so on and so forth. The aim was to communicate with each other as we roamed the township at our leisure, or at the behest of our elders who often sent us on errands. It was unconscionable to knock on the door of a Tsonga household and not greet in the language, before delivering a message for your granny. The elders would accommodate you if they could see you were struggling. Your intention to respect them was always rewarded and never punished.
These languages became jumbled in our young minds; out went the grammar and syntax. When we entered puberty, the bastardisation intensified, as we tried to woo the subjects of our affections in their mother tongues. As always, effort was rewarded. You just had to try to make yourself understood. We did not feel that we were anything less than we were meant to be.
At home, our families kept up the customs of ritual slaughter and communion with the ancestors, and on special occasions we would make family trips to the ‘homelands,’ where we were called names that implied dilution.
If you commuted to a private school like me, the cultural erasure was refined there. The patois on which you depended in the township was slowly replaced by the Americanised English of your schoolmates. With age, you found the transition between the streets and the suburbs harder to make, as the gears of social mobility ground against your upbringing.
Your future lies in academic excellence at that private school, reinforced by your father. Forget about your friends loitering on corners here in the township. They are heading nowhere. You grew estranged from them as you buried your head in books and borrowed hip-hop from your schoolmates. Your old friends would hear it blaring from your bedroom window and taunt you when you came out of the house. Aiyo, my man, they would tease as you walked by.
By tertiary, I was thinking and dreaming in English, and I did not spare a thought for my mother tongue. In the Eastern Cape, I did not hear for eight years the Diepkloof patois on which I had been raised. I had to think hard before speaking my vernacular, and even then, my speech was riddled with pauses. Moving to Durban in 2017 ironed out a few kinks, but life in KZN has confirmed that what I speak is not isiZulu.
By and large, the people have been friendly. I have not had a conflict based on my inability to speak isiZulu as well as the next person. Granted, my social melee is bohemian and middle-class, so Zinglish carries me well enough. I am proud to have held full conversations with domestic workers and Bolt drivers, too. I have not had to tell anyone the lie that I am Tswana to explain my different dialect.
Although I have not been made to feel it by others, I sense a chasm between myself and the local heritage. After all, my grandfather did his best to pass down his Zulu traditions to my generation. My cousin, Ntsika, is the most faithful reflection of the old man’s efforts, having undergone a renaissance in adolescence, wherein he re-invented himself according to custom. Unlike him, the rest of us did not spend our late teenage years in Mpumalanga, where we could get in touch with the old ways. Joburg made hybrids of us, for better or worse.
When the concept of hybridity is discussed in the 2018 MTV Base documentary, GQOM Nation, I feel a slight possibility that the chasm between myself and the ‘homeland’ could narrow. Arts Editor Kwanele Sosibo introduces the metaphor of the Nguni drum, which has a metal base, as opposed to drums carved of wood made by the Tsonga people. In his word-image, the metal base symbolises “a rural culture transforming itself into its present setting.”
As a person who has been transformed by his setting, the idea of hybridity in KZN titillates me. “It’s about hybridity,” Sosibo affirms, “peri-urban space transforming into hyper-urban space, KZN-post-’94 style.” He points to the example of hip-hop as a creative byproduct of the human imperative to adapt: “It’s hybridity, man. I mean, hip-hop would have never happened were it not people from Africa that were enslaved in America. The new environment forces you to survive and become another being altogether. These are the politics of the self.”
I carry my personal politics into Nguni: Kwelakithi, as someone who has eschewed his Zulu identity, having decided that I do not meet the criteria. Mine is the role of an observer as others celebrate their heritage and its potentialities. Except I do not walk into a celebration so much as an inquisition into the parochial figure formed by the fixed set of images, attitudes and sartorial positions associated with the Zulu archetype.
Russel Hlongwane’s exhibition statement makes it clear that the work for artists and thinkers native to kwaZulu is to refuse the stereotypical images that have come to characterise Zulu identity to the point of near-mythology. Hlongwane poses a few questions to frame this task:
- How do Zulu people accept the shortcomings of their tradition in order to build cultural fluidity?
- What is being claimed when a person calls themselves umZulu?
- How does Zulu pride rub against Pan-Afrikanism?
- And finally, how does a hyper-localised tradition meet the globalised discourse on black existence?
Hlongwane characterises Nguni: Kwelakithi as a convention of photographers who use the camera “to introspect upon ourselves for our own sense-making.” Participating photographers include Sethembiso Zulu, Simanga Zondo, Minenhle Ntuli, Lindokuhle Ndlovu, Thembi Mthembu, Thanda Kunene, Thalente Khomo and Mluleki Dlamini. Archival images by Campbell Collections round up the selection curated by Mandisa Buthelezi, whose work also features in the exhibition.
Nguni: Kwelakithi is Buthelezi’s first curated show. She is a photographer and cultural producer who is concerned with communicating African heritage. This drive comes from a cognisance of how her culture has informed her perspective. Naturally, Buthelezi is keen to provide filmic and photographic content that is centred culturally with emphases on identity and spirituality.
The show proves to be an experience that is not un-homing. Traditional herbs I semi-recognise conjure smells from childhood, while containers of snuff on display next to them remind me of uMam’khulu: an old aunt who used the tobacco product.
The images on the walls amplify this nostalgia that I did not know was in me. Minenhle Ntuli’s Umcebo triggers a memory of my youngest aunt’s wedding, at which a white bull was slaughtered in the small front yard of my grandparents’ extended four-room in Diepkloof. Butchering moved into the garage as night fell, where the blood-soaked men snacked from traditional wooden trays identical to the one in Izoso: The Gathering.
Lindokuhle Ndlovu’s Imbungculu ꘡ Siyagunda brings back the tears that burnt my cheeks the first time manual clippers scorched my toddler’s scalp, on the roadside between Diepkloof and Orlando. I may have been consoled by a lunch of milky tea, jam and margarine on white bread, which was always Isidlo Sasemini, as the grandmother in the frame of the same name exemplifies.
Eventually, I outgrew childish things to read the letters of premium Zulu men such as the aforementioned Khumalo as well as Ndumiso Ngcobo, who made pronouncements such as, when a Zulu man moves from the ‘homeland’ to Gauteng, the first three things he acquires are a wife, a gun, and a Toyota Cressida. That was the patriarchal Zulu dream to which Minenhle Ntuli’s Ingqoshi bears witness, which has since been corroded by time and South African conditions. Haphazardly, individual frames in Nguni: Kwelakithi reflect shards of my broken Zuluness. I carry these pieces of me with a little hope and resignation: hope that in a hybrid future I will belong; resignation that at present – like Ingqoshi’s rusty Cressida – I do not.