- Thandiwe Ntshinga
Why the hype around white people who speak vernac?
In South Africa’s multi-cultural society there are 11 official languages which are supposed to be given equal status. According to Stats SA’s Community Survey of 2018, 25.3% of the population spoke isiZulu as a first language, 14.8% spoke isiXhosa and 12.2% spoke Afrikaans. English is the sixth most-spoken home language however with its social and political dominance, it is the second most-spoken language outside the home—second only to isiZulu. 61.2% of white South Africans were seen to be Afrikaans-speaking while 36.3% spoke English.
Recently, over the past couple of weeks, an average white guy has been gaining popularity on social media. Jady Zietsman, aka Jay the Mlungu/white person, is rising to social media fame simply because he can speak isiZulu. This was revealed when he responded to an interview between house Dj Tira and a white boy where the boy declared himself the “king” of the white Zulu-speaking population. Jay the Mlungu was one of a handful of white isiZulu speakers who made it to the national news when they went to social media with videos to illustrate how they speak the language much better than the self-proclaimed 'king' does. But why the hype around white people who speak African languages?
Be it Jay the Mlungu, former kwaito rapper Lekgoa/white person (now an Afrikaans singer and rapper under the stage name Snotkop) or even the “white Zulu” himself, now-deceased musician Jonny Clegg, there is always a disturbing mix of fascination and congratulation in the responses to white people who speak any one of our languages.
As colonial subjects, we have had to learn English and/or Afrikaans while the vast majority of white South Africans do not know any vernacular beyond—perhaps—a greeting and translations for “white people”. We have come to command their languages (whilst losing our own) and yet they can neither understand nor string a coherent sentence together. The exception to this general rule being white farmers who have long been speaking African languages—with a lot less attention.
The truth of the matter is that white people who speak our languages are hyped because we, Black people, hype them. The popularity of these African language speakers and performers is amongst the Black people who find this linguistic ability impressive. It is not impressive though. Far from it.
It was decided, in our democratic transition, that we would have 11 official languages as a nation-building strategy. At the very least, white South Africans can finally start participating by speaking more than the country’s two “white languages”. Let us not celebrate the bare minimum, please.