Tech, Now + Beyond

South Africans are using Facebook to publish in isiZulu, so why is the language still seen as “backwards?”

Move over English, isiZulu is here to slay.

isiZulu is the most widely-spoken language in South Africa, specifically in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. It is one of 11 official languages in the country. Despite being meaningful to many people in South Africa, not much has recently been published in the language.

Since this is the case, Facebook groups are being used as sites for self-publishing isiZulu short stories. Sites like Izindaba Ezimfishane Nosondiya (Short stories with Sondiya), Ekujuleni Kwenhliziyo With S’phaphalazi (The depths of the heart with S’phaphalazi) and isiZulu Short Stories have been contributing to the growing isiZulu writing community in South Africa, making creative outlets more accessible for writers’ work to be read, commented on and shared.

Many of the stories are serialized. Each story will be uploaded chapter by chapter, and readers will get a chance to critique the story, contribute their thoughts about the plot, and even speculate on what will happen next.

As we know, language is an important tool for communicating the way cultures can change and grow over time. For languages like isiZulu that are seen as less important and even less intelligent than English, having space where they can be appreciated is undeniably important. It gives writers and readers the chance to take control of their own narrative, specifically that of Zulu culture and how it is perceived.

Historically, Zulu culture has been deemed as ‘backward’ and ‘savage’ by first the colonial authorities and then the apartheid system. Zulu people were seen as ‘noble savages’: unrelenting and disciplined warriors. The stereotype still persists to this day. To be able to take control of the way Zulu culture is spoken about is so important for people whose culture has been twisted.

Although these Facebook groups are revolutionary, they also highlight the lack of support that African languages receive from publication companies. Many of these companies claim that there are not enough isiZulu writers and that even if there were, the market for isiZulu literature is small.

Despite this belief, the numbers show a very different picture. Business Tech states that only 600-1,000 copies of a South African English book will be sold in the author’s lifetime. In comparison to international books, this is shockingly low.

But what this illustrates is that there is a lack of understanding from publishers around the demographics that South African society represents. Business Tech also states that English speakers make up around 4.89 million people, whereas isiZulu speakers make up 11.58 million people. The fact that these isiZulu Facebook groups can have upwards of 50, 000 writers and readers attests to the reality that there is a potential for isiZulu literature to flourish and even outperform English titles.

It is clear that publishers are not only neglecting the most widely-spoken language in South Africa, but also refusing the reality that isiZulu speakers want to read in their own language. Since isiZulu is predominantly spoken by black people, this refusal is racist. It shows that African languages have no place in a so-called ‘post-apartheid South African literary scene’; a scene that claims to be progressive.

There are a few books in isiZulu that are published by educational book publishing companies. But what this means is that the only isiZulu books given the opportunity to be published are set works for schools and language guides. Most of the work, therefore, does not cross into mature themes above the level of matric or senior year of high school. What this indicates is that isiZulu is not valued artistically, but just as a somewhat necessary language to learn.

To negate the existence of African languages is to negate the existence of black people in South Africa. It is shocking that we are halfway through 2017 and still have to argue for something so obvious.

The truth is ‘indigenous’ languages across the whole world are being excluded in the same way. But what remains important is that we realize how technology is now so much more accessible and can, therefore, be used to promote writing in our own languages.

The existence of these isiZulu Facebook groups is integral to the reclamation of isiZulu as a language worthy of publication. It shows South Africa and the world that our languages are valid and beautiful and need to be heard. What it also shows is that it is time for companies to step up their game and actively seek out isiZulu writers.

It shows that we need a surge in black-owned publications to publish in African languages. Of course, there are so many factors to consider, such as the persistence of white capital in a definitively white supremacist world.

But it is important to understand that in the place of black-owned African language publishers, we can create our own platforms using social media.