Mlungisi C. Mabele
Linguistic Identity

From the author:
This essay was written as a result of frustration with the amount of inequality on a racial level. This dialogue could be recognized as my way of combating this inequality. Subjective racial comparisons that are forcefully imposed on people is one of the worst forms of prejudice. I am disgusted that the human race can decide which of its parts is lesser and enforce that decision through detrimental means. The extinction of a language is not the only thing to fear, but also the abolition of a culture and the historical ties that people have.
from the teacher:
My WRT 105 class was assigned a research-based argument essay related to language. MC’s essay was certainly well researched, but also integrated his personal experience into the dialogue in a very powerful way. I think student writers tend to avoid conflicted emotions, especially in argument essays; MC mines these ambiguities deeply and honestly.
from the editor:
Mlungisi’s essay on his linguistic identity offers a thoughtful commentary on life in South Africa, and confronts the hardship and confusion created by an era of apartheid. As a personal reflection, this piece lets us experience an important part of Mlungisi’s life and heritage, and it forces us to consider the conditions which exist throughout the world, but which we so often choose to ignore


Language is more than just a tool to communicate. It connects people with something greater than themselves. A common language breaks barriers between people. It allows people that share a language to identify with each other although they are different. A new language makes you notice things that you have always missed. It leads to an appreciation of things that you never knew existed. And, in doing so, a new person is formed; the old is not gone but is somehow different. My linguistic identity hinges on two languages–Zulu and English. My parents initiated the joining of my ethnic identity with a linguistic English identity.

My linguistic identity was formed through two major environments in South Africa. My identity as a Zulu-speaking African evolved during the era of apartheid—a dark era in South Africa’s history that started to decline in 1990. This oppressive setting was conducive to the formation of a Zulu identity that saw itself as inferior to the white man. My academic career in this atmosphere lasted until 1991, halfway through my elementary years.

The school I attended during the apartheid years was all black and all instruction was done in Zulu. The school did not have proper equipment for academics or athletics. I remember practicing the 100-meter dash for inter-school athletic meetings on a dirt road. I consider my school one of the lucky ones because there were other schools throughout the country that used trees or roofless buildings as a school. We had a well-furnished building with a roof, although it got terribly cold sometimes. Black education was nothing to take pride in, and those who did take pride in it did so because they came from such inadequate situations that they were unable to be competitive with those in better conditions—whether white, black, or any other racial group.



The other part of my academic career, which spawned a new linguistic identity, took place after the liberation of South Africa, marked by the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and black children’s new right to enroll in white schools. All of a sudden there were black kids in uniforms that were previously worn by white kids only. I was part of the crowd that sported this new attire from the English world. Since my parents could afford to send me to a white school, they did not see any reason to deprive me of a good education.

“Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity” (Anzaldua 113). You are what you speak. The language I learned as I grew up became who I was. I identified with its history and the political or social state of the time. My rearing in Zulu connected me to the essence of the Zulu nation. The Zulu language authenticated my Zulu ethnic identity. I remember watching Shaka Zulu on television and how the show captivated me and the rest of my family. It was like looking at where we had come from and the reasons as to why we are here today. Although the individuals on the television had no relation to us, it was easy to relate to them as people with a common Zulu identity.

I struggled through my early years of education in Zulu. My school was a twenty minute walk from home. Everybody walked to school. Even preschool kids were carried on their mothers’ or sisters’ backs to school. From pre-school (1987) to grade three (1990), Zulu was my only world. It was the medium for communication and social identity. On the playground during recess, we would interact through our mother tongue. There was an old school building where we believed lived a tokholosh. We would throw rocks inside the building and scream, “Tokholosh come out!” A tokholosh was a zombie-like, very short person under the spell of a sangoma—witch doctor. In fact, the myth was so popular that people used to raise their beds so that tokholosh would not get them at night. We said, “Eitha Joe” (What’s up, man) when we saw each other. In the classroom, our teachers used the Zulu language to teach lessons. The church we went to was Zulu and all my friends spoke Zulu. This was my identity and the identity of the people I cared about and wanted to be accepted by.

Another feature of my native African identity was deeply intertwined with the racial oppression of the day–its worth. Unknown to me at the time, my linguistic identity was measurable through objective means like the economy and subjective means like popular opinion of the dominant race–the race with great economic power. So what is this identity that was considered inferior? What is it to be Zulu? Zulu means the heavens. When referring to people, it means people of the heavens. Zulu is the most common language in South Africa, spoken by 22.9% of the population (“Home Language”). The black form of tribal identification is kind of similar to the Scottish Clans. Zulu was actually a family name. In fact, it was the last name of Shaka Zulu. Through him the name came to be known as the name of the tribe that he formed from many other clans. It could be said that without Shaka Zulu, the Zulu identity might never have been established (Koeller).

The normal Zulu family structure is patriarchal. The father is the head of the family, and it is a must that he be revered. When the children speak to the father or any other adults, they are not allowed to look them in the eye. The father does not foster close relationships with his children. The mothers are the ones who are closer to the children, since it is their duty to raise them. The mother’s responsibility is to take care of the home and make sure that there is food for everyone to eat. The children are given responsibilities at a very young age (Tourism Attractions).


Zulu is an oral tradition. Our culture and traditions are passed down from generation to generation through the spoken word. This is why story-telling is a very important part of our culture. Many of our traditions are still passed down through story-telling and observations. Another form of Zulu communication is the use of beads. Color plays a very important role in the meaning of the beads that the girls wear. They also symbolize marital status. Beads are also used to write love letters. Today the art of bead writing is not as common because the colors have lost some of their meaning and black people are more urban and have less need for beads as a form of communication. Today, beads are mainly use for decoration (Tourism Attractions).

This kind of Zulu tradition that I grew up in was a very toned-down version. For instance, my father was not autocratic. My mom and dad made decisions together rather than my father alone having the final say in family matters. We also did not follow cultural traditions like praying to the ancestors because most ofthese traditions contradicted our Christian beliefs. We did, however, identify with the language and the meaning of what it is to be Zulu in the urban world—a world that deals with a very filtered form of Zulu culture. Marriage is one part of our culture where Zulu traditions are still observed. There are still the two days of rituals, one at the groom’s home and the other at the bride’s. Most Zulus still pay lobola—a gift to the bride’s parents for raising their child well.

This was my identity as a parent-honoring, chore-burdened and Zulu-speaking African boy. I was not aware of who I was because it was all I knew. I had nothing to compare my identity to. Everyone around me was the same as I was. We need others in order to see ourselves (Hesford 253). My move into white society was a sharp contrast to the features of my identity given to me by my language, and it gave me a different context in which I could see who I was.

Taylor states: “Language makes us declare our identity. Without language our identity stays unknown and hidden” (qtd. in “A Journey Through Narrative” ). In the white society, my new life ran from 7:30 am to 2:00 pm every weekday, and my identity was no longer valid. I could declare it, but it would not be understood. I was someone to be changed—inadequate rather than just different. It was this distinction that fostered an English identity that was ashamed of its Zulu identity. By sending me to a white school, my parents weren’t just making me better, they were making me different—turning me away from what I was. To my fortune, there were others who were just like me. Together we formed our own social group to cope with the alienation of language while we were trying to learn English.

English was imposed upon us. I could not use Zulu to speak to my Zulu friends inside the classroom. We were made to feel that it was wrong to use it at school. Defiance was reprimanded and submission was rewarded. The Zulu language was suppressed because English was the language of success. We felt that Zulu was wrong and inadequate. We saw our mother tongue as less important. If a group of Zulu students were talking together and an English child joined the conversation, we had to speak English or someone would translate. I don’t remember an effort by white kids (except for a friend named Rayno Holl) to communicate through our language. Our success in the new environment depended on understanding. As time went by, we were able to use our shaky legs of the English language to start walking. There were many times when we fell, but we got back up and tried again. This is the cultural indoctrination that black kids contended with in white schools. The inferiority of the black languages in South Africa perpetuates this situation.

We finally began to express ourselves in English. This opened whole new doors for us. We started making new friends who were white. My very first best friend was white. We started to understand what was on television other than the Zulu cartoons we used to watch. They were all in English originally, but were translated into different African languages. My favorite at the time was “Heman.” English empowered us and gave us a whole new perspective on life. At the same time, the deeper I entered into the white world, the more I felt ashamed of where I came from.

“People marginalize their own language… English is favored because it is assumed be to an empowering tool.” Van Tonder continues to state that people in Africa “regard the previous colonial language as a language of empowerment. This motivates them to favor the previous colonial language as the language of learning and teaching for their children.” In my world of education, English was more empowering than Zulu. Comprehending what English could do for me, I naturally preferred it over Zulu. Recognizing what Zulu was in comparison to the colonizing English, I was ashamed of my Zulu identity.

I was consumed by my English identity. My family’s move into a white neighborhood created a place where I could exercise my English identity in their social groups. I was slowly moving away from my old identity, and changing as a person at the same time. I remember having a big fight with my mother because I did not want to go to the same church that my family had attended for as long as I could remember. I became less interested in visiting my relatives. To put it more bluntly, I was becoming more and more ashamed of my culture. I started having more and more white friends. I began going to their churches and sleeping over at my new best friends’ houses.


At this stage the people I wanted to please were not the same people as the ones from earlier on. I wanted the people of my English identity to be happy with me. I guess my drive to prove that I was not inferior, as I was led to believe by the situation in South Africa, made me reach for whatever I could do to make myself superior to my previous Zulu identity.

There was an even more abrupt change in my cultural behavior. As I mentioned before, it is considered impolite to look an adult directly in the eyes. It is considered impolite to wear a hat inside someone’s home. One is not supposed to whistle in someone’s home because it is disrespectful. Looking back at my actions, I find that I started doing these things more and more because they were part of my new identity. I remember my father constantly telling me to take my hat off or to stop whistling inside the house. My new identity did not consider these offensive. And I delighted in these events because they placed me in a particular culture that I felt I could take pride in—my English linguistic identity.


“You know language is a peculiar institution. It leads to the heart of a people,” said Willie Lynch, a white slave owner in the West Indies. He continues and adds, “The more a foreigner knows about the language of another country the more he is able to move through all levels of that society.” In my development I certainly traded my identity and knowledge from Zulu to English. As I was moving more and more away from my center of origin in Zulu, I preferred English society more and more. And empowering myself intellectually was never the only motivation for my running away from this center.

My parents were instrumental in the formation of my identity. But they took me only to where they were. It was never in their power to make me choose an English identity. Neither did the English language make me adopt an English identity. I don’t think that language has the power to make a person turn his back on what he is originally. A second language can only give you a second perspective—two choices rather than one.


My choice to identify with another language is a spin-off from a slavery mentality. Just as Willie Lynch controlled the minds of slaves through his awful process of breaking in slaves, my choice was motivated by the same force that kept slaves under the power of their owners. Willie Lynch destroyed the image of blackness and instilled shame into the slaves so that they were disloyal to their origins. Apartheid set out to destroy the idea that blackness was equal to whiteness. This was the destroyed image that I shunned and was ashamed of. The destroyed black image searched for whatever could uplift it.


White schools gave me the keys of understanding. The suppression of my language helped me. I now see the truth that apartheid tried to hide. My language is not inferior. Yes, it has been dragged through the mud. Yet that is nothing to be ashamed of, but something to fight. Language does not determine identity. We choose an identity, and language is a way for us to express it. “Language declares our identity” (Taylor). Because ignorance of my Zulu identity fueled my sense of shame, I tried to take on a different linguistic identity through English.


Works Cited

Anzaldua, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Critical Convergences. 2nd ed. Boston:

Pearson Custom Publishing, 2002.

Golafshani, Nahid. “A Journey Through Narrative.” Electronic Magazine of Multicultural

Education. 4.1 (2000): 1-17. 28 Nov. 2002.


Hesford. S. Wendy. “Memory Work.” Critical Convergences. 2nd ed. Boston: Pearson

Custom Publishing, 2002.

“Home language by Province (Percentages) 1996.” The People of South Africa: Population

Census 1996. 21 Nov. 2002.



Koeller, David. ed. The Web Chronology Project: Shaka Zulu. North Park University

History Department. 20 Nov. 2002.


Tonder, Van. Language-in-Education in South Africa: the process. 1 August 1999. National

Education Department. 18 Nov. 2002.


Tourism Attractions – Zulu Culture. The Kwazulu-Natal Department of Economic

Development andTourism. 15 Nov. 2002


Willie Lynch Speech 1712. The Freeman Institute. 28 Nov. 2002


MC Mabele
Mlungisi Celuni Mabele, a member of the graduating class of 2006, is in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a university-funded scholar in the international students program. He lives in South Africa and decided to study in the States because he enjoys the diversity and learning from other cultures. He also enjoys sports, especially soccer. He loves gaining new ideas from books, but finds the reading process a bit tedious. He wrote his essay for Jeff Simmons’ WRT 105 class.