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Why Can't I Choose? | Phumla Zita

My name is Phumla Zita. I am a 33-year-old Xhosa speaking woman, who was born in South Africa. I have often thought about what that meant. What does it mean to have been born in South Africa in the mid-80s? One of the stories that comes up is the widespread civil unrest among the majority of the black population in South Africa against the ‘National Party’ government; the ruling party at the time with P.W Botha in the front seat as President. The National Party was originally an Afrikaner ethnic national party that promoted Afrikaner interests. One of their main focuses was on education and legalizing ‘The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974’. It was declared that all black schools across South Africa had to use Afrikaans and English as a medium of teaching. The law made it mandatory for black schools to use Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in Mathematics, Social Sciences and Geography at secondary school. This was because the government believed that the only reason to teach black children was to train them to work in either factories or farms. So, learning Afrikaans and English would basically make communication easier for these children’s Afrikaans or English-speaking employer. These are the words of Punt Janson who was the Deputy Minister of the Bantu Education system at the time; “I have not consulted the African people on this language issue and I’m not going to. An African might find that the ‘big boss’ spoke only Afrikaans or English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages.” The policy was deeply unpopular since Afrikaans was regarded as the language of the oppressor by the black people. Around April 1976, students from the Orlando West Junior School in Soweto went on strike and boycotted classes. By the 16th of June, the students had organised mass rallies across the country and things turned violent. The police responded with bullets while angry students retaliated by throwing stones at them. Many students were shot. The official death toll is still not clear; it could have been higher than 200. The first student to be killied was the 15 year-old Hastings Ndlovu. However, the killing of Hector Pieterson aged 12 – and in particular the publication of his photograph taken by Sam Nzima – made him an international symbol of the uprising. It became the major rallying point of the struggle against the apartheid.

I went to school between 1993 and 2003 and I do not remember a time when I was not taught Afrikaans. I was not aware of this until high school, where I was unable to ask my mother for help during homework and projects. This often caused me to fail and get mark deductions, as well as lashes on my hands for not completing my homework. I was in a township school where 100% of the students were black and their home language was Xhosa. Understandably, we all shared frustrations. The difference between us and the students of 1976 was that Xhosa was offered as the second language – with Afrikaans being the third – but we were still expected to pass the class otherwise we could fail and would have to repeat it. In 2010, I moved to the UK with my then four-year-old daughter who spoke fluent Xhosa. Throughout our time in the UK, I made sure I spoke to her in Xhosa and she was not allowed to communicate with me in English at home. This was my way that I could ensured that she did not forget our language. In 2013, my son was born and as a baby I spoke to him in Xhosa. Now my two boys are seven and five and they are half Scottish and half South African. They both understand Xhosa clearly, although they cannot speak it. Even now, I give them directions in Xhosa, and they understand everything I say. When we moved back to South Africa, I was excited to enroll my children into schools. I was so excited for them to learn to read, speak and write my language I was even more excited to teach them more at home and help with their homework. We moved to the suburbs of Strand in Cape Town. I could not find any schools in my area that offered Xhosa – not even as a second language or third. The only options were for English as the first language and Afrikaans as a second language. Xhosa was only offered in the townships, and we were not staying there. I felt like I had no choice but to enroll my children at the nearby schools and deal with the struggles that came alongside that. I often had to pay high school students to help my daughter and sometimes my mother would help her in the form of an hour phone call, as she lived in another province. Before moving back to the UK, we had a ‘family meeting’. I asked the kids to write down their own advantages and disadvantages of moving back to the UK. At the top of my daughter’s advantages written in bold was; “No Afrikaans”. I cannot begin to explain the frustration I felt when reading that. 44 years after the death of those students and my child still fights this fight. I felt powerless, like I’d failed as a parent. I’m now making a film to highlight these issues so that my children and their children do not have to fight for an opportunity to read, write and speak their mother’s language at school. I am hoping that it will spark a national debate for people to seriously ask questions, with the hope that the government will listen and take these points on board.


Phumla is a South African writer and production assistant who has worked on numerous film and television productions including Tomb Raider (2018). She is a proud mum of 3 currently living in Glasgow.

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