South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation last night.

As he did – and this is not for the first time – i felt a sense of pride, the feeling of being led, a deep respect for the humility that was shown when he spoke about government miscommunicating and making mistakes, confusing messages, and contradictions.

While he spoke, i jumped on to Facebook and simply wrote this:

Such humility coming from Cyril Ramaphosa…

We are being led.


As we watch Cyril Ramaphosa, looking exhausted but soldiering on, and think for a moment of any speech that has poured out of the mouth of T. Rump over in the states, you just can’t help but be grateful. These two men occupy different planets.

The likes and loves and shares started happening to that little status as i saw other South Africans, desperate for hope and just for honesty i think from government, resonating deeply with this idea that we are being led. That compared to so many other countries we have dodged a death bullet directly related to this disease that is wreaking havoc around the world.

Until this one comment stopped me in my tracks. Took a big swing and punched me right in the gut:

Zibu Masotobe Sibiya: I guess it’s nice to be addressed in ones mother tongue. I am lost.

Because listening to the president speak to me in my first language, i hadn’t thought for a second how this message might be received by the majority of the country. One of the aspects of privilege to recognise and acknowledge is that in the majority of spaces that i occupy, people will speak to me in my first language [this is not true for the majority of people in the country!]

Just take a moment on that comment. Let it really sink in. 

First language quote


Whose Language is it Anyway?

That comment really got me thinking about the speech in a completely different way [and let’s be reminded of the both/and here, so it can still be a really good speech while also being deeply problematic!]. Which prompted me to write this as my next status on Facebook:

Biggest sobering moment for me tonite was a comment about how we got to hear the president in our first language and if that isn’t the height of privilege aimed at those who i really feel have whined and complained the most, i don’t know what is.

Will talk about that tomorrow in a live video if anyone is interested but it’s worth reflecting on and taking to bed.

Which incidentally received less than half the amount of love the previous one did, although it was obvious through the various comments happening that as many people were still around. Positive happy joyful message vs critical thinking let’s-do-a-little-bit-of-work-here message.

And of course, the first two people to jump in and comment were both white people being defensive and challenging the idea that the speech could possibly have been done in anything but English. No surprises there.

Continuing the Language Conversation

i returned to Zibu and i use her comments with permission. Here is the rest of our brief interaction:

Brett Fish Anderson: That is such a sobering comment and you are of course completely right. Why it doesn’t happen in a combination or in majority languages with subtitles i don’t know.

Zibu Masotobe Sibiya: Brett, it gets worse during a crisis, we are already confused and anxiety heightened and he uses the most complex English and keeps on and on. The majority of this country do not understand him nor hear him.

I have a good command of the Language but yah Cyril needs to know we can’t hear him.

Brett Fish Anderson: Absolutely. How do we get the message to him? Zibu Masotobe Sibiya are you working during the day or do you have some time tomorrow to chat more about this? i feel like it’s such a blind spot for white people and an opportunity to listen and learn [realising that if this happens i am asking something of you which you may not have capacity or interest to take further – why should you educate us?]

Zibu Masotobe Sibiya: Brett, It’s too triggering being a South African, I am working tomorrow but imagine being told to evacuate a sinking ship in Mandarin by an announcer who speaks extremely fast.

So that only 8% of the boat hears him fully and evacuates and they blame the 92% for being deaf because that announcement was clear. I liked him going into Nasrec but it’s not even the English, he uses the most complex words unnecessarily.

We need plain speaking, clear bullet points. Go to Twitter, no one heard him like white people did.

Zibu quote president speech


Who hears the message?

That last line from Zibu is particularly disarming: No one heard him like white people did.

As a white person, my response to this is not defensiveness. How can it be? i really don’t understand that. i hope if you’ve made it this far that these words cause you to stop. Listen. Think for a moment what it must be like to have it the other way around.

i also need to always hold in mind that white South Africans make up around 8% of this country. Any time something is catered for or leaned towards us, it is being done in the direction of the minority!

i lived in Stellenbosch for 7 years. With my not great Afrikaans i think i got this in the smallest way imaginable. But the reality is that the majority of people there would still speak English if i wanted or needed them to. i was very rarely, if ever, in a space of having to push through in a language that i was uncomfortable with and had low self-confidence in.

“But English is Universal” someone commented. Yes, a white someone.

Turns out, a simple google search – which someone else did, thanks Detlev – indicates that English is the sixth most spoken language in South Africa. At home, anyways. And only second most spoken outside of the house. Courtesy of Stats SA.

This is not a criticism of the president by the way. It is a questioning of the systems and structures in this country, and in the world, that still lean quite heavily towards whiteness, whether we are the majority or not. 

This post is not so much the solution post. Hopefully we can work together and try figure out better ways of doing this. But i think it is so important that as a white South African i heard that comment – and more like it, especially on the Twitterer – and take it seriously. Recognise and acknowledge the privilege that gets played out in my direction in this. 

What are alternative ways this could have been done? And could be done in future? Let’s figure that out together!