JOHANNESBURG — For better and for worse, Dirk Hansen, a white South African, understands for the first time what the great majority of his black compatriots are saying behind his back.
Mr. Hansen, a Johannesburg banker, is one of a rapidly growing number of whites who are staking their claim to being true Africans by learning a black language.
Since South Africa's transformation to black majority rule, language schools have been swamped with requests from whites to learn Zulu and other African tongues among the country's 11 official languages.
In the past, apartheid dictated that the races live separate lives, which gave rise to a ''them and us'' culture between blacks and whites. Now they're officially allowed to get to know one another, and the creation of a new nation - often referred to as the ''rainbow nation'' - is under way.
For those whites who can now communicate in the vernacular, speaking Zulu has lifted a major barrier and opened a window on a once invisible world they passed by in their everyday lives.
''Black people respond first with amazement and then delight at this white face speaking their language,'' says Hansen, who has put in some 120 hours learning Zulu. ''I've become one of their favorite people at the office. I used to think that blacks walked around with a huge chip on their shoulder, as if the white world owed them a living, but that opinion has waned a lot,'' he says. ''Speaking Zulu has given me enormous respect for the black people and their culture.''
For some of Hansen's classmates at Interman, a Johannesburg language school where the number of African teachers has increased threefold the past year because of the huge demand, it hasn't always been positive.
''You can't believe how blacks talk about us all the time,'' says Joe McCrystal, a town planner. ''When you walk into a lift they natter on about you, thinking you don't understand a word they're saying. Sometimes you hear things you don't want to hear.''
Much of the tension between the races in South Africa has often been put down to blacks and whites not knowing each other's culture and not being able to communicate properly. It's an explosive mix that many say can be tempered by whites learning a black language.
There was a time when for many whites, it would have been unthinkable to learn anything from blacks. They would be labeled a Kaffirboetie (derogatory term in Afrikaans meaning lover of blacks) or a communist.
Thembi Muyanga, a Zulu teacher at Interman, says she sees many of her students change from being closet racists to having a whole new vision of African culture.
''It's really a wonderful thing. It's part of the whole reconciliatory mood in the country to forget the past and go forward together,'' she says. ''Whites start being able to see the light about us. There are so many things that they didn't understand. For instance, in Zulu culture you must not look at someone in the eye if you respect them, but whites think that is a sign that the person is not to be trusted. And we do not shake hands firmly or stand when the other person is sitting. It's important that these things are learned so we can understand each other better.''
''Many whites see it as a form of social responsibility to make the effort to learn a black language and ease the transition to black rule,'' says Neil Bjorkman at Pill, a Johannesburg institution where the language demand has doubled in the past year.
This new rush to take up black languages is seen as a dramatic indication of a move away from Eurocentric behavior and a willingness among whites to accept their place in Africa.
Formerly, whites would have studied European languages such as French or German if they were going to learn a third language on top of English and Afrikaans.
For 40 years those two ''white'' languages were the only two official languages. Now Afrikaans - a language similar to Dutch and the only European language to have originated in Africa - has the status of other African languages, and English is widely spoken in most cities as the language of business and politics.
Although it is only one of nine official African languages, Zulu is the lingua franca of the country and is understood by more than 70 percent of its people.
Not just kitchen Zulu
A cheapened form of colonial Zulu, Funigalo, or kitchen Zulu - essentially a language of basic commands - was once used in South African mines and between whites and their black maids. But no self-respecting black person would answer to Funigalo today. So whites opt to learn Zulu, as it is a key to other languages in the Nguni group, such as Xhosa and Swazi.
''The reason for more and more whites learning Zulu and other black languages fits in with the ideas like the rainbow nation,'' says Dr. Gerard Schuring of the African language unit at the Human Sciences Research Council. ''We are living in a multicultural and multilingual society and power has moved from whites to blacks, and blacks use African languages, so the whole political climate has become more conducive to this. There has been a definite shift, a greater admission and acceptance of the fact that we are in Africa.
''African languages have been boosted by the new Constitution, which demands that they be put on the same par as Afrikaans and English and promotes multilingualism,'' Dr. Schuring says.
He says that giving equal status to 11 official languages - English, Afrikaans, Zulu, SeTswana, Sesotho, Pedi, Shangaan, Venda, Xhosa, Ndebele, and Swazi - helps maintain peace and dignity and protects less popular languages.
In line with that thinking, several companies now include in their training schedules both African language courses and cross-cultural workshops, where blacks and whites come together to build bridges in the hope of determining a future for the nation that has less to do with its difficult past.