Learning Zulu to bridge S. Africa's racial gap

MARGARET Landers has a dream: that the whites of South Africa will sit in front of their televisions and learn Zulu. Thanks partly to Mrs. Landers, a schoolteacher turned TV executive, the idea of whites learning the most common language of this country's blacks is no longer as far-fetched as it sounds.

A few days ago, South Africa's government-controlled television station for whites started airing ``Siyafunda.''

The Zulu word means: ``We are learning.'' And in four-minute bursts twice a week, thousands of white families seem to be doing just that, as a black actor named Sam Chuene guides them through the process of learning his language.

An exercise book to go along with the show sold out its initial printing, 10,000 copies, in 48 hours. ``I've had at least 20 people come in and ask when we're getting more copies,'' said one Johannesburg bookstore clerk the morning after the show premiered.

Mrs. Landers says another 20,000 copies are on order.

The figures are a drop in the bucket. There are more than 8 million people in South Africa who are not black. They are listed as white, Asian, or ``colored,'' which means of mixed race.

The TV course, which will run through June, teaches only the basics of Zulu. In July, a similar course will introduce Northern Sotho, the second-most-common language spoken by blacks.

But the aim of Landers -- and of ``Siyafunda'' producer Horst Keil, a white with a university degree in Zulu -- is more modest.

``Obviously,'' says Mr. Keil, ``I'd like eventually to carry the course to the next level.'' The idea of ``Siyafunda,'' he says, is to take a first step.

There is a great deal of ground to cover.

Few South African whites speak Zulu, Sotho, or any other language spoken by blacks.

What Zulu they do speak tends to be of the kitchen or cornfield variety -- the vocabulary of master to servant.

Nowhere is the yawning communications gap more evident than in a ``Zulu Vocabulary and Phrase Book'' on sale in Johannesburg book shops.

A slim volume with a yellow and blue cover, it is the sort of book you'd use to ask a Frenchman how to find the Eiffel Tower.

Its contents are revealing.

``Answer when I call you,'' runs one of the first phrases.

``You must not neglect work for the sake of reading,'' goes another.

A section on ``motoring'' does not tell you how to ask your way around the streets of Soweto. It begins, instead: ``You must clean the car every morning.''

The tone of the Siyafunda workbook is strikingly different.

``Say hullo to at least two Zulu speakers every day,'' it exhorts. ``Don't be shy! If you want to learn to speak Zulu, you need as much practice as possible,'' the workbook contends.

When the time comes to introduce the word for ``child,'' the book suggests: ``Ask a Zulu speaker what the term of address is for a child.''

Landers says the idea is to encourage communication.

It was two years ago that Landers was asked by the fledgling Education Department of South African television to run its English-language section.

At first, she and her fellow executives toyed with the idea of airing programs to teach English and Afrikaans, the country's two official languages.

But the more everyone thought about it, the more absurd this idea seemed.

``Our target audience -- white, colored, and Indians -- all speak either English or Afrikaans,'' she says.

Consonant with South Africa's apartheid system, there is a separate television station for blacks.

Says Landers: ``None of our audience speaks Zulu.''

Nor was it easy to find a narrator for the TV series -- which is in English and Afrikaans on alternate nights. ``He had to speak Zulu, Afrikaans, and English. That posed a problem.''

But as the project progressed, she said, there was ``tremendous goodwill'' from top to bottom of the television hierarchy.

Come June, she acknowledges, South Africa's language gap may largely remain.

``But we are hoping that those who follow the course will have a language for survival and communication -- simply communication -- and that it will be a language for goodwill.''

``We hope we will have encouraged some people to study further,'' she says in a voice with a kind of singsong confidence that must have served her well in her 20 years as a primary- and grade-school teacher.

``But at least, we hope they can extend a hand of friendship.''

She says that of equal importance is the fact that learning another's language is the first step to understanding his culture:

``We ask the black person to understand us. But do we understand?''

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