May The Best African Language Presenter Win!

On the week that researchers released a report revealing that most black South African households (parents) prefer to educate their children in English, I unwittingly got myself into an audition which brought the research home.

 I was planning to visit a Hair-Salon in Braamfontein, Johannesburg when I stumbled on an advertisement calling for 30-40 year old women to audition for a presenter role in a new show for Dstv channel 157. The role required a mature well read person who knew a variety of South African languages. The audition was on the same day as my hair appointment and the venue was a street away from where I was so naturally, I decided to kill two birds with one stone. What’s there to lose?

After my hair was done I stepped into the building where Moja Love was hosting their auditions. Below, on the ground floor of the building there was a bar aptly named: Metanoia, a greek word which means a deep and spiritual transformation. I took this as a sign that maybe this was my chance for transformation, from the voice to the face, you know?.

Anyway, I arrived to find a group of ladies all decked out in the latest make-up trends and colourful hairstyles studiously going over their lines.

 A security guard instructed me to register my name in the attendance list and pointed me to Moja Love’s offices. There I found a dreadlocked young man who gave me the script and said I should go up and audition.

After a few minutes of waiting – the line started moving at lightening speed – I would soon find out why.

The audition script instructed candidates to write a script introducing an issue affecting communities of their choice and the second part was a scripted English introduction to the show.

Easy enough, I thought to myself. The second part could be done in English or Vernacular.

Eventually my turn came. And as I stepped in front of the lights the director asked me if I had been briefed.

No, I said. I  was just given the script.

Well, he said. “It’s a talk show, and the first part must be done in a language of one’s choice, it must be 90 percent vernacular”.

Ooops, I said. “What’s wrong?” they asked. Well I prepared everything in English, with sprinkles of my chosen vernacular here and there. 

“The show is 90 percent vernacular” they concluded ” but just do what you prepared”.

I froze. What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in isiZulu. How do I explain it?

After two tries I told them I can’t do it. They agreed.

When I got home I researched what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is in isiZulu, and found there was no real scientific term for it except for common words I already knew, such as ukucindezelwa. So I decided to give it another try since the auditions went over two days.

A second Chance

The next morning I arrived prepared. I had done a whole script in my best isiZulu, introducing the subject of post-traumatic stress and how it affects people. I was confident with my English script which I had already made my own.

After waiting an hour the producers came to brief a fresh new batch of candidates who were also already muttering their scripts under their breath.

This is a daily talk show on community issues one of them said.

We don’t want news readers or presenters.  What we want is an anchor, someone who can hold the show which will have in-studio audience of about a 100 people. You have to be able to engage with the audience.

The first part of the audition must be 90 percent vernacular, so if you make it through that part you will move on to the second part which you can present in English or a mixture of whatever language suits you.

Another producer/director chipped in. “We are not looking for loktion vernacular, the one you speak in Soweto, you must respect your language.  I used to work at the  SABC, he said. ” One day a channel appointed a Zulu speaking presenter who was let go after the Zulu King called in complaining about the abuse of the Zulu Language. Ukhozi FM, a Zulu medium national radio station is the most  listened to station in South Africa (with more than 7million listeners a day) because they don’t compromise on language.

So if you fail the language test you won’t make it to the second round. Yesterday the auditions went quickly because people did not know their mother-tongues.”

“We will start the auditions with call backs from yesterday first, so don’t worry it’s not nepotism, these people had already auditioned yesterday we just want to see them again” They concluded

After they left,  almost everyone got on their phones calling friends, lovers, husbands and colleagues, asking what is this phrase or word in isiZulu or seSotho…how do I say this or that? Everyone looked completely out of their depth, just like I had been.

Tough Competition

After more than four hours of waiting I decide to go the bathroom, there I found two women standing by the sinks. At first I thought perhaps they were touching up their make-up as girls are known to do or they were rehearsing their lines in private.

But as I sat in the cubicle an uncanny conversation ensued.  One of the ladies said,“if God has given you something it’s yours, whats wrong with people doing things like this? Look I almost got smeared with this stuff”.   The other one responded, “oh but this is not acceptable, I am afraid of God. This  can affect people who come here, it’s not right , why do people do witchcraft?” She said as I existed the cubicle to wash my hands.

Then I saw at the sink that someone had left a string of small white beads between the two sinks and something which looked like make-up powder or grains of instant coffee had been sprinkled all over the counter and the floor.

Back in the waiting room – the ladies were growing more and more restless, some wondered why the audition was taking so long or why the production company had decided audition call backs first before seeing all potential candidates. A woman came and sat next to me and started telling me that we were competing against two exceptional women who had auditioned the previous day. As such she felt as if she was wasting her time, they had already found the person they were looking for. I told her to just do what she came for and forget about the rest. She told me that she came highly recommended by prominent TV/Film producers such as Mfundi Vundla, but her agent told her she needs to fix her front teeth before she can be on TV. Oh, I said. Yes, she responded, then she left to get some KFC. 

A little after two pm in the afternoon the remaining candidates were called up to the audition room. The Director of Pictures came out and told the remaining women that after auditioning more than 150 people what he had seen was frankly, “crap”. “You are not here to make friends, this is your only chance to make it big and go somewhere, so rehearse your lines and do your best.”

As he said this the boy with the dreadlocks called out my name and I was led to the audition room again.

Inside I delivered my presentation in 95 percent Zulu, and when I was done I was not invited to do the second part. Thank you, said the producer.

I walked out feeling proud of myself. Well done Jedi – I said to myself. Even though the producers and King Zwelithini did not agree with me.

Considering that 65 percent of black parents in South Africa prefer to teach their children in English, it means that in the next ten years there will be less and less South African’s able to speak the kind of isiZulu the King would approve of. Even when uKhozi Fm still boasts the highest listenership in access of 7.7 million listeners year on year according to the station’s own estimates, it still leaves more than 49 million South Africans who speak a mix of African languages with English out at sea.

The outlook is unlikely to improve unless something is done to change the country’s education and economic models which strongly favour English proficiency over the existing ten official (indigenous) languages of South Africa.

Even the governments’ own communications are predominately in English.

Be that as in may, for now and in all fairness; may the best African language presenter/anchor,  for uMphakathi, Win!

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