I don’t normally get nervous about speaking in public. Then again, I don’t normally give my public speeches in Zulu.
This weekend I travelled to the Phiri neighborhood in Soweto, to represent CALS at a big town meeting connected with our right to water litigation. About 100 people were in attendance, all members of the Phiri community, one of the poorest districts in Johannesburg where residents are fighting for their right to free water.
I thought my role would be confined to taking notes and collecting some documents CALS’ main lawyer on the case had requested. Shortly after arriving, however, I was informed that I would be speaking at this event. Just a few minutes to let the clients know how the litigation is going? Sure, no problem.
Luckily, I had plenty of time to prepare my remarks. Although we were scheduled to begin at 9am, nothing much happened until closer to 10.
The first order of business turned out to be a lecture by the community organizer on promptness. It sounded like a mixture of Sotho and Zulu… the two most commonly spoken languages in Johannesburg. I understand very little of Zulu, and nothing of Sotho, but I gathered the point of the lecture from the speaker’s frequent reference to “African time.”
Once the meeting started rolling, however, things got very exciting indeed. The group sang a number of South African protest songs, toyi-toyi-ed, and generally got all worked up. Then a preacher spoke and led the group in prayer, followed by a hymn.
The collective musical talent in the room was amazing. I’ve heard a lot of churches join in song, in North and South America. But none displayed this kind of talent for harmony, the music rising and ebbing through a hundred voices.
The high point, however, was a dance performance by about a dozen girls ages 10-15. The girls’ voices supplied the music, traditional melodies with a lot of call-and-respose elements. Stomping feet provided the rhythmic base.
My favorite part was this move that reminded me of an American cheerleader’s over-the-head kick. Here, however, the point was not just to get the foot high in the air, but to slam it back down on the floor as loudly as possible.
By the time it was my turn to talk, I felt like expectations had been built pretty high. These people didn’t know me at all, but they were expecting me to tell them how their case was going. Feeling the need to build some rapport, I decided to take a chance introducing myself with the little Zulu I learned five years ago.
Painstakingly recalling a phrase at a time from the dredges of memory, I rehearsed my opening lines: “Igama lami Lea Bishop, ngoCALS, Centre for Applied Legal Studies. Kodwa, isiZulu lami kancane, kancane. So I will continue in English!” Roughly translated, I hoped this meant: “My name is Lea Bishop, and I’m from CALS, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies. But I speak very little Zulu, so I will continue in English!”
The organizer announced my name from the microphone and I went up to the stage, looking out over the huge roomful of expectant faces. And then I did something I have never, ever done, in all my years of debate and moot court. I panicked.
I went completely blank. I couldn’t remember how my speech was supposed to begin. I knew I needed to say my name, but I couldn’t recall a single Zulu phrase. I remember thinking that I now knew how the deer caught in headlights must feel.
Groping for words, I came up with a phrase that I didn’t learn my last time around, but had heard several other speakers start their presentations with today. “Amandla!” I shouted, in what I hoped was a firm and confident voice. “Awethu!” the crowd shouted back, as expected. Power… to the people. Bolstered, I plunged ahead with my introduction.
You don’t often hear a white person speak Zulu, even white South Africans. Even if your Zulu is bad, people seem to appreciate the gesture. And especially if your Zulu is bad, they’re really tickled to hear you try. As I finished my introduction and paused to check my notes, the place broke out in wild applause and whistling.
So my speech was a hit.
Through the interpreter, I told them that we had filed our complaint and would soon receive a reply from the government. Then we would have another chance to respond before the court scheduled an oral argument.
I also told them that a human rights group in New York was filing an amicus brief supporting our side. They had taken an interest in the case because they understood that the outcome of the Phiri struggle will affect poor people’s access to water in many other parts of the world as well.
Finally, I said I thought they had a strong case, but that they needed to keep up their own demonstrating so the court could hear their voice and understand that their cause was just. Siyakhuluma — Let us speak.