Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Language Barriers

After four months in South America—where often my Baby Spanish had me struggling to ask simple questions, much less express a complex thought—being in an English-speaking country feels like a mental vacation. Many people in South Africa speak Afrikaans or Xhosa or other languages, but everyone we’ve encountered so far speaks English too.

Shopping and asking directions are suddenly simple matters, and I can do things like amble over to the guy in the Baboon Management Team shirt, ask why his colleagues are chasing that pair of baboons up the hillside, and actually understand the answer. (It turns out that baboon raids on garbage and gardens are a big problem around here, for the animals and the homeowners alike, and the company these guys work for was encouraging a wandering troop to go back into safer territory.)

Still, as we know from our Canadian childhoods, the English language is not necessarily the same the world over. People here speak more formally than most people in the U.S. They say “How do you do?” on meeting someone and “Good afternoon” instead of “Hi.” Other common phrases are different too. The response to “Thank you” here is “My pleasure” or just a lilting “Pleasure.” And today when we wandered up to the plant nursery at the nature reserve, we enjoyed the sign on the locked door:

But even after noticing these differences, I wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be to read the newspaper. South Africans across the country go to the polls tomorrow to vote for local officials, and I decided to read up on the issues in the Cape Times. It was clear enough that the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) are running opposing candidates, but determining their stands from the quotes in the articles was quite a different matter.

“It’s no good voting ANC on Wednesday and toyi-toying on Thursday,” the DA leader announced. That party’s candidate for Cape Town mayor promised that, if elected, she would roll out services to all backyarders, a constituency new to me.

It wasn’t just the DA that had me scratching my head. On the other side of the ballot, the ANC youth league president said of the DA leader, “The madam is now running the show alone.” Clearly he was being critical, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on what the madam is thought to be up to.

Political rallies have quite a different flavor here, according to the papers. At the ANC’s big Cape Town rally on Monday, their candidate for mayor was reportedly set upon by a group of elderly women who embraced him and knocked him off his feet. Then he was lifted onto the shoulders of several men and paraded around the stadium. Not to be outdone, at her rally the DA leader “danced with party followers at length after taking to the stage.” Local elections in the U.S. might get better turnouts if our get-out-the-vote events were this entertaining.

But the political reporting here can be less than riveting. A radio news broadcast we heard the other day began with the news that such-and-such a group had presented a memorandum to some government official or other. I can see my editor at the newspaper where I used to work rolling her eyes over such a yawner of a lede and sending it back for revision.

Then again, the presenting of memoranda—dull as it sounds—seems to be a big deal around here. The newspaper quoted the DA leader telling folks at one municipality, “I thought that President Zuma might have done something after I delivered your memorandum to him.” Whatever the issue is, whatever I’m missing by not quite knowing the language here, there’s no mistaking the acidity in that statement.


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