I wrote this paper 8 March 2000 for a Third Cinema class I was taking at the time; this is an edited version of that paper, and thanks go out to Prof. Isabel Balseiro of Harvey Mudd College for her insightful comments and suggestions. In particular, I would like to apologize for failing to address the possibility of revolutionary literature written in the oppressor's language, perhaps for the purpose of effecting change directly in the oppressors as well as the oppressed. It's a pretty shameful oversight on my part.

Language Use In Lionel Rogosin's Come Back Africa

Most experts by any definition agree that language is an important part of identity and culture. Certainly it can be devastating to be forced to speak an unknown language, rather than that of your home and family, as millions of people were under colonialist rule. Under colonialist rule, natives of South Africa first had to learn Afrikaans (a creole of Dutch, English, and native African Ngugi languages). After the Boer War, a knowledge of English became essential to survival as well, although many African languages remained in use and Zulu is still the most widely-spoken language in South Africa today. Linguistic oppression is perhaps the least of the protagonist's troubles in Lionel Rogosin's multilingual film Come Back Africa, but the language use depicted in the film nonetheless reflects a serious obstacle facing would-be revolutionaries in 1959 South Africa.

Come Back Africa was filmed using amateur actors, a limited crew and equipment, and a tight schedule --- everything had to be completed before its American director's tourist visa ran out. The actors were cast into roles according to their personalities and life experiences, so as to make everything as close to reality as possible. Moreover, they were not given specific lines, but rather told what information and emotions to convey in each scene --- a technique described by Rogosin as "controlled, spontaneous dialogue" 1. The method had its advantages and disadvantages:

One of the biggest directorial obstacles was in communicating with Zachariah [the lead] whose ability to comprehend and express himself in English was limited.... It took a long time in each scene to make Zachariah understand what he was supposed to express. I had to explain the situation to him in simple stories and in this way I managed to get the idea across. Naturally this meant delay... However, once Zachariah grasped the idea, he had no difficulty in expressing it. I allowed him to rehearse once or twice in Zulu. This helped a great deal for it gave Zachariah's dialogue a Zulu syntax which added to the authenticity.2

As this passage makes clear, the filmmakers had to give the matter of language considerable thought. In fact, the film features many different languages besides the Zulu mentioned above: English, Afrikaans, and Fanakalo, which is a pidgin of several African tribal languages used by workers from many different "homelands" (black reserves, mostly in the back country of South Africa).

So how is each of these languages used in the film, and how does this contribute to its authenticity? Well, Fanakalo appears in the scenes where Zachariah goes to work in the Johannesburg gold mines with workers from all parts of the starving South African back country. This makes sense—pidgin languages arise out of necessity when speakers of many different languages come into contact and must communicate. The white policemen who arrest Zachariah for a pass violation speak Afrikaans—again, this seems realistic, since at the time the English controlled South Africa economically and left politics to the Afrikaners, and two different kinds of racism resulted. English is the most widely used language in the film (which is perhaps to be expected, given its English-speaking director) and its uses are the most varied. It is the language used by Zachariah and his companions at work, as well as their white employers. It is also used by Zachariah to write a letter home from the mines, and finally, it is the language used by a group of African intellectuals in the film's "famous shebeen scene" 3 Is this authentic? The economic necessity of English is indisputable, as is the likelihood that Zachariah's limited literacy was due to education in a European language. Only the shebeen scene made me stop and think, and after some consideration, the language chosen in that scene made sense as well, though for unfortunate reasons.

Any sociolinguist will tell you that the functions of different languages in a multilingual society is reflective of its social divisions, and the South African society depicted in Come Back Africa is no exception. As such, it merits closer examination. One summary of the film's language use is as follows:

Zulu is spoken by workers in the mining compound; Afrikaans is spoken by policemen arresting Africans, and English is spoken by African intellectuals in a shebeen and also by businessmen. In other words, the film projects the Zulu language as the language of class solidarity, the Afrikaans language as the language of coercion and repression, and the English language as the language of commerce and intellectual exchange. Though in a sense the film's imaginative designations are simple, they nonetheless capture an element of historical truth.4

I agree with certain parts of the above passage, but I strongly disagree with others. For example, our interpretations of the use of Afrikaans are identical. I also appreciate that the African languages are described as the languages of solidarity. However, Masilela's statement on the use of English strikes me as overly simplistic, as I will discuss more elaborately in the paragraphs to come.

First, an expansion on the idea of Zulu as a language of class solidarity. Many analyses of linguistic colonization neglect to take into account the fact that native languages retain what linguists term "covert prestige" --- social and emotional value --- even when a colonizer's language has "overt prestige" --- higher political and economic power. The following is one such incomplete description of linguistic colonization:

Given the colonizer's economic hold over the country, it is possible within a comparatively short time to downgrade native languages and substitute the colonizer's tongue as the language of commerce, law, and government. As a result, all non-European languages are regarded with contempt and deprived of any influence on social or economic life.5

If the cited passage were true, why would any colonized people ever use their native language? If a language were totally stripped of value, all its speakers would quickly abandon it in favor of a more preferred language. Since this is not the case, the language must still have some value. In Come Back Africa, Zachariah's English is limited because, despite its economic importance, it is not very important to him. The contract between his strictly functional use of English and his intimate use of Zulu for talking with family members and close friends clearly demonstrates the great social and emotional importance of his native language.

Though it is true that linguistic colonization causes native languages to lose overt prestige --- the prestige that comes from official recognition and use --- they do not lose all their value, or else people would cease to use them. Who would want to speak a useless language? Why would parents teach their children languages that will not be valued by the larger society surrounding them? The answer to these questions (and the reason why linguistic colonization is so emotionally devastating) is covert prestige. As long as a language has speakers who love it enough to use it intimately, like Zachariah does, it will live and thrive. Armes cites the lament that "the colonized's mother tongue, that which is sustained by his feelings, emotions and dreams, that in which his tenderness and his wonder are expressed, thus that which holds the greatest emotional impact, is precisely the one which is the least valued" 6 but the mother tongue is actually only devalued in mainstream circles. The fact is that if the mother tongue had no value at all, it would go extinct as soon as another dialect acquired overt prestige. But the mother tongue has covert prestige --- it is, as Memmi says, sustained by emotion. It is truly the language of the people, the language that the masses have grown up with and associate with the people they are closest to. It may be linked to a social class and all that that social class stands for; it is a way of marking one's group affiliations and loyalties (certainly, in a colonial or post-colonial state, it must be very empowering to speak a language that is not that of one's oppressors!) All of these factors contribute to give a language covert prestige.

To give Armes credit where credit is due, he does somewhat recognize the social importance of native languages in Africa:

South of the Sahara we find an unbridgeable gulf between European and traditional languages. English and French may serve a certain unifying function --- as, say, the languages in which a conference on the linguistic problems of Africa may be held --- but they remain administrative languages, and their application outside official life remains limited. They are alien to the mass of the people... 7

Shortly after this passage, he recognizess the opinion that no European language is able "to carry fully with it the reality of African experience as it exists today" 8 Is this because European languages are inexpressive? Of course not. But they lack covert prestige, and as such cannot evoke the same emotional impact as native languages. Unfortunately for the colonized, educational, economic, and political opportunities only present themselves in European languages, and so it is necessary to become at least partially bilingual in order to survive. The process that makes colonized people bilingual and bicultural leads to the problem that the shebeen scene exemplifies.

As mentioned before, under colonialism, Africans were forced to use European languages in order to become educated. Of course, the European-controlled educational system taught that they were uncivilized and uncultured, and as a result many would-be intellectuals did everything in their power to adopt Western culture as their own 9. Still, no matter how educated and acculturated they became, they were still natives, and rejecting one's native culture is difficult if not impossible. So they were bound to face identity confusion and feel isolated and out of place, as they tried to be members of both groups when in reality they belonged to neither. Examples of this cultural confusion in Come Back Africa include the wedding party, with its mix of African and European traditions; the pennywhistle boys, who play American jazz and rock and roll; and most of all, the English-speaking intellectuals in the shebeen scene.

My first interpretation of the shebeen scene was that its discussion took place in English because the movie was aimed at an English-speaking audience. Although the filmmakers had aimed for as much authenticity as possible 10, and admitted that the shebeen scene was less powerful than the others in the film 11, they themselves were English-speaking intellectuals. Moreover, they undoubtably knew that Come Back Africa would probably be banned in South Africa. It also seemed obvious to me that the radical anti-colonialists depicted in the scene would shun the oppressors' language for political reasons. Clearly, had the movie been aimed at an African audience, the scene would have been in an African language. Our class discussion the next day, however, changed my mind.

I had overlooked Zachariah's role in the shebeen scene. True, he speaks very little, so little that it seemed perhaps the scene had merely been contrived as a vehicle for the intellectuals' inflammatory speeches. But this is not the case. For one thing, the intellectuals refer to Zachariah and his kind as people they need to reach out to, talk to, win over to their side of things. They are terribly patronizing for the most part; they seem convinced that the less-educated country people and lower classes will need everything explained to them. Clearly, they inhabit a different world than Zachariah and his enemy Marumbo, who is extensively discussed. What they do not yet realize is that they exist in a cultural no-man's-land. At one point, they go so far as to say that they should change the topic of conversation for Zachariah's sake, to which he replies that they should continue their discussion, saying, "I don't understand, but I like it." Zachariah, a common man, is definitely interested in improving his situation, but the intellectuals are too busy talking about sitting the masses down with a beer and making them see things the right way --- a way which, ironically, is currently too influenced by European ideas for their own good or that of their would-be allies. Literally and figuratively, the intellectuals are not speaking the same language as the rest of the oppressed people in South Africa.

If this interpretation is correct, then all the language use in Come Back Africa is absolutely authentic, and the social situation of Zachariah's South Africa is a grim one indeed. No doubt the alienation in the shebeen is yet another source of his desperate lament at the end of the film. We are left uncertain as to Zachariah's fate but we have learned that it is not enough to speak of connecting to the people, but that it must be done. As Fanon writes, "Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you really want them to understand" 12. It is up to the intellectuals to take steps to activate their nation and its culture, not in imitation of Western models, nor in glorification of a past that is past and to which there is no return, but in moving forward, towards independence --- and that means revolution and liberation.

Works Cited

  1. Lionel Rogosin, "Interpreting Reality (Notes on the Esthetics and Practices of Improvisational Acting)," Film Culture, 1960, p.27
  2. Ibid., p.24
  3. Ntongela Masilela, "Come Back Africa and South African film history" in Jump Cut 36, p.65.
  4. Ibid., p.64
  5. Roy Armes, Third World Film Making and the West (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987) p.11
  6. Memmi cit. in Armes p.11
  7. Armes, p.30
  8. Irele cit. in Armes, p.30
  9. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), pp.210-19
  10. Rogosin, p.20
  11. Lewis Nkosi "Come Back Africa", in Fighting Talk (February 1960), p.13
  12. Fanon, p.189

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