Connect to share and comment

South African press goes Zulu

Most newspapers remain in English or Afrikaans, not indigenous African languages.

South African Zulu dancers
Women wearing traditional Zulu outfits dance in a parade during the FIFA World Cup tournament, in Durban on July 8, 2010. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africa’s largest circulation weekly newspaper, the Sunday Times, this month reached a milestone: It is the first national paper to publish an edition in Zulu.

English is the lingua franca in South Africa, used in business and government, and the country’s print media is English-dominated. But while about half of South Africans can speak some English, only about 8 percent speak it at home. In comparison, 24 percent of South Africans speak Zulu as their mother tongue — about 12 million people.

The launch of the Sunday Times Zulu edition comes when the press is under fire from the ruling African National Congress party, which has threatened to impose a tribunal to regulate the media. One of its criticisms is that 16 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa's media is owned mainly by whites and lacks diversity.

Advocates for the revitalization of African languages in media and education are hoping that the launch of a mainstream Zulu paper will mark a shift in South Africa’s media world toward more indigenous language publications.

The media has a “very, very critical” role to play in promoting the value of indigenous languages in South Africa, said Chris Swepu, acting chief executive of the Pan South African Language Board, established by parliament to promote multilingualism.

“The media is quite influential in the thinking of the nation,” Swepu said.

Under the white minority apartheid regime, English and Afrikaans (an offshoot of Dutch) were the country’s only official languages. Today, however, South Africa has 11 official languages. English is only the sixth most spoken language at home, after Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho and Setswana.

In addition to English newspapers, South Africa has a few major Afrikaans dailies and some successful but local Zulu papers.

The 32-page Sunday Times Zulu edition, which is circulated in KwaZulu Natal province where the Zulu language is most dominant, features a range of stories translated from the English paper. The Sunday Times decided to create a Zulu edition when market research indicated there was a demand among South Africa's rapidly growing middle class. And where there is demand, advertisers will follow. The Zulu edition is already proving so popular in KwaZulu Natal province that the paper is considering circulating the paper in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area, as well.

Isolezwe, one of the local Zulu papers based in KwaZulu Natal province, increased its circulation by 34 percent in the first quarter of 2010 to a daily average of 104,481 copies, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Sister newspaper Isolezwe ngeSonto, a Sunday paper, increased by 34 percent over the same period.

Swepu said that the Sunday Times Zulu edition is “commendable,” but he noted that while there are several Zulu-language publications in KwaZulu Natal province, there is a paucity of newspapers in South Africa’s other African languages, some of which have a significant number of speakers. For example, nearly 18 percent of South Africans speak Xhosa at home.

“What worries me is that all the efforts are concentrated in one province,” Swepu said.

Swepu is convinced that there is a demand in other areas of the country for newspapers in local languages apart from Zulu, and publishers are not yet taking advantage of it.

“There is a market out there,” he said.