The social and linguistic custom of respect (hlonipha) is a cultural pillar of South African Nguni and Sotho society and can be understood as a complex behavioral codex that requires deferential conduct. In traditional Zulu society, it is primarily married Zulu women who uphold hlonipha in its strictest sense (Zungu 1985), but the custom per se is not restricted to women.4 Zulu men also use hlonipha, for instance in respect of elders, superiors and ancestors.

Hlonipha can manifest itself in multifaceted relations of superordination and subordination and is essentially based on mechanisms that control language use, posture, gesture, movements, dress code, and other dynamics of a material nature or status.

However, in its most common linguistic form and contextualized in rural Zulu settings, the hlonipha language can also be regarded as a gen- derlect, because traditionally, speaking hlonipha is primarily expected from Zulu wives and wives-to-be and expresses a very particular form of femininity (Rudwick 2013). In this context, the variety has been termed isiHlonipho sabafazi (Finlayson 2002) and it is indexical of the perceived socially inferior status of women in Zulu society (Herbert 1990). The linguistic aspect of the custom primarily includes the avoidance of certain terms but comprises also, in its traditional form, an entire core lexicon of specific hlonipha words. The social aspect of hlonipha involves the avoidance of any kind of behavior which is considered disrespectful. Even to this day in Zulu traditional society, this includes, for instance, the refraining from wearing trousers by women, showing disagreement to an older or superior person, or speaking in what would be considered an inappropriate manner. Several scholars (Hanong Thetela 2002; Rudwick & Shange 2006; Rudwick 2013) have shown how hlonipha language embodies ambiguities and problems in regard to gender equality that are deeply rooted in African patriarchy. Women who speak hlonipha language to their husbands and male relatives project a traditional kind of Zulu femininity which can be characterized as submissive. Although these projections and representations may render speakers of hlonipha quite vulnerable, the code is endorsed in rural Zulu society due to its cultural rootedness.

In this chapter, we argue that hlonipha also plays a crucial part in the power dynamics of some same-sex African relationships in South Africa. In the list that follows, we exemplify some terms from the hlonipha vocabulary that are employed and sometimes also recontextualized in isiNgqumo (partly from Msibi 2013a):

  • umchakisana—‘boy’
  • imalasi—‘dog’
  • umfazi—‘a respectable (married) woman/wife,’ ‘a respected feminine partner in a same-sex relationship’
  • ukuphumela—‘to like someone’
  • ukutukela—‘to cry’

The fact that there is some overlap between the hlonipha language and isiNgqumo suggests that avoidance and respect may also play an important role in African same-sex relationships.5 The intersection of lexical items between the two varieties may, however, also be explained by the fact that both linguistic codes are, to a large extent, based on an archaic form of isiZulu. More generally, isiZulu speakers refer to this way of speaking as “deep” isiZulu.

Leap (2004) provides an example of hlonipha language usage among men in a gay newspaper called Exit, where a Zulu (male) writer is proposing marriage to an indoda (‘man’) which would include the payment of ilobolo (‘bridewealth’), in order to make him/her unkosikazi (‘a respectable woman/ feminine man’). He also writes that as a result of this marriage she or he would ngi- yoku hlonipha (‘show respect toward her/his partner’). As Leap (2004) rightly argues, “by proposing to practice hlonipha on the indooda’s [sic] behalf, the writer suggests a powerful strategy to asserting the legitimacy of their relationship within Zulu tradition” (152). As can be deduced from the preceding list, the lexical item umfazi is a term capturing respect for one’s (feminine) partner in a same-sex relationship, and several participants in our study confirmed that they consider umfazi an isiNgqumo word. The usage of umfazi implies a certain gendered order which creates tension-riddled identity categories, essentially because an umfazi is primarily respected because she or he knows how to practice hlonipha which, in most instances, means that she is submissive to her man. This evidently allows for complex positioning of African men who engage in same-sex relations and also suggests that they, ironically, draw on heteronormative and heteropoleric categories.

Both hlonipha and ilobolo could be regarded as cultural pillars in Zulu society, and it is not uncommon that Zulu men who engage in same-sex relations would like to endorse either practice. Although same-sex desire and Zulu culture poses a point of contention for many common Zulu people, some African men who engage in same-sex relations have found creative ways to reconcile their “gay” lifestyle with Zulu cultural norms. For instance, in 2013 Thoba Sithole and Cameron Modisane, both young African males, made international and national headlines when they decided to host South Africa’s first traditional African wedding, which appealed both to Zulu and Tswana cultures. This same-sex wedding ceremony triggered a storm of criticism from Zulu traditionalists, including the Zulu royal house, for what was perceived as a mockery of Zulu culture. For Thoba and Cameron however, being “gay” simply did not go hand in hand with a rejection of their African cultures, but rather it necessitated an integration of their “gay” identities within these cultures. Unfortunately, however, this integration has done little to challenge gender constructions in these cultures that are based on unequal power relations and have social and linguistic consequences.

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