SiyaTroy is Using Art + Language to Address a Pandemic Inequality.

‘Hlala Ukhuselekile’ aims to solve COVID-19 related misinformation in Xhosa communities.

The relationship South Africa has with language has always been a difficult one. The country’s history is tapestried with a power struggle between African languages versus English and Afrikaans. Consequently, every crevasse and cavity of the post-1994 system has been puttied shut with Eurocentric ideologies, practices, and language. In the age of COVID-19, it could be difficult to see how this affects South Africa, but artist SiyaTroy (Siyabonga Ndlebe) is not imperceptive to the ramifications of Eurocentric linguistic dominance at the moment. 

A History of Linguistic Exclusion

Siya noticed the peculiar way in which the issue of educating the South African population on the pandemic was being handled. In an effort to spread awareness, journalists traveled to different communities to incite conversation around the pandemic, and Siya was baffled by the fact that these conversations were being conducted in English to a Xhosa speaking community. Any meaningful information that could have been imparted on this demographic was easily lost due to the language barrier. Siya is no stranger to this kind of linguistic exclusion.

“[COVID-19] cases in predominantly Xhosa-speaking provinces total to an appalling 31 942.”

Growing up in New Brighton, Eastern Cape, his surrounding community was Xhosa-speaking and the teachers attempted at integrating two mediums of instruction so that students could grasp concepts better. The problem came in when students were unable to fully engage with the textbooks written in English and thus, any of the tests produced by the Department of Education.

The lack of inclusion made the students severely under-prepared, and the system has managed to integrate this disadvantage, even when it comes to awareness of something as volatile as a flu-pandemic. “The reality is that English is still a difficult language that many do not understand especially in the townships and in the homelands,” says Siya. With this thought, they sought to provide an alternative that people, like those he witnessed being disregarded in the community of his youth, could refer to when in need of information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

A Symptom of Misinformation

“Hlala Ukhuselekile” is the name of a campaign Siya created to combat the misinformation and lack of knowledge on the virus amongst the Xhosa-speaking community. It takes approved health guidelines and showcases them alongside skillfully drawn illustrations, which was a very important element for Siya.

“Work like Siya’s is not only the beginning of hopefully lessening cases in these areas.”

Many of the infographics and designs are what Siya considers “cheap” and lack the artistic finesse required to showcase black people. Most importantly, the corresponding guidelines are written in Xhosa, after all, as probed by Siya, “if they cannot speak the language what were the chances of them being able to read and understand the guidelines?” 

Distribution wise? Siya hopes to catch the attention of the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality and get the pamphlets in every clinic, hospital, taxi rank, and spaza shop. This does not seem like an unattainable feat seeing as the pamphlets have already been chosen for the D’ssource Corona Design Challenge and will be available online with physical copies being distributed in the traveling exhibition.

 “This campaign is needed now more than ever.” Siya is not wrong. As of June 6th, the reported cases in predominantly Xhosa-speaking provinces like Eastern Cape and the Western Cape totals to an appalling 31 942. Work like Siya’s is not only the beginning of hopefully lessening cases in these areas but also stimulates extremely necessary conversations on how something as overlooked as language, could be an answer we need in the fight against COVID-19.