Mmusi Maimane’s foray into Twitter town halls earlier this year has been permanently etched into my memory for various reasons.
I still catch myself laughing at the hilarious tweet posted by user Jonathan Meyer with the hashtag #AskMmusi: “Does it bother you that white people pronounce your surname as, “my money”?”
But recently I find myself reflecting on the digs liberally taken at the DA Parliamentary Leader for his accent. TV personality and entrepreneur Sizwe Dhlomo tweeted: “Do you plan the night before which accent you’re going to take to work or do you decide in the morning?”
User @sveveni asked: #AskMmusi which one is your favorite of the 3 accents that you have?
Accents in South Africa, especially in the black community, have always been political. Mispronounce the wrong word, among the wrong crowd, in the wrong hood and you could be setting yourself up for years of being ostracised.
And there is nothing as cringeworthy as being told by white people: “Oh, where did you grow up? You speak English so well.” While many will recognise such pseudo compliments for what they are, there are some who still crow with pride that their accent ‘passes the test’.
Recently, one of my colleagues remarked on how different I sound when speaking to my ‘black circle’ at the office, compared to how I sound in meetings.
And how many of us do that, albeit unconsciously? Have we – despite what our conscious selves continue to rail against – internalised the notion that having the “right” accent equals greater social capital? And if we have done so, what is the effect on colleagues whom we deem to be missing the right nasal inflection?
Buhlebendalo Mbuli* (28) from East London says: “People always assume you’re not smart enough because of your accent. When you say something, people will correct you, just because your accent is different.
“It’s demoralising because they don’t even listen to your point of view, or what you are trying to articulate. They prefer to listen to someone is more ‘well spoken’.
“Most of the time, it is not even white people who stereotype you. It’s fellow black people who have the problem.”
Investment banker Brian Nevhutalu adds: “You know the first time I heard the term, ‘mother-tongue interference’ was actually from a very condescending – note the big word – black colleague who went to St Johns private school.
“Sometimes I do struggle to articulate myself in meetings; just trying to find that perfect word or phrase, and people take that to mean you are less educated and less qualified.”
In Tracey Reynold’s book, English Accents, Social Capital she presents research that shows the correlation between degrees of accentedness and negative assessments of your background, social status and education.
She references research by EM Brennan and JS Brennan (1981) and Wallace Lambert (1967) who, in independent studies, found that a person’s accent might be a trigger for someone to “react negatively as a result of prejudices a person may hold against a particular group of people.”
Reynolds also referenced a study conducted with 730 students in the US that revealed that without even seeing a person, those listening to a person speak judged them as being less interesting, less trustworthy and even less attractive just by virtue of their accent.
In the UK’s corporate world, there has been a surge in the popularity of accent-reduction courses to help reduce a foreign accent so that people from abroad can speak English like a British native.
Local research also points to the belief that speaking ‘good English’ – the new defacto language for economic power in post-apartheid SA – and with the right accent, opens doors.
Analysing AMPS data in his 2004 paper entitled Globalisation and the Returns to speaking English in South Africa, J Levinsohn found that households in which English was listed as the mother tongue, were 15,8% more likely to participate in the labour market.
In his 2014 Master’s thesis, The Economics of Language, Accents, Trust and Social Exchange in Labour, Ece Yagman found in South African corporates, higher trust and trustworthiness levels were attached to mother-tongue English speakers. He further found that this was because speaking English without an accent was often associated with positive attributes such as confidence, or alertness, which in turn were correlated with perceptions of trustworthiness.
So what must can happen now? Mbuli says: “At certain places, and industries, ‘your accent’ probably does limit your growth. But sometimes not because of how people judge you, but when you begin to compromise your authentic self, you end up falling short.”
Nevhutalu concurs: “For me, the fact that I’m sitting across the boardroom with you, despite how I speak, means accent really has nothing to do with how qualified you are.”