By Garth Johnstone
Rosetta’s Phiwayinkosi Mbuyazi, known to many as PY, is a man of many talents. Not only is he an electrical engineering graduate from UCT, an Oxford scholar in philosophy, politics and economics, an author, inventor, consultant and now even actor, but he is a deep thinker who is passionate about education in South Africa, with a particular focus on indigenous languages.
And his wife, Audrey, is just as much of a go-getter. The popular singer, well known to Midlands audiences, has travelled the world to perform and follow her passion. When she’s not singing, Audrey, who has recorded three albums, works for Oracle, the financial systems company. Together, the couple has co-authored bilingual children’s books, while Audrey invented a bilingual board game.
PY grew up in Mtubatuba. He went to school there and in Ulundi, before moving to Michaelhouse, where he matriculated in 1988. He grew up with his gran initially, as his parents worked in different places. He says his gran’s house was always full of cousins as his mom was one of nine children. When they moved to Ulundi in 1983, the family lived together.
Move to the Midlands
PY and Audrey have three children, two boys and a girl. They moved to Rosetta four years ago when their children began attending Midlands’ schools. After one-and-a-half years of commuting between Johannesburg and Rosetta they had had enough and made the move permanent. PY says they love living in the quiet Midlands on a smallholding – “even in winter”.
PY’s tertiary education included a BSc from UCT, where he studied on a De Beers scholarship, and three years at Oxford, where he married Audrey. The couple lived in London for two years, where PY worked for De Beers. “The most extreme of the changes from Musina (where I worked for De Beers) to Oxford was the temperatures. It snowed in the first year we were in Oxford, while in Musina it was often 40 degrees in the shade.”
The couple returned to South Africa in 2000 and PY continued to work for the mining giant until the end of 2001, when he left and joined friends in establishing a consultancy.
Of the many projects PY has been involved in over the years, he is particularly passionate about his writing in Zulu, work which has been groundbreaking and pushed barriers in the development of the language. He self-published his first book, The WIBY Kids – How It All Began (WIBY means What is Bugging You), when translated to Zulu, AmaYIPHENDLEYA – IsiQalo Sakho Konke.
“I had always wanted to write a book, but I wanted to write something that was different from what had been done before,” said PY.
“The book would be in the Zulu language, my mother tongue, and I would be writing about things that no one else was writing about.”
His interests were mathematics, philosophy, science and psychology, topics on which there was little or no writing in indigenous languages. And he would write about those topics in The WIBY Kids, a process which led him to search for appropriate words, in some cases creating new words to explain concepts.
“The last time I wrote something remotely creative was when I put my pen down for my matric exams in 1989. I was a bit apprehensive, so I decided to write something in the fields I enjoyed, but I wrote it in English.”
After getting the thumbs up for his work from a former English teacher, PY set about translating the work into Zulu.
When asked how the book was received, he tells of the day he had to appear before academics to explain himself.
“I was asked to come down to UKZN. It happened to be the day when Reeva Steenkamp was shot and killed. I appeared before an august gathering of doctors, professors and lecturers of the Zulu language. They closed me up in a room and essentially said, ‘Who the hell do you think you are to do what you say you have done?’. By virtue of the fact that I was writing in an area where no one else was writing, and I was writing technically orientated stuff, I came up with new words. As it turns out, that was about 500 new words. Maybe I overdid it a bit, but there really was no other way.”
He described the reception as “icy”. “The way things happen nowadays, especially with people in academia, is that they install themselves – and not without good reason, I guess – as gatekeepers of the language. They want to control what happens with the language and that happens to be exactly one of the things that is bugging me.”
Then came the “marathon” task of getting it published. “Publishers want to know what the market will be like, and I already knew there was no established market. There has to be a first person to break new ground, and I was that person. Self-publishing was the way to go.”
PY has issues with South Africa’s education system.
“The education system in South Africa says instruction for the first three years of school is in mother tongue. You also begin to be taught English. But come year four, the system then says the language of instruction is going to be English.
“Fundamentally the system is saying, you have this language you have been growing up with, but in the ‘real world’ you will be going into, that language doesn’t cut it. We are going to introduce you to this other language in which everything is going to happen. If you are going to self-actualise, do great things, this is the language you need to get into. The ramifications are so dire. We cannot tap into our great human potential because people struggle with the language.
“For me, when I see the outcomes of the annual assessments and everyone is shocked out of their socks, I look at that and say, what else did you expect?”
Another of his dreams is to establish his own school or micro-education system.
“For a long time I have dreamt of starting a school. In fact, it would have to be more than a school. It would have to be a project whose sole aim would be to provide a new means of making a living in an indigenous language.
“I’m thinking of an entire system.”
He says the nation needs to look at money spent on the development of indigenous languages as an investment. The status quo is that money spent on languages is seen by many as wasted, but the waste of human capital is not recognised. “(This is) undeveloped capital that one day is going to be so disgruntled that we have social unrest and an uprising of some sort because we didn’t want to waste monetary resources.”
As an author, PY believes he has taken the first steps and started the conversation.
“I have made the start with my books. I always knew that it would be a marathon.
“It’s all part of the web of knowing. Let me introduce someone who doesn’t speak English to some aspects of knowing that they are already doing in one way or the other.”
Two other books he has produced are Kusekhona Manjalo and Kanjalo Nje, which collate the editorial columns he wrote over a period of two years for the Sunday Times’ isiZulu edition.
He also developed a crossword puzzle in Zulu and co-wrote the children’s books with Audrey.
Recently PY had another first when he was asked by director Paul Spence to perform in former judge Chris Nicholson’s play, Justice is a Woman, which saw performances at Michaelhouse, Grace College and The Hexagon Theatre. There will also be shows in Howick and Hilton.
PY has also long had the ambition to invent something and says there are some interesting projects in the pipeline.