My old boss called me at 5 on a Friday morning. It just so happened that Friday is usually my regrouping day. And he needed a locum teacher for isiZulu.

So I drove through the morning sunlight and airiness of Killarney, avoiding the solid metal mash of the M1, and up to the gates of the school. Its typical Parktown curves and finials stood firm, having endured many different South Africa’s in its history.

Initially, I thought that the class was going to be second language isiZulu – so I’d planned a bit of an assessment of the class, to find out what they’d been taught. When I walked into the long dusty classroom, I realized that this wasn’t quite second-language. The notes on the board/bored were copied verbatim from a linguist’s textbook on isiZulu, talking about the different constituent parts of amabizo (nouns). I quickly assembled the list of isiZulu’s linguistic terminology in my head, still more than a bit unsure of the major difference between some of the terms, but knowing for certain that no teenager I’d ever met would be interested in this stuff.

However, after the excitement had died down (not many people are used to seeing a tall white guy teaching in an isiZulu classroom), I realised that it wasn’t really home language. It was the sort of class that happens in urban areas with a mixture of cultural and linguistic elements – kids who bear proud surnames, but don’t know the izithakazelo of those surnames, or the origins of those parts of them that came from the amaNguni. They are the sort of kids who know what they’re missing, and the questions quickly began to fly around me – some confidently asking in their carefully practiced isiZulu, some reverting to English or isiCamto.

They knew what they wanted – they knew the limits of their Soweto-Zulu, and they wanted to understand the metaphors and beauty and richness of the language that had raised at least one of their parents.

They certainly didn’t want to be falling asleep as their teacher droned the contents of dusty grammar textbooks into a January afternoon.