MOXIE Chats to Thuli Zikalala

Tshegofatso Senne writes in Thuli Zikalala’s voice, based on their interview. 

Thuli and I did our honours degree in South African Sign Language in 2015 and we’ve stayed in contact since, collaborating on a few projects. I was so incredibly happy and proud to see her in the news this year. She is a caring, innovative woman and below, she shares about her journey.

Thank you for sharing with us, Thuli. – Tshego

I turned 30 in April and this is a new decade for me. I’m ushering in change and excitement for myself. It’s quite spiritual for me. 

For the first time in the long time I feel like I have the guts to step into the things that I believe in and I’m taking a stand. For the most part, I feel like I’m standing alone. In terms of what I’m thinking and the things that I’m doing, there are very few people who get my creativity and the work I now want to do. 

I would describe myself as a creative person who’s a visionary and a leader. I’m passionate about being bold and finding your voice, taking a stand and speaking about the things that you believe in; it could be anything. Just use your voice to stand for something. 

I feel the concepts of creativity, identity and finding a purpose work so well together. 

They are intertwined because that’s where we find our true identity, our culture, and figure out our goals. Add in new people to collaborate with, who you can have open conversations with and you start to feel more and more like yourself. For example, this is the first time in a long time that we [Tshego and I] have had a conversation about Thuli as Thuli and not Thuli, the interpreter. 

I’ve never had the chance to tell my story and this year is a bold one for me. I’m taking off all the baggage and the people who put me in a box. I’ve been very frustrated, anxious and feeling like my opinions don’t matter. For a long time I’ve been seen as just an interpreter and now I get to step out of that box and accept the very person that I am; I am a very passionate person, I’m a very innovative person, I’m a leader and only after that I’m an interpreter. My interpreting is just a skill. it’s not who I am it’s just what I do. And I happen to be very good at it. 

Now that I’ve been called for bigger things, I need to act on this vision before it leaves me behind. I know it won’t let me rest.

You and I have known each other since varsity and you know that we’ve always had it in common to do something that’s good. We’ve had collaborations on multiple projects that were very exciting and we try to start in our own communities. We’re trying to push humanity forward. We’re trying to solve problems and we want to empower young people while we do that. 

After 5 years in my job I resigned earlier this year. I had to leave because I was wanting something more. I wanted something of my own. So I did the research and started planning for my future. Just four months ago I wouldn’t expect that this is where I would be right now. 

My love for podcasts got me here. It’s something that I actually wasn’t even conscious of because it was such a normal thing for me. I love receiving information via them and realised how much we take them for granted as the hearing community. We get to choose the content that we want and I was very conscious of that. I was listening and watching all of these things and I realise that this wealth of knowledge is not accessible to the Deaf community, the immediate community that I serve everyday. 

So I started thinking, what can I do about it?

I knew that it was a complicated plan because podcasts exist online and this form of content was very new. A lot of people in the country don’t have access to it and also don’t know much about the industry. It’s a different way to consume media in the country. But I took that risk. 

I approached a very prominent online digital platform and they said yes! Since then we’ve shot our pilot episode. It’s quite exciting because even though the topic and the platform itself is influential this is new for all of us. We wanted to drive awareness and showcase the professionalism of ASL interpreting. We also had to focus on the fact that this is an accredited interpreted podcast because there are only 11 SATI accredited SASL interpreters in the country. 

People don’t think that they need to get accredited if they already have clients. You know as well as I do about the fake interpreter from a few years back and the type of drama that it caused.  This is why regulation and accreditation is necessary, to prevent these things from happening before they take place, to make sure that Deaf people can access their right to information.

The community is very desperate for access to information so the first interpreter that they usually find is the one that they go with. You find people with basic knowledge of the language just waving their hands around and it causes so much stigma within the interpreting community because those very people are then taken to represent the whole of interpreters. The politics never ends. 

This has been a long journey for me. 

The aim is to make content more accessible. I was very lucky that  we have a sponsor that decided to put money behind this, this is how we were able to record a pilot episode. The episode we started with is Blind History, an award-winning podcast. It’s already doing well so that’s why the team decided to leverage on that by adding an interpreter to it. I had to be very strategic and deliberate about this and now I’m a pioneer in this industry. 

We’re very serious about making sure that all of this content is accessible. Yes, having an interpreter is one thing but we also need subtitles. People don’t think about this, maybe the assumption is that people don’t like reading or that it’s straining on the eyes or that it’s just too big an effort. But we need to provide the option so that those who want it can use that. 

So again, this isn’t just a platform that’s targeted to the Deaf community; it’s for everyone. It’s for the people who don’t understand how interpreting works, what the purpose of an interpreter is, for content producers who don’t know how to make their content accessible. We’re showing people how to make their content as accessible as possible, that it can be done. 

So what’s next for me? 

I now have my own company,  Yellow Owl. It’s very fresh, I just registered it this month so it’s about 3 weeks old. I’m not limiting myself to interpreting within this company,  I want to do podcasts,  YouTube,  whatever I want there’s no limit. I’m building this on the foundation of interpreting so that I can constantly show how content can be done in accessible ways. I can also work together with other content creators that are looking to have their content be accessible. 

With Yellow Owl,  I just want to break away from tradition. I want to have this business so that I can have the freedom of my time, and be able to decide who I want to work with. I haven’t been able to do that in the past. Controlling your own time is something that I’ve wanted for so long and it’s such a privilege. 

I’m glad that I was able to listen to my gut and listen to my calling that was telling me that it’s time to move. It gave me the way forward and the opportunities have found me since I decided.  I now have a company,  I work with such a great team, and I’m able to do the collaborations that I want to. All of these things that I never thought that I’d even be able to do. 

I’m doing a lot of this from my own pocket, which is fine because I feel very passionately about this. I’m willing to invest in it and the money will come later on when the value is identified. 

Money isn’t my goal right now, this is revolutionising content. This is a completely new industry that I’ve started. It’s an exciting time. 

You can find Thuli’s new YouTube channel here:

You can access the interpreted content here:

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