BOOK SA presents 12 Days of Xcerpts, featuring the work of BOOK SA writers. Watch out for one a day until Xmas!
If there is such a thing as blogger royalty in South Africa, then Sarah Britten is our queen. She keeps no less than three blogs – one at BOOK SA (afore-linked), one at The Times, and one at iblog.co.za – and, what’s more, she keeps them intelligent.
Despite the requirements of such prodigous blogging (how does she do it?), there are books to be written, and write them she does, also intelligently. Two, in fact: her second, McBride of Frankenmanto: the Return of the South African Insult, has just been published by 30 Degrees South.
Britten’s books are rightly classed as “Humour”, but there’s much more to them than guffaws. She has a gift for picking out the kernels of truth in the words and deeds that trigger South African laughter (or tears, as the case may be), and then force-feeding them to us until, like the kid who’s made to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in one go, we learn our lesson, shrink in horror at our brutish inclinations and behaviour, and then, invigorated with self-knowledge, go out to sin again.
The following excerpt from McBride (which features fellow BOOK SA bloggers Stephen Simm, Kopano Matlwa and Gerrie Hugo) amply demonstrates this. Read on for a hilarious lesson in contemporary South African race relations:
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The Amazing Race Debate
“Is it just me or do Chinese people always look like they’re looking for keys?” Loyiso Gola.
“You find that usually people who don’t want to activate their brain like to categorise people,” Johannesburg restaurant owner Niki Rwaxa told the Sunday Times in a report on stereotypes in South Africa.
It’s a fair point. Telling South Africans not to categorise people, though, would be tantamount to expecting a stoepkakker not to yap. We can’t help ourselves. So we’ve moved on from the pencil test to BEE bonus points in tender documents, but we’ve always done it, and, presumably, always will.
Besides, categories and stereotypes make so much sense. It’s just easier to navigate a land of sneaky Indians, drunk coloureds, racist whites and lazy blacks. Ask ANC Youth League president Fikile Mbalula, who famously dismissed the University of Kwazulu-Natal as “Bombay-Mumbai” (too many Indians), Wits as “Ivory Tower” (too many whites) and Stellenbosch as a “Volkstaat” (presumably, too many Afrikaners).1
In our non-racial democracy, everyone is busy accusing everyone else of being a racist. Jacob Zuma, the 100% Zulu Boy, says that racism, ethnicity and regionalism are “a sickness that gets utilised by people at the slightest problem.” The Sunday World has argued, “Some among us not only hate whites, but Indians, Nigerians, Zimbabweans and our women and children as well. Do you get it? We hate more than Hendrik Verwoerd ever did.”
Or as Ndumiso Ngcobo puts it: “Telling me that black people cannot be racist is like telling me people don’t die of gunshot wounds; it’s just the loss of blood that kills them.”
“I must hasten to say I am not a racist. Three of my friends are white. Three is enough. More than that would be an AWB or G8 convention.” Shwashwi, Sunday World.
When PW Botha died, Kuli Roberts was reminded of one of his speeches in which he said that blacks were good at making a noise, dancing, marrying many wives and indulging in sex. “Where was this man?” she asked. “In Swaziland?”
“You may ask yourself what father or role model makes such ridiculous statements – we all know some niggers can’t dance to save their lives.”
Stereotypes, you see, are usually plain wrong in the case of individuals, though there’s more often than not a grain of truth when it comes to groups. So we refuse to let go of them. Ndumiso Ngcobo, who describes himself as an urban Zulu warrior, reflects that Shangaans are still seen as “big-dicked buffoons with a penchant for red socks”, BaSotho are still “untrustworthy impimpis” and BaTswana aren’t generous with meat at feasts.
“AmaXhosa are still sly con artists with scant regard for anyone’s property.
And, of course, amaZulu are still a perpetually horny lot with a violent streak.”
The stereotypical Zulu is still a dangerously unhinged taxi driver or a brave but stupid security guard. “Don’t threaten other chicks with violence ‘cos your man’s a whore – even if you are a Zulu,” advises the ever-tacftul Kuli Roberts.
“Zulu girls”, asserts an anonymous email that did the rounds, “are as ignorant as their taxi-driving boyfriends.” The typical Zulu girl, the “Dudu-comes-to-Jozi” type”, wears a fake gold tooth and a fake gold bracelet to match.
“Every opportunity she gets, she’ll tell you she’s wearing gold calat [sic] . After all, these Zulus can’t pronounce ‘R’ — and don’t dare tell Dudu she’s wearing fake — you know how violent these dummies are. She’ll threaten you in her hard-core language, her pinafore will be tucked roughly inside her panties and you’ll be promised an early meeting with your ancestors.”
Ngcobo argues that the Zulu tendency to settle things physically is simply a matter of pragmatism. “Violence,” he explains, “is just the insurance policy we cash in to establish order.” Just as Eskimos are said to have 57 different words for snow, the Zulus have an advanced vocabulary of assault. Take the word “bhibiza”. This describes the action of hitting someone on the lips with the back of the hand. This is for very specific situations: “you can’t just sommer bhibiza anyone willy-nilly.”
“You bhibiza someone when they are busy back-chatting to you — preferably in mid-sentence. Timing is of the essence. You can’t, for instance, find someone standing on the street corner minding their own business and proceed to bhibiza them. That would just be wrong.
“After all,” he explains, “we’re not violent savages. We bhibiza to bring order back into situations.”
So if a Zulu man bhibizas you, you know you’ve been talking a whole lot of kak, or saying rude things about Jacob Zuma, or both.
“I love Xhosa ladies – they deny shit before they even do it.” Trevor Noah.
If Zulus are the violent ones, the Xhosas are devious con artists, their women notorious stealers of men. As long as you express such views in private rather than in public, you will be fine – as Metro FM DJ Thomas “Bad Boy T” Msengana and newsreader Florence Letoaba discovered, after they were suspended for two days after discussing the problem of Xhosa man-stealing on air.
The idea that Xhosa women are not to be trusted around other women’s men is not new. The same email that targeted Zulu women also gunned for the Xhosas:
“A black sister is speaking Xhosa. You immediately think ‘man-stealer, skhebereshe [whore], gold-digger’. If you are with your man you keep him like a dog guarding a bone. After all, you can never trust these sanas [babes] around any man — their morals are as loose as a prostitute’s underwear. They are as deceitful as their Xhosa men — look at what they are doing to Zuma.”
When a Xhosa girl leaves voicemail:
Nomfazwe: Hi u have reached Nomfazwe, I’m not available at present. Please leave your name and number and I will send u a ‘PLEASE CALL ME’ or a ‘MISSED CALL’
Philile: Hi, I am not available to take your call at this point. Please leave a recharge voucher number, and I will call you as soon as possible.
Lumka: Hi, I’m sorry I can’t speak to you right now. Please leave the recharge voucher number and I’ll send u an sms thanking you.
The point about ethnic jokes of any kind – whether about Jews, Indians, Xhosas or Afrikaners – is that only insiders are supposed to get to tell them. Jews mock Jewishness; Xhosas get to poke fun at Xhosas. Zulus tell jokes about Zulus – but as Fred Khumalo points out, they don’t find it funny when the same jokes are told by “the kleptomaniac Xhosas or the colour-confused Shangaans or the cowardly Swazis”.
“Coloured girls always think they are better than us black sistas. But you know them — just crazy, without culture, smokers, babymakers and champion drunks.” Anonymous, in the same email containing the descriptions of Zulu and Xhosa women.
The same principle applied when an sms claiming that the election of Helen Zille as DA party leader was a “nail in the coffin” for Afrikaners appeared to originate from the cellphone of an English-speaking councillor. Dan Roodt, the official high priest of Afrikaner paranoia, took the incident very badly indeed. According to Roodt, a man who is still smarting from the events of 1902, it was “common knowledge” that the DA was under English rule and that candidate lists, as well as party management, were ruled by English-speaking members.
“A more basic question is whether Afrikaner support would be justified for a party whose ethos, management and presence of Boer-hating people like Pat Hill are not in line with Afrikanership,” Roodt declared theatrically. Then he withdrew once more to the cloistered confines of that notorious Afrikaner homeland, Dainfern.
“Afrikaans…has exactly the same effect on the eardrums of the uninitiated as a piece of rough sandpaper, rubbed briskly and furiously, has on the head of an erect penis. I think it was P. J. O’Rourke in his ‘Holidays In Hell’ who described the language of my youth as sounding incredibly similar to the Ktzenjammer Kids on speed.” Gerrie Hugo, not a man who can be accused of being subtle.
What else would they sing about?
The fact that Dan Roodt can come up with an expression like “Boer-hating” is yet more evidence of the fact that Afrikaners have recently been challenged by what Andrew Donaldson describes as a liedership crisis. It was up to a singer of liedjies,3 Steve Hofmeyr, the Boer Bono, to take on the mantle that Kortbroek had so carelessly flung aside in his rush to join the ANC. The volk also came up with their own version of Mshini Wam’, digging up a Boer War general and singing about how they needed him to help fight the khakis. The last months of 2006 and the first months of 2007 were dominated by endless discussions of De La Rey. It even reached the front page of the New York Times.4
Everyone had an opinion on De la Rey. Fred Khumalo called it the Whinge of the Year. Ronald Suresh Roberts said that Koos De la Rey had a “native sensibility”, something he apparently had in common with Charlize Theron. Pallo Jordan said De la Rey was okay so long as it wasn’t a struggle song, but remained an historical curiosity. Jacob Zuma didn’t see anything wrong with it. Afrikaners,” he said, “if they did not sing about De la Rey, who else would they sing about?”
You have to admit that he had a point.
“It’s the white people, they ask for ‘De la Rey’ and pay us well when we sing it. Coloured people came to us and said we must stop singing the song because it breaks us down.” Coloured street busker in Oudtshoorn during the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees.
“It’s being proud of who you are and knowing where you come from. To have a backbone and know where you’re going,” explained Bok Van Blerk, the song’s singer and co-writer, who claimed to have been inspired in part by a speech by Steve Biko. A lot of people said that the song was inspiring because De la Rey was a moderate who was reluctant to go to war. Others suggested that the only reason De La Rey happened to be used in the song was the fact that his name was easier to rhyme than “Botha”, “Kruger” or “de Wet”, but they’re just being cynical.
There were all sorts of disagreements about what the song actually meant.
“People are feeling more assertive than before,” said Tim du Plessis, editor of Rapport. “As if they want to say: we are fed-up with being singled out as the only scapegoat for all the evils of SA’s racist past.” Max du Preez, on the other hand, felt the song was really about how blacks are the new enemy. Film maker Dominic Wilhelm thought that “hedging your identity bets on a leader who is an incarnation of the way you eat, drink and sleep might be an angsty bark up the wrong existential tree.”
“Don’t give these white beggars money. Give them Omo. It makes your whites whiter!” ANC Youth League president Fikile Mbalula, who is clearly missing his true calling, as a stand-up comedian.
The success of De la Rey was soon confirmed beyond doubt by nine year old Son-Isha, who sang “De La Rey moet ‘n Meisie kry” at the Voortrekker Monument while dressed in traditional Zulu clothing. (Radio Pretoria was so incensed at this subversive act of cross-cultural eclecticism that it promptly banned her from their narrow airwaves.) Highveld DJ Julio Garcia also got into trouble, but this was because he played the other version of De La Rey, the one that goes, “De la Rey, De la Rey, sal jy die Boere kom vry/Want jy is gay, De la Rey?”
Was it only Afrikaners who suffered from an identity crisis, wondered Andrew Donaldson. “What about the white English-speaking chaps? We’re losers too, you know, and more than just a little PO’ed as well. Maybe we also need a song, a stirring ballad that cuts to the very heart of our quiet desperation.”
Nick Paul tried to write a song for white English-speaking liberals, but nothing rhymed with “Helen Suzman”.
“If you’re a white male, you’re probably Christian, follow rugby religiously, vote DA, think Curt Cobain was God, Dr. Manto is an idiot and you’ve never diddled a black woman unless you met her on Durban’s notorious Point Road.” Ndumiso Ngcobo.
If only insiders may make fun of themselves, then one South African who gets to mock both blacks and whites is the comedian Trevor Noah. Noah, who lists racists as his pet hate, says that because he’s half black, half white and looks coloured, he can make fun of pretty much everyone. Take Christmas, for example. White kids have Father Christmas; black kids don’t, “because no black father is going to let some white guy take credit for something he bought”. It’s just as well Father Christmas isn’t black anyway because if he was, “you’d have put away the tree already, it would be the 27th, and then he arrive. You’d say, “You’re late!” and he would say, “Hau, sorry man, my grandfather died.”
While Trevor Noah might succeed in being black and white and coloured all over, it’s not always so easy for the coconuts and model Cs of this world. In her novel, appropriately entitled Coconut, twenty-one year old Kopano Matlwa, explores the angst-ridden state of a black girl caught between two worlds, either two black or too white to be accepted in either. “White greed, blond vanity and blue-eyed malevolence” are the symptoms of a parasitic disease inhabiting the minds of her characters, for blacks are note entirely accepted in a white suburban world:
“The old rules remain and the old sentiments are unchanged. We know, Lord, because those disapproving eyes scold us still; that crisp air of hatred and disgust crawls into our wide-open nostrils still.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that “Eurocentric” is just not something you ever call a black man. As Ndumiso Ngcobo explains, where he comes from, “Eurocentric is worse than being a paedophile with serial-killer tendencies. People have lost their lives for daring to call a darkie Eurocentric. You just do not characterize another black man in that way unless you’re willing to step outside…”
“He is not a white man. Whites make you scared.” Black child referring to his white father, quoted by Tony Harding.
On a more positive nation-building note, Tony Harding did note that the word “lekgoa”, which means “disrespectful” and has traditionally been a popular epithet for a white person is changing to reflect new social realities.5 So a black supervisor can now be a “lekgoa”.
“Even we, the urban, model C-schooled society, still fall into the trap of referring to a white person as lekgoa and a fellow black as just motho,” agreed one reader. “We still say, for example, that a function was high class if there were more makgoa than batho present.
Does this really mean that sethlare sa mosotho ke lekgoa (the medicine of a [black] is a white)? Lekgoa is more and more becoming anyone who is the boss and wields more power, either economic or social. Today, a lot of black people are climbing the social and economic ranks. So their employees refer to them as lekgoa laka, direct translation “my white person”.
When even black bosses get to be called white, perhaps there’s hope for South Africa after all. Just don’t call them Eurocentric.
“It was so cold I thought I was a white guy.” David Kau.
The NUKE LENASIA button in Thabo’s office
Indian stereotypes have become fashionable in the recent past, so past year they got off relatively lightly. There were questions about Jacob Zuma’s Indians – the Shaik brothers, Ranjeni Munusamy, Mac Maharaj – but all in all, the only noteworthy piece of news was the indignant response to Spur Steak Ranches’ use of a Bollywood theme to promote beef schnitzel, which displayed “callousness and disrespect” according to the South African Hindu Maha Sabha.
Spencer Eggworth, who is a blogger, has noticed that there are many more Indians about now than in the past, when one only saw Indian people in Durban. “Driving through Midrand just yesterday,” he observes, “Spencer counted 248 Subaru’s, most of them with spinner rims.” The large number of Indians raised a very important question:
Are these Indians moles? Sleeper agents sent here years ago in the time of Gandhi to quietly watch and wait. To silently amass a secret force in Stanger and quietly send out the tentacles of power into our daily lives. Just this morning Spencer saw seven new flavours of Cartwrights on the supermarket shelf that weren’t there yesterday, Indian restaurants are popping up everywhere – Greenside has become Lenasia North. WOOLWORTHS SELLS BITE SIZE LUNCH-PACK ROTI’S. It could be possible that India is planning to invade South Africa.
Ndumiso Ngcobo grew up in Durban, so he knows all about Zulus and Indians. He advises that one should beware of he who doth protest too much: “The first person to say, “But I don’t hate Indians” would probably press the NUKE LENASIA button in Thabo’s office if he thought no-one was looking.”
“ ‘The white people are looking around at all the Indians here. They are saying, “Don’t make eye contact – they might try and sell us something.’ “ Riaad Moosa.
A man by any other name
As for the coloureds, who would have thought that a three hundred and fifty year old instance of slander would return to the inflame the pages of newspapers across the land – and result in a vicious debate between a bunch of white guys?
A white Afrikaner called Kobus Faasen, who traced his ancestry to Jan Van Riebeeck’s interpreter, took Die Burger to the Equality Court for its continued use of the word “boesman”. All sorts of experts weighed in. Professor Jatti Bredekamp, said South Africa had moved away from using the derogatory terms kaffir and Hotnot and the same should apply to the term bushman. Willem Steenkamp argued that the word “San”, which meant “robber” or “murderer” was “grossly defamatory”.
The historian Cecil Hromnik then retorted that, actually, the word “Khoisan”, was much more offensive and abusive and what’s worse, was invented by a German professor in 1928. There was nothing wrong with the word “bushman”, whereas “San” could be translated as “naked” and both Steenkamp and Bredekamp were talking twaddle. The correct name for the inhabitants of the Cape encountered by the Dutch was “Otentottu”, mispronounced by the Dutch as “Hottentot”. The people known as Khoi and San should properly be known as Quena and Sonqua.
“But what about the “Khoisan” pollution that litters the textbooks the so-called scholarly works, our museums and even some of our churches?” wrote Hromnik. “How long will it take to clean them of this soul-destroying miscreant misnomer?”
Which is all very confusing. Firstly, all of us who used “Khoisan” instead of “Hottentot” because the first was politically incorrect and the latter not, are now quite bewildered. And secondly, can your soul be destroyed by a word when you aren’t even aware of its actual meaning, a meaning now rendered distinctly hazy by the passing of a couple of centuries? Will the man formerly known as Bennie Alexander, Khoisan X – if he is still around – be obliged rename himself Quena X?
As for the people at the centre of the row, they all had different opinions, as people do. “A boesman is a thief who lives in the veld,” said Regina Beregho, manager of a radio station broadcasting in !Xun and Khwe. “I’m a modern San woman: I earn my keep and sustain my family through hard work.” On the other hand, the chairman of the South African San Council, said he had no objections to the word “bushman”.
“It was the name given to us. My grandmother and grandfather always said they are bushmen. Some of us prefer San, others bushman — it doesn’t matter.”
The Black Stare: a mixture of confusion, disappointment and deep betrayal. You might recognize it the next time you fire your maid or your gardener. Stephen Simm and his muse Miss Kwa Kwa.
The list of Bad Words
It’s fair to assume that the words “boesman” and “hotnot” are on the Human Rights Commission’s compilation of words it considers unacceptable. Metro FM breakfast producer Lupi Ngcayisa was required to familiarise himself this list, which includes the words moffie, Dutchman, amakwerekwere and others after he was suspended after unwittingly using the k-word on air. During a joking session in which Ngcayisa and his co-hosts Bad Boy T and Florence Letoaba assumed they were off air, they mimicked well-known personalities. Ngcayisa was asked to guess who was being portrayed in an apparent confrontation with a ‘baas’ and yelled, “Now you’re in kaffir mode!”
As a result, Ngcayisa was pulled off air for two day conduct research and share these words with his listeners, though quite how he was meant to do this without saying the kind of thing that got him suspended in the first place was not something that any of those involved ever explained.
Suitably chastened, Ngcayisa apologized, saying, “This is a learning curve for me.”
“Shame on all racist whites. Don’t ever say racist blacks, because blacks can never be racists as it is a privilege.” Ali Mafela, letter to The Citizen.
It was all a little unfair really, considering that President Mbeki himself used the K-word in one of his Friday missives to his adoring public. Heavily criticized over the crime problem, the president produced his battered but trusty race card and put it to use once more. The fear of crime by white South Africans, he wrote, was not rooted in a common or garden interest in survival, but in “the deeply entrenched racism that Africans have since time immemorial been repudiated by a God who is only a God of the whites.”
“For this section of our population, every reported incident communicates the frightening and expected message that the kaffirs are coming. Justification must be found for persisting white fears of die swart gevaar.”
The cause of all of this considered reflection was a report on an investigation into problems at one South African company, where some white managers used the word “kaffir’ in everyday conversation and discussed a possible “massive black-on-black civil war in South Africa”.
Evidently, for the president, every reported incident communicated the irritating and expected message that the mlungus were complaining – again – and justification must be found for persisting to use the spectre of racism as the biggest threat facing South Africa today.
“The end of the road for the white guy may be in sight.” Trailer for documentary, Black Adam, by the South African film maker Dominic Wilhelm. Who is a white guy, in case you are wondering.
Despite the predilection of the president and many other politicians and commentators for endless navel-gazing on the subject of race – they must all have a moer of a crick in the neck by now – there’s a sense among more and more South Africans that this is getting a bit tired. Letting go of at least some of our centuries-old obsession with race would give us more time to focus our energies on more important things, like shopping, caring about who wins Idols, and installing a SuperWall on our Facebook profiles.
It would be a strange and wonderful kind of freedom wouldn’t it? A release from what Mail & Guardian columnist Fikile-Ntsekelelo Moya called “an albatross around our neck”. He was writing about blackness, but the same applies to whiteness – and any other kind of -ness – too. Finally, we might be able to speak and act and be without hauling around a disclaimer wherever we go, the one that indicates whether we’re supposed to be ANC or DA supporters, and whether or not our opinions are automatically kak or kosher.
Moya invoked the words of Steve Biko, who called for a nation where there would be no majority or minority, but just people. It seems something suspiciously warm and fuzzy. Even vaguely reminiscent of the rainbow nation. And an awfully long way off.
But as Fred Khumalo reminds us, “Stereotypes will cease being stereotypes when we pick them up, throw them up into the air and shred them to pieces with the sword of reason and common sense.”
So, go forth and tell rude jokes. Preferably about people like you.
“I mean how dangerous can you make a man? Everyone knows a coloured guy can steal your wife or car, and we all know about Bin Laden.” Wayvinne Dawson on coloured Muslims.
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For more excerpts in this series, click the 12 Days of Xcerpts tag.