The Scribblers

Just another Read this… now weblog
Posted: November 10th, 2011 | By Siphiliselwe Makhanya

ANCYL president Julius Malema speaking at Wits university last year. Picture by James Oatway for the Sunday Times.

ANCYL president Julius Malema speaking at Wits university last year. Picture by James Oatway for the Sunday Times.

Okay, so I have actually speculated that Malema might have a list of different groups to annoy, equal opportunity offender that he appears to be.  And I have wondered if he maybe ticks each one off as he goes along – Women?  Check.  Boere?  Check. …Indians?  Che- wait, hold on…


When I first read it, my reaction was to lay my head on my desk and ask myself if I had the energy to start foaming at the mouth about this.  I mean, let’s face it; it seems the only time the Youth League president ever takes his foot out of his mouth is to put the other one in.  It all seemed pretty clear-cut to me – Malema referred to Indian people as “makula”, Makula equals “C%^&*#s”, therefore, Malema done did it again.  Same script, different cast. 

Or is it?

I’m from Durban, see.  And Durban, as you may know, is home to a substantial section of the South African Indian population.  It is also part of the so-called “Kingdom of the Zulu”, although I have long suspected that it is the Kingdom of the Real Estate Agents, more like.  But I digress.

I myself happen to be Zulu.  (Do not judge.  Do not offer 11 cows.  Do not ask me why Zulu men are so angry all the time.)

I’ve lived in KwaZulu-Natal my whole life and, being of that generation that grew up in urban Durban post-1994, I have quite a highly developed sensitivity to the things you do and do not say to Indian people.  Or Coloured people.  Or even, when you spot the rare ones at the really popular shopping malls, White people.    

One thing I have learnt in KZN is that you do not, not, not call Indian people “makula”. 

Which is why, after a bit of Twitter-browsing and a bit of a think, I realized what an ethnocentric stance that is.  As I said, I’m from KZN.  Even some of the (non-Comrade) older people here, who grew up during apartheid when calling each other things like that was normal, sometimes look guilty and apologize if it slips out.  Even when there are no Indian people present to hear them.

You may have noticed I said “some” and “sometimes”.  That’s because some of the really old people here honestly believe that “ikula” is a proper, inoffensive term for “Indian”.

Like my paternal grandmother, for instance.  She grew up in the rural areas, turns 100 next year, and has never been to school, ever.  The only South African history she knows is the history she survived, and that history is not the same stuff our generation reads about from the books.  I visited her recently and during our somewhat surreal conversation, she mentioned the word “amakula” quite unself-consciously as a matter of course through-out.

The first time she said, I went quiet with embarrassment. I was the only one. But as we groped our tortured, stilted way towards something vaguely resembling a coherent conversation, on a topic that remained the same for all of seven minutes, I realized that for her it had no derogatory or political connotations whatsoever.

For her it was just a word, like “Umlungu” for a white person, or  “UmXhosa” for a Xhosa person.  So I would have actually had to sit there loudly reciting the history of South Africa as I have been taught it, and explaining about the suspected origins of the word “makula”, and about why it is widely considered derogatory.

All this to a 99-year-old who has been using it for years without venom.

A question occurred to me, and not for the first time – does what we say matter more than what is in our hearts when we say it?

It’s a hard one to answer, especially since there is no real way of proving what is in your heart to others. Except perhaps via the chest with a sharp knife.  But even then I have doubts that you would find anything to hold up and say “this is my humanness, I didn’t mean to hurt you, see?”  Okay, even if you could, you probably wouldn’t say it so much as gurgle liquidly with your last weak gasp.

One morning this week, as I listened to the radio while brushing my teeth, the presenter was speaking to a representative from some legal department about whether or not certain words are derogatory.  The discussion was in Zulu, and what the man basically said was that it was a challenge for the legal system to actually figure out whether the general public use words such as these with the full understanding that they may upset others.

Here’s the thing – a lot of these words only become debated when someone says them on a public platform and somebody else takes offence.  It’s untidy.  Everybody in this country goes around with their own ideas of what is and is not offensive.  For years in High school, I never quite knew whether the word “bruin ou” was an offensive term or not.  I asked my Coloured peers what it meant.  They said “brown person”.  I saw nothing offensive about that.  Years later, I gathered that for some reason, it is.  At least, if I say it.

The only reason I even got a chance to learn that was because I lived with Coloured people, and after a while you start to notice those awkward silences and chilly looks.

What interests me, in this Malema instance, is that the five people who have filed a case against him did so in KZN.  In KZN, perhaps because Zulu people and Indian people live in closer proximity than elsewhere in the country, there is a largely unspoken understanding, never officially discussed, that “indiya” is a more socially acceptable term than “ikula”.  Mind you, not everyone agrees on this even here – but most of the younger, urban Black Zulus accept this.  Looking at some of the Twitter and article comments from people who speak SePedi and SeSotho, I really did start to wonder if there really is no other word for “Indian” in their languages.  I speak neither so I really can’t say.

But look at it this way, at least incidents like this force us to put into words the rules of the game without assuming that “everybody knows”.

As for whether Malema really said that with poison in his heart, well, only he knows for sure.

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