Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Malema, curry and casual bigotry

Two weeks ago, a journalist sent me a list of questions about racism and parenting. “Do you often think about how to protect your child from racism?” was one of them. “Is it important in your parenting approach?” This is still a theoretical question for me right now, though in years to come I will certainly confront it. My unborn daughter is not white. Depending on what shade her skin takes on in the great Dulux colour chart of life, she will be viewed through the prism of a particular racial identity. Her surname will certainly be a clue.

So the stakes have changed for me, and certain things that once I might have dismissed with a shrug now become triggers. Usually, I’m on the sidelines watching others get their knickers knotted. It’s rare that I’ll express obvious irritation over something I encounter in the news, let alone get caught up in a minor twar. This time was different.

“We are not going to allow SA to be sold over a plate of curry,” Julius Malema said at a press conference on February 5. It was one of his typically meme-worthy soundbites, the ones he’s produced with admirable regularity over the past decade.

It was a literal curry, in one interpretation, what many assumed to be a reference to a comment by Helen Zille. But is a plate of curry ever just a plate of curry? In South Africa? From the mouth of the smartest, most practiced purveyor of the political insult ever to pick up a mic?

No, it is not.

And so this afternoon, I found myself in the rare and unexpected situation of a prickly Twitter exchange with two very well-known journalists. Both questioned my interpretation, as they have every right to do. I stand by my view: that this was no ordinary curry. The power of the truly brilliant insult is that it looks innocent on the surface, while delivering the sucker punch to the solar plexus. Having published three collections of South African insults, I’m very aware of our recent history of anti-Indian slurs. Coming from such a powerful figure, someone who is set to influence South African politics for many years to come, this is not an anodyne comment about catering. “Curry” is a metonym for an entire set of cultural practices, associations, assumptions and prejudices. What Julius Malema says matters. And what he gets away with saying matters even more.

AFP/Carl de Souza

AFP/Carl de Souza

Letting his comments slide is a signal that certain types of prejudice are fine – depending on who expresses them. This is the world we create, tacitly, every day, and the world we end up despairing over because we paid no attention at the time.

The questions the journalist sent me were focused on the fallout from Penny Sparrow. “Have you spoken to your children about apartheid and racism?” she asked. “Have you spoken to them about the incidents of the past few weeks?” I have no doubt that at some point I will talk to my daughter about her roots in Huguenots, Dutch settlers, British imperialists, and indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu, and how chance brought her parents together despite the awful messiness and injustice of the past. I have already had conversations with my eight-year-old stepdaughter about my horrible ancestors (and the guilt I feel when talking to my parents-in-law about the past is sometimes so intense that I want to weep in shame). I’m sure these exchanges will get more challenging as she gets older and her little sister starts asking questions too.

This is something I know for sure: I do not want racism to shape the world our daughter grows up in. I also don’t want casual bigotry to be acceptable – amusing even – as long as it’s politically expedient. I don’t want hypocrisy and double standards to determine the way the world sees her, her family, or any of her friends.

If #racismmustfall, then all racism must fall.

“Do you think you can ‘racism-proof’ your children?” was another question I was asked, and to that I would say: I hope I can. Calling out curry jokes for what they are is one way to start. No matter who they come from.

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      Man that curry looks tasty…..

    • Bruce McDonald

      Let it go. People aren’t so precious and delicate that we need to coddle them from every statement that is meant to offend. It is much better to train people to be mature about how we respond to needless insults than to force the world to conform to how we expect them to behave. Don’t set yourself up for failure but trying to achieve an impossible goal.

    • Joseph Mafolo

      I think you safe being hypersensitive. We all love a nice plate of curry but the question is whether one is prepared to sell our country and heritage for a plate of curry? Malema and I are not prepared to do that. This is not about xenophobia but a timely warning to all South Africans to beware of the Guptas. It appears that due to the proximity to power they seem to be getting many government deals. It didn’t take them long to get a TV broadcasting license. The Guptas got involved with Crown Trading and surreptitiously got a mining license which was later reversed due to Glynis Breytenbach’s hard work. There is an impression that the Guptas are getting disproportionate share of government business because of their proximity to power. Very soon some investigative journalist will provide the public with a detailed list of deals that went the way of the Guptas. But unfortunately there are just too many people who have been enlisted as professors of Guptology.

    • Sibusiso

      Malema mouths what many think.

      The need for anti-racial mentions, like this ‘curry’, is directly linked to the lack of nation building, leadership, and non-racial behavior stemming from Zuma and the ANC.

    • Christien Scheepers

      A photo is doing the rounds on facebook of a black man wearing a racist anti-white T-shirt. Malema says all kinds of things . But white people are afraid to breath. I have unfriended people that I have loved that decades because I am afraid any and everything I say or do may offend them.I feel the very fact that I was born white is offensive.

    • Suntosh Pillay

      Great article Sarah. You’ve creatively articulated what I’ve been feeling since hearing those comments.

    • Smish

      A word from someone who perhaps has something in common with your unborn child. My father is black, and my mother white. These are skin colours. Many in SA have a particularly strong fetish for racial identity. Your unborn child’s future will probably include being asked whether she is White or Indian, or if she is mixed (as opposed to pure) and it will eventually get irritating. Encourage her to be resilient and that it is never inappropriate for her to respond, ‘I’m a human being’.

    • ian shaw

      Christien, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Besides their “evil side”, whites have contributed the most to human civilization. Every other nation or race has had their evil side which is now hidden for self-serving political reasons. I am not going to disown great white scientists, political thinkers, artists, and leaders for the sake of political correctness. Human (including you and me) have both a constructive and an evil side, so live with it.

    • FGGP

      It is oft said that offence is not given, it is taken. If we simply refuse to be offended by the ignorant, misguided and deliberately provocative utterances of bigots it may discourage them from continuing. There is nothing that defeats such narrow minded people more than failing to get a reaction.

    • Chris

      Sarah, are you sure this was not just subtle word-play, referencing the phrase “to curry favour”?

      Remember that story when Bernhard Langer won the Masters, and another golfer was heard to remark, “I hope that does not mean eisbein and sauerkraut at next year’s Champions’ Dinner.” And all the uproar that didn’t cause?