TO Molefe
TO Molefe

Zuma’s ‘clever blacks’ lost in media translation

Considering the Babel of languages spoken in South Africa and how each developed verbal cues and connotations in state-sanctioned isolation, I think we’d all do well to ask, before assuming, if we’ve understood what the other is saying. This goes doubly so in instances when we think the other person has said something preposterously outrageous, as is the case with the “clever blacks” comment City Press attributed to President Jacob Zuma.

Addressing the National House of Traditional Leaders Zuma said: “Some Africans who become too clever take a position (where) they become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything.” He went on to urge traditional leaders to play a role in helping Africans remember their roots.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of what Zuma said in this sentence but City Press pounced on this running the story as their Sunday lead under the headline “Zuma scolds ‘clever’ blacks”. The Sunday lead is usually reserved for the most scandalous, most riveting, most newsworthy story. Puzzling then that this fairly innocuous comment would receive such prominence in a speech riddled with other more shocking comments, particularly the double-speak on the unconstitutional Traditional Courts Bill.

City Press, it appears, took the “clever” in Zuma’s comment to mean intelligence, so presented the article as though Zuma were saying that intelligent, educated Africans have become eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions. This is decidedly different from what the president most likely meant by “too clever”.

The Oxford English dictionary defines clever as: (adjective) 1. quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas; intelligent. 2. British informal healthy or well.

A third, chiefly (black?) South African definition, which City Press probably should have discerned from Zuma qualifying “clever” with the word “too”, does not appear in the OED. This connotation of clever portrays the same sentiment as the entry immediately below clever in the OED: clever-clever (adjective, derogatory), excessively anxious to appear impressively clever or intelligent.

This is what Zuma meant by “too clever” (or “kleva”). He was saying that Africans who’ve adopted Western ways of doing things unquestioningly — and are thus ignorant of the worth and contribution to be derived from their own culture and traditions — are likely the ones most critical of their own history and traditions. In other words: Ba itha gore ke dikleva (they think they’re too clever).

It’s a fair comment and one I’m inclined to agree with. Taken in the context of the Traditional Courts Bill, the subject of Zuma’s talk, it would be unfair to say critics of the bill ke dikleva, but that’s not what Zuma said. His was a broader comment on some Africans and their view of African traditions.

Not only is this apparent from the “too”, but also from the context of that segment of his speech, which was a lament of the loss of African values and the contributions they could make in solving problems. It’s not as prosaic as Mbeki’s “I am an African” speech, but the same call for pride in being an African exists in Zuma’s words, too.

So what to make of Zuma’s being lost in media translation? What to make of the haste to use this as further evidence of Zuma as an anti-intellectual?

For one I think it raises the question: are African connotations of English words understood and properly translated in South Africa’s largely untransformed media? Yes black journalists are now the majority (one was by-lined in the clever blacks story) but as Jane Duncan, Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at Rhodes University said, media transformation when measured against the BB-BEE scorecard “can lead to the flawed assumption that when black people replace white people, sustainable transformative changes to media practices will automatically follow”.

Duncan argues that to realise meaningful media transformation, more structural changes are needed, changes that would allow a greater diversity of voices. One of these structural changes, I argue, should be recognising that words have connotations that the newsroom might be impervious to. It’s an easy test: if something sounds preposterous, ask yourself and others critically if you’ve fully understood the meaning.

It’s also possible that this misrepresentation was wilfully or unintentionally driven by a dislike of Zuma. The black middle class, City Press’s primary audience, dislikes Zuma at the moment. What better way to play to your audience than to call their attention to an attack on their ranks by a man they revile? As a member of the black middle class, I, too, do not believe the man is fit to lead a pencil, not because he’s anti-intelligence, but because he is badly compromised. However this shouldn’t prevent me from understanding what he is saying.

Zuma hasn’t helped his cause either but there has also been a consistent portrayal of the man as an anti-intellectual and it was just too easy to see this as another instance of that. Troubling, though, was the strange subtext running through the article.

City Press said Zuma “revealed his true agenda” in the off-the-cuff comments, which “quickly turned into a roaring endorsement of solving ‘African problems the African way’ ”.

Woah. Smoking gun! Someone wants to do things the African way. This guy is obviously a backward bumpkin.

In the web version of the article, Zuma, the pro-African tradition, anti-intellectual, is presented in text alongside an image of Zuma in skins. The image is from his traditional wedding in 2010, not from the day of his address to the National House of Traditional Leaders. He wore a black suit, white shirt and red tie on that day.

In the video posted below the story, at the 1:58 mark where Zuma makes the “clever” comment, the images changes from the suit and tie to one of Zuma again in his skins, dancing holding a shield above his head.

This appears an (unconscious?) attempt to associate being an anti-intellectual with being very passionate about African culture and traditions, as Zuma says he is. Troubling.

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  • The games people play at City Press
  • The braai or shisa nyama is not heritage
  • What art you talking about?
  • I sometimes confuse the history of others for my own
    • Nicholas Mnguni

      TO Molefe’s tune in his or her linguistic intellectual gymnastics: “Zuma’s ‘clever blacks’ lost in media translation”; from an interested reader seems to be disguised sarcacism, nothing more nothing less. The piece seeks to get the light of the day in the bandwagon of the “the clever blacks” bent on discrediting their own. At the end of the clever “english”, one cannot get any sense of intellectual engagement nor journalistic masterpiece, except literal shame.

    • Tofolux Harris

      1. You are trying too hard to be clever.

      2. Zuma is an anti-intellectual by anyone’s standards or definition.

      3. The matric pass mark in South Africa is 30 per cent, and we recently ranked last in Mathematics and Science out of 64 countries. Put that in your tribal pipe and smoke it.

    • Tofolux

      @ TO Molefe, personally I think the social battleground as we see it, is more malevolent. If you isolate all these attacks, the exposure it is given, one has to ask oneself- what agenda is at play here? For JZ, unlike any other President in the history of ANC, the amount of personal attacks has been quite abnormal. In the past, most attacks were based on ideology and fear eg rooi gevaar etc. But what the opposition party together with their assistants have done was to attack the character of this particular incumbent. The other question that needs to be asked is the social character of where this attack comes from and whom it seeks to influence. If we identify and isolate these characters. we then begin to understand the this battleground. We know that anti-africanism is a reality. We know that apartheid mentality exists. We can use the Woolworths incident as an one example to make the point of anti-constitutional and undemocratic behaviour of those who fingered Woolworths for improper practise. When you look at this incident we need to ask who promoted that battle and in whose interest. No person can deny that there is a concerted campaign against this President. The reasoning is simple, they are unable to take on ANC as a collective hence they have to isolate certain persons for ridicule. Here one is reminded of the personal attacks on Madiba, the innuendo that Thabo Mbeki might be corrupt and the latest incidents on the Deputy President. Cont/….

    • Ms Ann Thrope

      @ Author

      While I agree completely with your definition of “too clever” (Indians use it too), have you ever stopped to think that if every five words out the presidents mouth require an entire article of explanation as to what he did or did not mean.. it’s him who is doing something wrong!

      Futhermore, tradition, in essence, can be defined as holding on to rituals and culture from history regardless of present progress. And in this context, tradition is most definitly anti-intellectual.

    • Tofolux

      cont/… The attack on this President however is in overdrive. We see attacks on his tribal customs, his wives, his children, his finances, his relationships with women, the way he talks, the way he carries himself, the death of one of his wives, the divorce and relationship with his divorced wife, where he lives, etc. etc. Not only is there careful treading on his conduct in govt but clearly the battleground his attackers have chosen,is his personal life. Also,for this President there is a need to cast him in a bad light,eg exposing his nakedness,raping women in public etc. One only has to look at the type of pictures that is portrayed of him in media and here one is reminded that Manto was cast inappropriately as well. But lets look at what this campaign seeks to achieve. Becos of his popularity, it is using the politics of race and lets be brutal and say that this is the most racist campaign ever against a democratically elected President. The imagery, the innuendos, the messages, the sublimal messages are racist. One just has to read Fanons literature to reflect on what is portrayed. One also needs to note the underlying anger that is part of this campaign. We know that racists are angry and we know that their anger is about their loss of power. We know that the opposition leader cannot build any social cohesion and her autocratic manner will be destructive. Hence what we have is a clear campaign with a certain timeline. The battle is only beginning.

    • The Creator

      However you try to spin it, this was an anti-intellectual cheap shot pandering to a gang of anti-democratic, over-privileged greedheads, most of them with apartheid-era connections.

      A generalised attack on the people who examine the roots of traditional authority is both reactionary and totalitarian.

      And this you think is a good thing? On to Mangaung, comrade, and the Cigar Lounge!

    • http://Firefox Clarence

      What method do you suggest the journalists and analysts use to understand exactly what the President intends everyone should understand, that he meant.

      What method do you use when he contradicts himself constantly.
      Not even our illustrious President actually knows what he intended to pronounce as his stated opinion.

      “Him who speaks with forked tongue.”

    • Loudly South African

      Well done, TOM, but a fail nevertheless. Your efforts to “spin” Jacob 783’s words are certainly more polished than Manyi’s or Maharaj’s Macfibs, but your sophistry is nevertheless unconvincing. Zuma’s anti-white words come against a background of hating White Man’s Law (which he is currently evading) or the non-African NPA + Court system he has been undermining since coming to power. The un-black separation of party and state is also anathema to him, as is using the Western-style state security agency for the good of the country rather than a personal agenda. Neither does his banging the ethnic drum (“100% Zulu”) lend credence to your tale

      I don’t recall this Cape Town based writer mounting a spirited defence of Helen Zille when her “refugee” tweet was deliberately misconstrued.

    • Lennon

      Whatever your take on Zuma’s words, it is usually a good idea to read through any article with a sensationalist headline since I’ve found many in which the headline makes no sense or is an outright contradiction of the report.

    • Philip Cole

      ‘This appears an (unconscious?) attempt to associate being an anti-intellectual with being very passionate about African culture and traditions, as Zuma says he is. Troubling’.

      Two points:

      1. What on earth is ‘African culture and traditions’. How are the Baganda traditions of my Ugandan wife similar to that of the Xhosa (they’re not)? Culture is always rooted in a people group and their ways of living, hence Xhosa culture and traditions is a meaningful phrase. But to describe an entire continent as having a single set of culture and traditions is ludicrous.
      2. Why is this troubling? Millions of Africans across the continent are joining the middle class as Africa develops, including in South Africa. The middle class looks much the same the world over and is characterised by high-level skills, productivity and strong individual rights and personal choice. They also typically reject many traditional attitudes, such as the worship of the ancestors, as these are part of a communitarian, low-productivity culture that rejects diversity and individual rights as well as being a factor that keeps people in poverty. All this is inevitable and is to be welcomed. It’s called development.

    • Geoff Smart

      I suspect JZ is totally on track in what he said – by his interpretation of course. He is seeking a return to traditional tribal practices of an absolute autocratic king. Again of course, he sees himself as that king – Shaka move over, here comes Zuma!

    • Nhlanhla

      This article is a breath of fresh air. It is what I have been trying to explain to people, but I often fall short because I lack a lot of “better” English words, and my English articulation skills are wanting. However, put me in front of my people, then I am normal. I can get my point across, and I can hear what someone else is saying without being lost in translation. Translation from one ethnic South African language to another doesn’t have this problem that the media has.
      This whole thing started with the washing after sex story. The media and South African media consumers, to this day, still don’t understand what he meant.

    • DarkBlood Thato Hermanus

      I got bored by the rhetoric, halfway through. As was mentioned – this is intellectual gymnastics and is reminiscent of a typical ANC member who speaks a lot, but doesn’t really say anything. Let me re-write it in simple terms:

      “Zuma’s comments appear to have been misunderstood. I imagine that he was not referring to “clever” people as those who are educated and intelligent. What he was referring to were people who think they’re “too clever” and think they’re better than everyone else. I can see how this could be easily misunderstood, however, given the shocking state of education, in South Africa, under the Zuma Administration. I believe, though, we should not jump to conclusions without getting further clarity, from the man himself, by allowing him to elaborate on what he was saying.”

      There! I fixed it for you. You’re welcome. Saved everyone five, boring and repetitive minutes.

      P.S. We KNOW you’re smart. You’re don’t have to try prove it with this long-winded piece.

    • The Critical Cynic

      Here’s an article full of contradictions, possibly because you haven’t yet fully made your mind up about Mr Zuma?
      You start out by saying
      , I think we’d all do well to ask, before assuming, if we’ve understood what the other is saying. This goes doubly so in instances when we think the other person has said something preposterously outrageous….”
      why doubly so under those circumstances? It’s important always.

      but then later…
      “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of what Zuma said in this sentence ” – but surely that depends what he really means by what he’s saying?

      Ah, but not to worry because you then point out the correct interpretation (presumably because you went and asked him what he meant as opposed to going against your initial premise of assuming?) as being
      “This is what Zuma meant by “too clever” (or “kleva”). He was saying…..”

      and you even endorse your own interpretation with
      “It’s a fair comment and one I’m inclined to agree with.”

      So we don’t really know what Mr Zuma meant and if we were to ask him to explain we’d then have to ask him what he meant by his explanation, and there’s no way of knowing if we’d understand that either. The reality is that Mr Zuma is a poorly educated man who shows it at every opportunity. He, and Julias, epitomise the challanges the ‘clever;’ middle class see facing the country – ignorant and poor thinkers who will take the country painfully through their every mistake.

    • Gavin

      I’m guessing your next article will be about “compound”.

    • http://yahoo Mafele

      Is Zuma so stupid to an extent that whatever he says has to be clarified by other people? Can’t he say exactly what he wants to.

    • Paddy

      Sure TO Molefe. And Mac’s all out focus on the word “compound” instead of providing answers as to how tax money is being looted all across the government.

      Please unpack this with as much focus on detail as this rubbish?

    • Mbonisi

      Sensationalism is the way to go if print-journalism is to compete in the market place. JZ to his credit does not give a hoot to these characterisations – that has all along been the source of his staying power. Even his “dead snake” comment during his duel with Mbeki over the ANC presidency was deliberately misinterpreted and taken out context for good measure.

      Whilst I am the least bothered by white attitudes towards JZ, because its to be expected anyway, I am really worried by the number of blacks who think like them – that being African is embarrassing – this should be our concern if we are to nature a modern African identity that is not beholden to such stupid views that seem to imply that to be modern one has to act, behave, adopt certain habits or mannerisms, or ways of talking that makes us blacks, cheap imitations of the white world.

      The Japanese are modern and have evolved in their culture without being immitations of whites; the same could be said of the Koreans, Chinese, Indians and some among the Arab world. Modernity is not a white western concept – one does not have to be white or adopt white ways and mannerisms to be considered modern.

    • Skerminkel

      Despite all the negative commenting, the translation of ideas in the speaker’s second or third language is an important one in SA. However, there are just too many bases not covered in TOM’s argument, including:
      1. What are Africans? Only people with black skins? And what specific hue of black?
      2. The current regime insists on using English almost exclusively (even referring to the Oxford Dict as the basis for truth). They can therefore not complain if they are mis-translated or quoted. Had they made use of other languages, the country would be much more sensitive to possible misunderstandings.
      3. If you insist on stooping to the level of Sunday papers, at least skip the first page.

    • Maya Kali

      Thanks for the explanation. This shows the complexity mass communication has to deal with in a multicultural society. It also shows the importance of words chosen, depending the language one wishes to communicate in. This is a responsibility for all involved with bringing the message to the public. From the speaker to the publisher.

      If the original words spoken are in English, one should be able to assume the meaning of the word is depending on the English meaning of the word, otherwise it becomes a dysfunctional and dangerous doubletalk.

      If the original words are spoken in another (African) language, all effort should be made to get the correct meaning reflected in the English translation, otherwise the true message becomes lost in translation, or worse, can become skillfully manipulated.

    • bewilderbeast

      I’m afraid I think Zuma actually DOES believe western “cleverness” is bad for blacks. He likes them traditional and subservient. If it came to a choice between science and tradition, I think Zuma would go tradition every time. I wish we could have many more of out truly “clever blacks” in government. Too many of our varsity graduates have taken the money route and are leaving government in less capable (but maybe more cunning and ruthless?) hands. Pity, as one of the things we need to do is get rid of the clouding of our Constitution with “traditional law” and “religious law”. There is only ONE Constitution, but even our Chief Justice (Zuma’s Chief Justice) doesn’t concede that!

    • Carl

      I’m from the Afrikaner Boer tradition and culture and they look down on me as being “too clever”. Does that make me wrong in being whatever I want to be? Or believing whatever I want to believe? The colour of my skin and the language I speak doesn’t dictate what I have to believe and not believe.

    • Paul Barrett

      While I get the point that it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Zuma’s words were misinterpreted…

      How does one differentiate between Africans who have adopted a Western viewpoint without thought, and those who have carefully evaluated it against the African traditions and come to the conclusion that the Western viewpoint suits them better? What Zuma said certainly appears to place them all in one group, such that any criticism of African traditions can be dismissed without consideration.

      Tradition for the sake of tradition is not a valid argument. Too often arguing for tradition is a way to get people to conform, to stifle independent thought.

      This is what is most worrying about Zuma’s push for tradition. He’s not anti-intellectual in my view – he’s anti independent thought, anti questioning of the status quo. (Note: these two qualities are not necessarily consistent with being an intellectual – I find much ‘intellectual’ discussion of various forms of art is all about conformity and blindly accepting the opinions of the ‘experts’. Hence being anti these is not necessarily anti-intellectual.)

      As an aside, what constitutes “Western?” It appears to have become (or always was) a catch all phrase for “stuff I don’t like but can’t justify rejecting so I’ll label it using ‘us vs them’ terminology.”

    • Louisa

      I agree with your analysis on this subject, but I think perhaps Pres. Zuma needs to learn to express himself better. He doesn’t need to be an intellectual to do that – he simply needs to think about what he wants to say., think how it might be interpreted and then edit it accordingly. He is, after all, a president of people who speak many languages and practice diverse cultures. Surely, when he speaks English, he should take this into account? Being pro- African and respectful of traditionalists does not mean you don’t have to think about how you are expressing yourself. It can only help him.

    • toni

      This anti-Zuma crusade is sickening. Its not just an attack on the person of JZ but the very idea of being African and African independence. JZ has been isolated for the objective being to weaken not just his presidency but the ANC. There is obviously a holy alliance of the opposition (DA), white capital and the stridently anti-govt, anti-ANC media. As someone noted above, JZ doesnt give a hoot, but the damage this will do to race relations in this country in the long-term will be irreparable as this would lead to the radicalization of African politics in this country.

    • blogroid

      Given the populist democracy oriented political correct language obsessions of the past two decades, Mr Zuma’s use of superlatives in promoting matters royalist, is as oddly discordant as Ms Zille’s equally reactionary use of kolonialist associated terminology, in reference to Mr Zuma’s ‘Palace’ [much ‘nicer’ word than ‘kompound’, isn’t it?].

      What the Kleva’s [whatever they are], and many others who phone in daily to a range of talk radio shows, have to ask is simple: Are we a Democratic Republic in which all people are equal … or are we a Feudal State, in which all effort is is subject to arbitrary rent-‘kolekting’.

      If there is a core source for Afrika’s status as the world’s most underdeveloped Kontinent, it is an obsession with rent seeking and a disdain for Inclusivity; and it seems Mr Zuma was paying obeisance to its most recent re- emergence… soon to be sanctified by the succession [ceding] of a large part of the Democratic Republic into a new Feudal reinstatement. Wait for the toll gates.

      In essence the Traditional courts bill and this adulation for doomed antiquity has the outcome of extending the Swaziland model to a large chunk of the country. Swaziland is hardly an epitome of progressive development. It is certainly in hock.

      In general this ‘luv a lord s–t’ is odd behaviour for THE Party [Afrikan National Kongress], presented as [allegedly?] Democratic… but then perhaps Democracy is only for Kleva’s [whatever they are?].

    • http://yahoo Mafele

      Becareful folks, Zuma doesn’t represent African culture. He represents himself. So don’t feel offended when people question his mental sobriety.

    • Thomas

      Thank you brother, what good analysis.

      Read the City Press on Tuesday: “KZN akudlalwa pha” translated as “We are not playing”. Couldnt believe it.

      How come no one at City Press saw this blatant error. Didn’t anyone notice that KZN mysteriously disappeared in the translation.

    • johnbpatson

      What is the Zulu for “cheeky”.
      I am sure we will hear it soon from our President (who walks as an elephant on the grass) ….

    • Smiley the sAFFER

      Ultimately Mr Zuma and you TO are trying to justify something a concept that is outdated and virtually irrelevant. I think most urbanised black people do not have strong tribal views and actually aspire on some level to a Western standard of living. The proof of the pudding is where do they send their kids to school, is at at the traditional school at the feet of the induna in rural areas or is it the aspiration for model c and private schooling in “white” areas?
      @ toni – the anti zuma brigade is fully entitled to their views even if it upsets your ANC demigogue driven ideology – The man is ultimately useless on the matters that count – With 4 wives , Irvin Khozas grandchild born out of wedlock and the numerous legal and social issues he has – how can he be an effective leader of the nation of South Africa. His bedroom politics alone preclude this.
      Just to finally say that for traditions to become stronger they have to stay relevant – most South African are under age 30 and grew up essentially in a democracy without the dominant roles that cultural leaders historically used to play. so why should we fund traditional leaders if ultimately they are not representative – if you feel strongly about the Zulu nation – contribute to the Zulu royal family – why should I as a tax payer fund your cultural ideology?

    • MxolisiB

      #Smiley the SAFFER as an “urbanised Black” I do not remember appoiting you as my spokeperson and you do not know I what I think and want (typical apartheid superiority complex – I know what “these Blacks” want and I will say it on their behalf).

      Just to correct some of your misconceptions:

      1. I (because I don’t speak for Black people but for myself) did not send my kids to private schools because I “aspire on some level to a Western standard of living” as you put it. I sent them to private schools because that is the only investment (the best value-based Maritz Brothers education) I can leave them, and for them to have a better start in life (the opportunity I never had despite being “urbanised Black”) and that has got nothing to do with my traditional values and beliefs. That said, I still teach them in my own time what it means to be Black in general and Zulu in particular (they know, appreciate and practise my Zulu traditions)

      2. AmaZulu and any other Black ethnic group are taxpayers as well if they think traditional leadership is superflous and that their “tax money” should not be allocated to traditional leaders I believe they will say so. By the way how do you differentiate tax revenue – what is your and what is mine.

    • Judi

      I like your article. When I read the “Zuma vows to save blacks from cleverness” I knew it was prejudiced. Just one comment: You don’t have to put big, fancy adjectives next to every word. It spoils the reading.

    • AbnerL

      City Press picked an awkward angle to make the point but the point is: Zuma’s perception is African traditional ways are better that modernity. I don’t recognize traditional authorities. That is not because I’m too clever, because many of these traditional leader do not hold the same position in society previously held by chiefs. They’re ceremonial, honorary positions earned not on merit but lineage. They form a tier of government that is useless and does not aid service delivery at all. And that is what Zuma means by clever. Clever because I think traditional leaders should earn their position in society. That is a position South African should have a problem with.

    • Mr. Direct

      I have no problem with people embracing their heritage. I have no problem with people being slightly off the mark with their meaning when English is not their first language. I would not be as petty as to point at Mr. Zuma and laugh for these kinds of things. It is childish.


      The day you fight corruption charges by trying to suppress evidence, rather than having your day in court, and proving your innocence, is the day you loose a little credibility.

      If he really is a champion of the people, he should have distanced himself from the presidency at that time, so that the position could keep it’s integrity. Sacrifice himself for the good of all South Africans. He took a different road, and does not have my vote.

      And instead of keeping his head down, and proving the doubters wrong, Mr. Zuma has not been able to control himself, and has shown that the Presidency is a vehicle for self gain, rather than the civil service position it should be.