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‘Don’t call me a kaffir’

Recently, about five-thirty in the afternoon when everybody was stuck in traffic, 5FM exposed its listeners to the following lyrics:

Kom hier, kaffir, kom hier! Hoekom het jy nie my kar
skoongemaak nie…Bliksem! (white male).
Baas, don’t call me a kaffir (black male).
Don’t call me a kaffir (choir).

Thereafter the word “kaffir” is repeated “too many times to be counted” as one of the people that complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) stated.

We are talking here about Arthur Mafokate’s kwaito hit from the middle 80s, which was subsequently used to relaunch the SABC, and more recently, to offend white 5FM listeners, several of whom vowed never to tune in to the station again.

Several complaints later the BCC found in favour of the complainants and fined the SABC R10 000. The BCC Appeals Tribunal later confirmed that the song “amounted to the advocacy of hatred”, but that “it did not constitute incitement to cause harm and that therefore there was no contravention of the ‘hate speech’ clause of the Code”.

Yet, the BCC argued, “kaffir” is “a derogatory term with racial undertones that amounts to stereotyping”. “When negative stereotypes are perpetuated, it has the potential to further divide the South African society and songs such as this one, unnecessarily evoke deep-lying emotions reminiscent of apartheid”.

The word “kaffir” therefore had no place in the modern South Africa “where political correctness (you read correctly) and sensitivity needs to be practised”. Such “grossly offensive language” could particularly not be used in “watershed periods when children are likely to be part of the audience”. Certain words remained “taboo” regardless of the context in which they are used.

The fact that the negative response to the song came mostly from a “certain group” was picked up by “DJ Fresh”, the offending talkshow host, who argued that: “The only people who complained were white people, which suggest to me that it was more white guilt than anything else.” (Sunday Times 19/4)

In my opinion the concept of “white guilt” has become a convenient little label with which to dismiss “white” opinions without engaging with the substance thereof. Nonetheless, in this instance the case of “Don’t call me a kaffir” I think the BCC has completely lost the plot.

Koos Kombuis, well-known Afrikaans writer and singer, makes blatant use of the word “Hotnot” in one of his songs. Should this well-known critic of apartheid now also be censured? Imagine trying to force African-Americans to stop calling one another “nigger”.

Contrary to the BCC tribunal’s assertion, the context is not only important — it is definitive. “Don’t call me kaffir” could, among others, be viewed in context as a resistance song and a reaction to racism — a song that resonated with the actual experience of large sections of our society.

I myself have seen white Afrikaans-speaking males (WAMs) treat people in the manner described, along with a cuff against the back of the head or worse. Now, in a democratic society, we want to go and censor that experience?

One cannot make words such as “kaffir” or “Hotnot”, which is still in daily use in some quarters and still appears in a range of older books, “taboo” — not even for children. Much rather, such words and the implications of using them should be discussed openly.

Could “Don’t call me kaffir” not have been of “educational value” as one of the four members of the BCC tribunal suggested? And while one is at it, why not add words like “Boer, uMlungu, meid, coolie, amaKula, charra, moffie” and the host of others to the discussion list — all these names that we call one another.

This reasoning was echoed by the SABC’s defence which argued that the:
“Intention behind playing the song was to unlock debate and determine whether there had been a change in attitudes 14 years down the line after the song was first aired. This educational nature of the broadcast was evidenced (…) also by all the callers following the broadcast of the song.”

However, the great irony here is that the song was blacklisted for stereotyping blacks, when in fact it was doing so to WAMs. I remember cringing the first time that I heard “Don’t call me kaffir” and instinctively found myself wondering about the cumulative emotional impact of such a negative portrayal of WAMs on young black people.

I therefore think that the BCC tribunal was right when it found that the song “promoted hatred” (not towards blacks, but towards whites). Yet, as prejudiced as the song might be — it still falls perfectly within the ambit of freedom of speech and in my mind blacklisting it is an infringement of that right.

What is the problem then?

What should have been censured was the SABC’s handling of the song — and that is the crux of the matter. The SABC’s argument about wanting to “unlock debate” was contradicted by complainants who felt that there had in fact not been any open discussion; that the white woman that called in was simply jeered off the air.

If one wanted to air songs like this, particularly on the public broadcaster, then one has to contextualise it in a way that makes even-handed discussion thereof possible. Otherwise it is not “open debate” — but simply the propagation of hatred.

But then, we know that the SABC of Thabo Mbeki, Christine Qunta and Snuki Zikalala, is as eager to promote free and open debate about race and politics as was die SAUK of Die Groot Krokodil (former president PW Botha). Sympathetic portrayals of WAMs on the SABC are about as scarce as were critiques of apartheid by Cliff Saunders on die SAUK.

Not that “free” channels like Soweto TV fare much better, it seems. Some time ago there was a talk show about the “role of whites” in South Africa, or something along those lines. The only white on the panel of four was a certain “Udo”, a German-Namibian ANC enthusiast whom I have met on occasion.

Talking about “white” critique of the ANC, this worthy explained (something along the following lines) that “we whites always want to undermine black leaders like uMama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela” and “destroy their credibility”.

“The reason we do this is so that we can…” and I forget the rest, but it made Cecil John Rhodes look like a naughty school boy.

These were general statements pertaining to all “we whites”, as if one were dealing with a kind of racial conspiracy, or some or other gene that inevitably makes all “we whites” behave in this despicable manner.

“Hey! Hang on!” I thought, but worse was to come.

Continued Udo: “We whites will never belong here. We’ll always be guests in this country. That’s what I tell my children.”

A woman called in to congratulate him: “This is the first time I’ve ever come across such an honest white person,” she said, Udo’s beaming face in the background.

Come on folks! Where are we going with this!