Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Kill the Shangaan: the limits of national embarrassment

“Kill the Shangaan! Kill the Shangaan!” the mobs in Ramaphosa informal settlement near Reiger Park chanted as they marched through the streets in search of more victims.

Reading it sent a disconcerting prickling sensation down my spine. I searched through the first chapter of my first book on South African insults and found this passage:

“Stereotypes in South Africa are a matter of life and death.”

“To call a non-Shangaan a Shangaan is considered a grave insult, because Shangaans are viewed as country bumpkins, if not actually subhuman. A substandard type of wors in the townships is known as Shangaan wors. Pedi people have bad body odour. Xhosas are ambitious, cunning and tend to look out for each other, hence the Xhosa Nostra theory, also known as the iLuminati. Zulus are dumb but strong and brave — most security guards are Zulu — and rely too much on Indians. Sothos are lazy; probe far enough into the family history of most criminals and you’ll find a Sotho. And you won’t get far in Durban if you’re a Pondo.”

Then I quoted Fred Khumalo, who once wrote: “In any society that is strong on stratifying people according to race, those at the bottom layer tend to be vicious with each other.”

Vicious being the operative word.

In The Art of the South African Insult I was trying both to understand national identity by exploring through the prism of invective, and at the same time, I was hoping to narrow the dongas that divide us. Shore up the sides, prevent further erosion by demonstrating that, in South Africa, everyone is horrible to everyone else, and, perversely, that may ultimately unite us through common experience and shared recognition. National embarrassment, as the American anthropologist Michael Herzfeld described it in his exploration of a concept he calls “cultural intimacy”.

But what happens when the insults are completely irrational and seek, not to acknowledge shared experience, by mark out who gets to live and who dies? When they are perpetrated by people who are in essence little different from the targets of their animosity? The so-called Shangaans in Ramaphosa (ironically, named after a Venda politician) are no more foreign than the feral gangs hunting them down. Here, insults and threats are inserted into the cracks between groups, working away at hidden resentments, deepening the divides into chasms.

Maintaining that critical distance, the ability to be light and witty and wry when tackling awkward subject matter (something that Ndumiso Ngcobo does so brilliantly) becomes difficult when we are confronted by a picture of a burning man in a street.

National embarrassment indeed. It’s a national disgrace.