Sipho Hlongwane
Sipho Hlongwane

We’re still coping

“South Africans are masters of craziness and natural geniuses when it comes to insults.” Chris Roper

And how. We learnt from some of the best in the world, after all. More South African Insults is the laudable effort by Sarah Britten to capture and make some sense of the craziness that is South African existence (yes, you don’t live in South Africa. You exist).

This is the third of a series of works on South African insults, hence More insults, and I deeply regret the fact that I have not read the other two books that precede this one. This I blame on this country’s woeful and shameless book retailers. I have quite a bitter and involved history with places like Exclusive Books, where the only books they seem to have in any amount are Dan Brown novels and Harry Potter. In fact, the only books that I’d wanted to read that I found without trouble were Volume 1 and 2 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. This was despite the fact that the till was manned (womanned?) by a very bored goth. But that’s a blog post for another day.

There is much here to warm the heart and to remind that, if you’re willing to drop the mantle of self-seriousness that seems to come so naturally to us, South Africa is indeed a very strange and funny place. Who can forget, for example, the call by Local Government Minister Richard Baloyi, for citizens to check whether they were recorded as dead or not on the government’s database? “We really call upon citizens to confirm your alive status.” Or this choice comment on this very website on the matter of road rage and its supposed perpetrators, “There is nothing stylish about about a BMW. It’s for people who are new money and don’t know any better, who are overcompensating for small bits or who can’t afford a proper luxury car like a Bentley. Even a Mercedes reeks of class where a BMW reeks of Brylcreem and bling.” People might be forgiven for thinking you’d lost your mind, cackling to yourself when reading More South African Insults. It’s page-turningly funny. I dare anyone to read the first couple of pages then stop there. I double dare you!

The pages crackle with choice quotes from some of the wittiest commentators in the country, including Chris Roper, David Kau, Andrew Donaldson, Chris McEvoy, Llewellyn Kriel, Ndumiso Ngcobo, Ben Trovato, a generous helping of random South Africanisms from the long suffering public, as well as Julius Malema.

Ah, Julius. You cannot possibly write on South African insults and not give generous portion to Julius Malema, who has at various stages been described “obdurately gormless”, a “contumelious nincompoop” and “the jelly tsotsi”. Like it or not, he occupies an enormous space in South Africa’s psyche, and his infamous outbursts are seared in our minds. Sarah Britten devotes ample space to the controversial figure, and to the varied and colourful reactions that Julius has goaded out of various people. Some of the most eloquent insults in the book are aimed at him. Despite occupying the thickest chapter, you get the sense that we can’t be rid of the guy quick enough. “This Droolius oke must voetsek,” as Sarah would say.

A number of subjects are dealt with, ranging from crime to religion (why, oh why, was this book finished before the Joost debacle?) Rather curiously, Zimbabwe is mentioned as well. I realise that Mad Bob Mugabe and his tumultuous country loom gigantically on the northern border, and that much our national dialogue centres on Zimbabwe. After all, its largely thanks to the ANC government that the Zanu-PF is still in power, and many South Africans believe this country is going Zimbabwe’s way, but I still can’t help feeling it’s odd to devote so much attention to Mugabe in a book about rude South Africanisms.

Sarah Britten has a nimble sense of humour and an engaging style of writing. Conversational almost, yet you never lose sight of her sharp wit. You want to have her around for a braai and a bit of chit-chat, yet at the same time, you’re terrified you might end up in one of her books.

As any one of us might tell you, certain things in South Africa are no joke and I suspect she’ll get her share of abuse for daring to jest about stuff like crime. This book surely isn’t for people like that. For those of us who are sick of the 1 000 page arms deal exposés, the self-ingratiating biographies that every politician, businessman and his mum are releasing these days, this is the side of South Africa that we’re so desperate to see, a lighter side which refuses to take itself too seriously, a side which remains eternally optimistic, a side which still copes. Amidst all the despair, Sarah Britten has shone a humorous light into South African existence and by that she remains one of South Africa’s ablest social commentators.