Township blacks will not say the precise moment when it hit them, but it was a good few days after township “klever” Irvin Khoza allegedly made a booboo by calling a black journalist a “kaffir”.

Slow thinkers that they are, they have now started noticing that the wise guys who protest too much about Khoza’s use of the words are neither called “kaffir” themselves nor black.

Maybe Jody Kollapen and Alex Boraine are correct to see this as a human rights issue. Or maybe they have no business to speak up on behalf of blacks without first consulting them. Or it’s that the use of the K-word is something that most whites still need to discuss with their psychiatrists. I am not sure.

But the more I follow this furore, the more I realise that blacks have no problem with calling each other “kaffir” — or “nigger”, for that matter. They understand what the words mean in a black context.

And let the record show that I mean no disrespect to self-appointed spokespersons for black people. In between these “outsiders” to the black township cultural milieu deciding what is good for the people, blacks are concerned that they are not consulted for their opinion on the matter.

In fact, many that I have spoken to say whites and other non-blacks are exquisitely and monumentally delusional, of course, to think that even in a free democracy other people must speak for blacks. It is their fundamental belief that nobody has the right to speak on behalf of blacks, including some blacks.

I am doing the honourable thing as a mere messenger of what some blacks think and say. It is important to say, without hurting anybody, that many blacks in the townships do not mind if Irvin calls another black a kaffir.

In fact, kaffirs do exist! The biggest sin will always be: Who says it?

Anyway, let’s politicise Khoza’s use of the K-word. It is an interesting political crisis that is, unintentionally, poised to deprogramme black people from a deep-seated inferiority complex and self-hate inculcated by centuries of colonialism and apartheid.

The time may be right for a society that has been undergoing transition for the past 13 years to appreciate new methods of defining the meaning of words and understanding their use in blunt, intense and provocative public speech.

The K-word is now having its theatrical outplay after being kept out of our political-correctness-charged times ever since self-styled kwaito king Arthur Mafokate released his album Don’t Call Me Kaffir in the early 1990s.

The use of the K-word has been taboo for whites. But, now, it seems that the ban has been extended to include blacks for whom its pejorative and derogatory meaning was intended.

Khoza’s right to freedom of self-expression and speech has effectively been suppressed as a result of white guilt following the negative meaning and connotation that they have always attached to the word.

But now that he has brought it out of the closet, pseudo-liberal forces both within the white community and their black imitators have forced him to apologise and hush up any use of the word lest it raise the spectre of the apartheid past that haunts us.

Perhaps we should ask the Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb) to step into this matter to provide thought-leadership and clear the air about how blacks and whites understand and use certain words that are part of our apartheid cultural baggage.

It is important for us to understand that languages, especially words, are the primary carriers of culture, which is an ever-changing, dynamic and progressive development towards nation building and redefinition of identity and heritage.

Khoza has been subjected to psychological harassment that has an unintended consequence of bringing apartheid ghosts tumbling from the closet and denying blacks the right to appropriate word meaning. In fact, his use of the word has not necessarily harmed the image and integrity of black people. It is for this reason that he has no business to apologise.

Instead, the brouhaha that has been stirred does not come from black people themselves. Largely, the blacks have been indifferent with the whites doing the protestation on their behalf, as usual.

This is a disturbing and unfortunate development.

But the panic and hysteria that has been caused in the white social and cultural circles is a sad farce of good intentions.

The conclusion that should be drawn on this matter is that it is a combination of white guilt and political correctness.

Both positions grow out of white intentions to denigrate and dehumanise black humanity who now want to impose their holier-than-thou political position on their former victims.

It would be advisable for those who purport to speak on behalf of black people to consult. Perhaps they may learn that Khoza is not at fault. Yes, it would be insightful to hear the views of blacks themselves.

In fact, Khoza has been correct to assert that the word has a totally different meaning in a township cultural context.

As things stand now, things have gotten controversial simply because non-black interference stigmatise “kaffir” as something that is taboo and should never be used in public discourse.

But this is exactly what will prevent us from shedding our apartheid baggage and contribute to suppression of freedom of expression and speech.

The open secret about Khoza’s use of the word, especially among blacks intuitively connected to township culture, is that despite its negative connotation in white minds, his serious intention was to question the integrity of a journalist who peddles prejudice and stereotypes about Africa’s prospect of hosting a successful World Cup.

What got to him was a perception that the media are hell-bent on perpetuating the view that 2010 is destined to fail simply because it is managed by blacks (sic).

Now, anyone who holds such view in the 21st century characterised by the African renaissance deserves to be called a kaffir because he or she perpetuates outdate racist stereotypes and prejudice.

This is part of our self-redefinition and expanding the meaning of words to fit into a new socio-cultural vocabulary that will help ultimately to break with white guilt, political correctness and a deep-seated inferiority complex.

Well, Khoza’s faux pas may not yet be appreciated, now. But we need to keep an open mind and listen to what he had in his own mind.

After all, the meaning of a word is not in the word itself, but in people’s heads.

Unlike the rose, the K-word does not smell the same to black and white.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

Leave a comment