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.


  • TO Molefe is a Cape Town-based freelance writer and editor. He is the author of Black Anger and White Obliviousness, a Mampoer short on how race matters in public dialogue in post-apartheid South Africa when black anger, white obliviousness and politics are at play. He is currently writing a narrative non-fiction book themed around race and reconciliation in South Africa. It should be out towards the end of 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @tomolefe


TO Molefe

TO Molefe is a Cape Town-based freelance writer and editor. He is the author of Black Anger and White Obliviousness, a Mampoer...

Leave a comment