Thinking of Malema on the Day of Reconciliation

2011-12-23 11:06

Humorous introspection on the part of a publicly demeaned group is the most apt response to the language of hurt

Not too long ago, Julius Malema said: “Bana ba lena ba tshwanetše ba dumelelwe gore ba tsene sekolo le bana ba makula.”

He made this statement to a crowd of people at Tembelihle, a predominantly African community in the environs of Lenasia, a predominantly Indian community.

Reportedly, Malema sought to persuade the crowd to join him in a planned march to the JSE, part of his drive for ­“economic freedom in our time”.

Two English translations of his ­Sepedi statement are part of the controversy around it.

“Your children,” goes the first translation “must be ­allowed to go to school with coolie [Indian] children.”

The second goes: “Your children must be allowed to go to school with Indian children.” With only a slight difference, the two ­versions tell a huge story.

Characteristically, Malema’s statement evoked immediate outrage. The most organised form of this outrage took the form of litigation.

The South African Minority Rights Equality Group laid charges of ­crimen injuria at the Mountain Rise Police Station in Pietermaritzburg, hundreds of kilometres from the scene of crime.

The litigation responds to the ­resonances of the first translation, in which “makula” is understood to be an indigenous ­language derivative of “coolies”, a word commonly accepted as ­derogatory.

Uncharacteristically – but increasingly a feature of our evolving democracy – the second response, while recognising the legitimacy of the outrage, chose the route of posing questions and the prospect of new knowledge that might result from answers.

It responds to the resonances of the second translation in which “makula” is understood to be a descriptive reference to “Indians”.

So now we know: “makula” can mean “coolies” or “Indians”, depending on the informing context.

But the expression “depending on” should not imply a casual attribution of context, which then either allows or disallows usage.

Something far more complex is at play. It is about the history of human intentions in the use of language; about languages coming together; about the interactions of human attitudes, perceptions and perspectives and their rejection or acceptance by interacting groups; about the maintenance, contraction or expansion of awareness; about the lessons of experience and the human willingness to accept or reject such lessons.

It is about ­human beings living through the ­passage of time.Bluster and over-confidence, honed into an effective political tool, is the story of Malema.

Through it he masks his ignorance or innocence, posturing knowledge and experience. We are all partly a product of such bluster. Divided societies ­communicate through their postures.

Humility is dangerous. It could be read as vulnerability, and posture as strength. Indignant, even righteous activism by groups to perceived ­insult can be read against our history of posture.

It masks group insecurity through assertions of conviction and declarations of hurt and anger that wait for the next trigger.The cause is predictable: the known past, often invoked as slogan.

But there are pasts that are not as well known, and not easily turned into slogan.

These pasts are often pried open by crises in which some participants are willing to take a second look, ­instead of replaying old songs.

Malema apologised and made possible, the prying open of unknown pasts.

So, I put the proposition that ­reconciliation in a nascent democracy must partly rest on the learned ­expectation that our unplanned ­exposure to one another will be a marked feature of our lives, and we will witness our inherited sensibilities constantly being challenged by new experiences.

Such a realisation calls on us to acquire a disposition ­towards hesitance, thoughtfulness and a rigorous approach as traits ­constitutive of new personal and ­social habits.

That is why I am more interested in the second version of the translation: “makula” meaning “Indians”, but not necessarily “coolies”.

This approach strikes me as opening more avenues for fresh understanding. F

or a start, I like the serious fun with which Verashni Pillay in her Mail & Guardian piece enters the fray: “Poor Julius Malema” she writes.

“It’s one thing to insult farmers, Botswana and even Helen Zille. But he didn’t know what hit him when he took on the Indians.

“You don’t want to mess with ­Indians. We didn’t get this far after stumbling off a boat 150 years ago by accident. We’re not just amazing at bargaining, as Jimmy Manyi has pointed out. We’re pretty good at defending ourselves.” This brazen statement comes after the piece’s headline: “From one makula to another: get over it”.

It should really have been “lekula”. But let’s move on.

Pillay conveys here a dignity and self-confidence that comes from an ability to name and signal ironic distance all at once.

This way, she stays above the controversy by engaging it on her terms, inviting readers to enter the house in which everyone will simultaneously recognise the ironies she reveals.

The triggering controversy is not put aside, but there is a process of engaging with it.

First it is recognised; its actual magnitude is estimated, assessed; it is then appropriately diminished as a decisive threat to personal and group dignity.

Her investigations led her to conclude that this word “lekula” “was ­absorbed into the various languages with a very functional purpose: to ­refer to Indians.

It does not necessarily insult or denigrate them as its English version does, nor is it comparable to the equivalent for black South Africans, the abominable ­“k-word”.

This conclusion does not mean the issue is settled. It merely demonstrates a methodology. But the case of Magdalene Moonsamy, ANC Youth League spokesperson, is even more instructive.

She was called upon to answer questions on this issue on ­behalf of her organisation and its leader. Her response is a remarkable act of subtle professional distance.

“The domestic worker is still known as ‘the girl’ and the gardener is ‘the boy’. Unacceptable as it is, it remains a consequence of a system that forced us to live apart and entrenched tendencies that are wrong without us knowing it.”

I would dare to add, though, that some of us know, but are often helpless against habit. She continues: “The word makula is as bad as ‘the girl’ or ‘the boy’.

We don’t all think it’s wrong, but this must be attributed to our omnipresent past. The president of the youth league has apologised for having used such a word. He used it in the vernacular, because the architects of apartheid taught us that is how we ­refer to each other.”

Moonsamy concludes: “It is our collective responsibility to defeat the ghosts of the apartheid past and ­embrace an earnest apology, reminding ourselves every day of the unintended wrongs we may commit.

“A humble and thoughtful ­response,” Pillay concludes.

I agree. Let’s remember that Malema ­reportedly meant no offence, and ­declared he would not ever use the word again. This allows Ashin Singh, the chairperson of the rights equality group, to say that charges against Malema, were a mere formality.

“We aren’t looking for an apology. We don’t want him to go down on his knees, but he must sit with us ... so we can ­educate him about minority rights.” An interesting response: tactical but in the right direction toward ­lowering the public temperature. Though I would add education would be even better if it went both ways.

Indeed, Pillay’s approach is ­eminently educative, as she proceeds to unde

rstand the sources of Malema’s faux pas.

Her findings locate these in the languages we inherited. Social hurts embedded in language may be expressed by individuals in a variety of circumstances, unaware that they are purveyors of hurts socially validated by the collective ownership of a shared language.

At the point of this insight, responsibility for corrective action becomes a ­collective social ­responsibility.

It should not be assumed that this understanding necessarily leads to unacceptable conduct being condoned.

But it does extend the prospect of understanding the sources and nature of human intention at play in the circumstances before us. Such knowledge then can mitigate without necessarily absolving.

The shift from one mindset to another requires an unending process of education.

How many misperceptions may be universally shared? How many of us participate in their propagation, knowingly or unknowingly?

Think of the friendly, liberal, and highly educated English speaker who, after I have just given my name, Njabulo, during introductions, blissfully says: “not bad.

I think I can ­handle that” – in the 21st century. There are still many rivers to cross.But then, consider that a great many of us carry such dark spots inside of us, and we show them off from time to time, mostly unknowingly.

This should lead to a humbling ­self-knowledge, one highly likely to be one of the most universal, ­unacknowledged sources of unity in the consciousness of all South ­Africans, regardless of ancestry. In this kind of understanding may be the springs of more organic processes of reconciliation.

It could go like this: we must be able to recognise the sources of potential hurt when we see them; register the outrage internally; smother the urge for instant reaction; run through the database of past experience; consider possible options of reaction; and then select an option.

All this may seem artificial, until we recall that we internalised the ­insensitivities and brutalities of ­colonialism and a formally racist ­society over time, until they became part of our reflex behaviour.

Perhaps the greatest lesson from the example of Pillay, Moonsamy, and Singh in the different ways and positions from which they speak or write, is that social learning is most powerful if it results from introspection from within the group that is publicly demeaned.

Such introspection allows the group to be self-critical without being self-flagellant; to laugh at itself, without demeaning itself; placing itself in that fine balance between transcendence and banality, yet clearly opting for the former.

It lowers the public temperature by significantly shifting the burden of self-reflection and anxiety to the “perpetrator” group, which now has the choice to be affected by this gesture, to its growth, or to ignore it, to its stagnation.

New moral power will belong to those who do not spring to reflex self-defence and self-justification.

Critical introspection will help them pry out new knowledge, redefine old notions, and clear the air for new relationships.

Relationships between people are never defined or redefined instantly. They evolve from a constant effort of experience, education, and calibration.

So, to the diverse adherents of faiths represented here, predominantly Christian, Jewish, and Muslim: when last were you instinctively defensive?

When last did you cringe from the reality of the picture of yourselves that came out of you looking at you?

When last did you indulge in self-righteous seriousness, claiming the truth to yourselves, instead of bursting out in a good laugh at who you saw you were?

Maybe if all of us laughed at ourselves, there would be no one out there to laugh at.

» This is an edited version of a speech ­delivered at Cape Town Hebrew Congregation (Gardens Shul) on December 16. 

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