Chris Roper

'What fresh hell is this?'

2009-04-21 14:52

Chris Roper

What fresh hell is this? We now live in a country where only racists are allowed to say the word kaffir. So, for example, if you happen to be black, and some racist idiot calls you kaffir, you have to say, "Hey! Don't call me the k-word!"

People at the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, are you out of your tiny little minds? The BCCSA are fining radio station 5fm R10 000 for playing Arthur Mafokate's famous 1995 kwaito hit Kaffir. This is like fining American hip hop legends Niggaz With Attitude (NWA), and making them change their name to N-Words With Attitude. Ooh, that's a catchy name!

The Arthur song is a protest song (you needed them in 1995, and you still need them now), and it's an important part of the history of the struggle against apartheid.

But the BCCSA, in the person of Professor Kobus van Rooyen, said: "The word represents one of the elements of apartheid which degraded a whole nation of black people. The broadcast of the song flies in the face of the constitutional founding values of dignity and equality."

According to the Sunday Times, the BCCSA also ruled last year "that the song amounted to 'grossly offensive language' broadcast at a time when children were likely to be part of the audience".

'Educational opportunity'

So, to sum up - teaching children of South Africa that their parents fought to be able to tell racists not to insult them by calling them kaffirs, is bad for children. Let's rather let them believe that their parents fought and died so that they could have equal access to BMWs. Let's have them believe that a dompas is something the Stormers do, and that forced removals are what you do when you want to make space in your belly for more beer.

To her credit, "one of the BCCSA tribunal members, Tembeka Mdlulwa, believed the song could offer an educational opportunity for parents". But naturally, she was outvoted, because a tribunal is invariably a many-headed creature with no guts. It won't escape seasoned race fans

Am I saying that we should be able to use the word kaffir with equanimity? No. I'm saying that you shouldn't write works of art out of history, especially works that are actually pro-human rights and -equality, and actually by the people who suffered injustice and oppression.

In an odd moment of syncretism, our music team at Channel24 have recently voted Arthur's song in at number one on the list of Great South African Song Opening Lines. If you want to listen to the native song that's causing all the trouble, go here - but don't let your children click!

Of the opening lines "Baas, say 'nee', baas, don't call me a kaffir," Music editor Miles Keylock writes, "Is there a more righteous opening salvo in the entire history of recorded music?" Well, I don't know if there is or isn't, but I do know "White person formerly known as baas, say nee, White person formerly known as baas, don't call me the K-word," isn't it. That's going to go down well on kwaito dance floors.

Recolonising languages

Why not ban Brain Damage, by the late, great James Phillips' band Corporal Punishment, which features the lyrics "He's a supervisor, takes a lot of skill to be in charge of 40 kaffirs, that's responsible / he doesn't mind that he gets all the pay / Mr Arri Paulus says 'they're just baboons anyway'."

A graphic musical portrait of life under apartheid by one of the great struggle rock bands, but one that the BCCSA would probably have us write out of history. Poor James Phillips, he might as well have chosen a musical career over fighting oppression. I don't see the BCCSA stopping radio stations from playing Ag Pleez Daddy.

Personally, I wouldn't want the language of alternative music in South Africa to adopt the word kaffir in the same way that American Hip Hip culture embraced the word nigga.

There are times in history where drastic action is needed to recolonise languages, and while that time is here for us, our power balance isn't as out of kilter as America's was at the birth of Hip Hop.

Russell Simmons, the Donald Trump of Hip Hop, as our music editor defines him, called last year for the eradication of the words "bitch", "ho" and "nigger" (sic). Clearly, the Def Jam founder believes that the time has passed when black Americans need to reclaim nigga - they own it now, and are abusing it. He even made Nas change his album title from Nigga to, uh, Untitled.

Different kettle of fish

Arthur's Kaffir is a different kettle of fish though, and you'll notice that it's mostly white pots that are calling that kettle black. It appears that only white people have objected to 5fm's playing of the song.

I leave you to work out why that is. All I know is I want to be there when the BCCSA's Kobus van Rooyen tells 50 cent that, in the future, he has to refer to himself as a "bad n-word".

I'll leave you with another lyric by James Phillips, from 1993's Fun's not over:

"Just when we thought it's over, we found it's only just begun / Just when we thought it's over, we're still dying like flies underneath the sun / It's still going crazy just like it's always done.'

Chris Roper blogs on Join my Facebook group, or follow me on Twitter @ChrisRoperZA.

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