Can black Africans be racist towards one another?
South Africa has had several false starts in answering this question.
But we now stand at the door of the opportunity to answer it once and for all.
Two opportunities are at hand.
First, in weeks the Randburg Magistrates’ Court will rule on this question in the matter pitting two long-time friends and business associates – former Robben Islander Peter-Paul Ngwenya and Investec chief executive officer Fani Titi – against each other; and second, the discussion of the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill.
To recap: Titi opened a case of crimen injuria against Ngwenya for allegedly calling Titi a “QwaQwa kaffir”.
Ngwenya, who is accusing Titi of swindling him of more than R50 million in a civil claim, is defending himself. Ngwenya believes the criminal case is a diversion from the commercial dispute which has yet to be heard.
More than a decade ago Orlando Pirates’ owner Irvin Khoza accused a journalist of behaving like a kaffir. Khoza was forced to apologise, ensuring that the matter died without full discussion.
But this didn’t stop leading media minds from debating the issue.
Two inputs stand out. First, by Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya and second by Sandile Memela.
Writing in the Mail & Guardian (M&G) in 2008, Moya said: “The term kaffir is a word imposed on black people by racist whites. When Khoza accuses other blacks of ‘behaving like kaffirs’, he is thus accusing them of acting in keeping with standards set by white racists.”
Around the same time, Memela concluded in a piece in the M&G that, “unlike the rose, the K-word does not smell the same to black and white”.
Although the Khoza debacle was not fully ventilated, the context in which his unguarded outburst was made, is significant.
We were on the brink of hosting the soccer world cup in 2010 and there were doubts about whether an African country, run by blacks, could pull off such a feat.
For Khoza it was unthinkable that the question which was laden with Afro-pessimism should have been posed by a black journalist.
Put differently, how could a black journalist participate in self-hate and further fuel Afro-pessimism?
These are significant considerations. Who defines us? Is it us, as black Africans or whites, our former colonial oppressors?
A simple example would be for a black domestic worker to call their black employer by the k-word following a heated verbal exchange.
This would probably lead to the dismissal of the domestic worker and him being sued for using the K-word against the employer who was also black.
Part of our resistance to apartheid repression was about culture, language and symbols.
For example, while whites meant to denigrate and dehumanise us through such terms as kaffirs, we added love and affection and turned the term on its head.
When used by an African to another African, depending on context and circumstances, it couKld mean what we choose it to mean.
As African-Americans have done for years, they took a derogatory term, the n-word, and attached an affectionate feeling to it.
This act of cultural subversion was part of the movement to undermine white supremacy.
In South Africa, too, blacks have gone on to do similar appropriations. Gorgeous Afro hair, for example, is often referred to as kaffir hare.
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White supremacists sought to use their language – Afrikaans – to subjugate black Africans.
Instead, blacks took their language and created a beautiful South African language, tsotsi taal.
By appropriating the oppressor’s language, Africans subverted the oppressor’s mission. Of course, later, this would also be used against the very same oppressors.
In Khoza’s case, for example, it was used to scold a young journalist not to succumb to self-hate as intended by white supremacists.
It would seem to me that Ngwenya sought to do the same and to call out what he saw as petty-mindedness by his accuser.
At the core of what the Randburg Magistrates’ Court must decide is motive, context, the nuances and subtleties of the meaning of words among blacks; meanings of texts and subtexts as understood by blacks among themselves, as opposed to by outsiders (including whites who don’t live among blacks).
The other challenge we face is that in our noble quest to root out apartheid colonialism and racism, we don’t succumb to the perils of political correctness by saying that black Africans can be racist towards one another.
Finally, my humble submission is that blacks – rich or poor – cannot be racist towards one another.
. Wadula is a former editor, a public relations practitioner and founder of Wadula Investment Group