Marooned on baboon logic

I remember hanging around in my white American friend Paul’s house in Lusaka when we were about 12 years old and listening to a well-worn vinyl that had Bill Cosby or somebody’s voice bubbling out of it in a live recording from a stand-up show he was doing somewhere in the US of A.

One scene springs to mind. It was the one where he was giving a take off of an inner city classroom and the frustrations of a white teacher trying to keep her multi-coloured charges under control and focused on what was supposed to be their learning, under her rapidly disintegrating guidance.

Forget the lesson.
The real action was the chaotic interplay between the pupils in the back rows, or the front rows for that matter. What they thought about each other was of far more interest to themselves than the teacher’s rote strangulations about Abraham Lincoln, the Boston Tea Party, George Washington and the hidden meanings in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s instructive references out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Inner city kids, black and white, spic, wop and Chicano, were more concerned about chicks in the playground and how they could tear each other’s throats out in the various gang wars that tumbled into the walled compounds of the precinct schoolyards from out of the tough streets they lived in.

So when the teacher was totally out of control, she would have to adopt the same guerrilla language of her charges.

‘Who threw that spit ball at the back of my head?” asked the teacher.

‘Not me,” came the barrage of predictable responses.

‘Oh, yes, it was one of you. Tell me who it was.”

And the back of the class would close down in a new-found solidarity of denials.

‘Okay,” the teacher would come back, ‘the person who threw that spit ball must have a really stupid mother.”

And, on cue, the biggest, stupidest boy in the back row of the class would lumber threateningly to his feet and say: ‘No one calls my mother ‘stupid’.” On the strength of which he was definitively busted.

One is reminded of this when one reads the responses to Professor Malegapuru Makgoba’s contention that some (and only some, please note) of his white countrymen of the male persuasion have a problem with adjusting to the uncomfortable realities of the new South Africa.

I don’t remember when there was such a storm in the letters pages of this august newspaper. Previously seemingly sane white males have stood up on their hind legs and denied that they were in any way the kind of racist, narrow-minded, knee-jerk baboons that they said Makgoba was accusing them of being. And make no mistake, he did use the word ‘baboons”. And that is what caused all the rumpus.

He had not said that all white males are baboons (although perhaps he should have, so that everyone would have been clearer about what he was getting at), but merely that a minority among them acted like baboons. Or, as he clarified with repeatedly obscure scientific jargon, bonobos.

Nevertheless, impressive numbers of white South African males sprang to the defence of the endangered species that might be referred to as the white baboon. (And indeed, a few white baboonesses sprang to counter-defence by stating that it was not only a question of the white baboon, but that the double oppression of the white babooness in the emerging environment of the newly empowered black baboon was the real issue — although nobody quite used that kind of language.)

Me, myself, personally, I like the sound of this bonobos thing, rather than standing around at institutes of higher learning and calling people of other races baboons. ‘Bonobos” sounds more African to the ear, in the first place. So let’s call it a problem of the ‘bonobos” versus the ‘non-bonobos,” so that we are all kicking around on the same, level playing field.

Now, the atmosphere on the streets (and let me assure you that I am one non-bonobo who keeps a tight ear to the ground, if that is not too much of a mixed metaphor) is that vast numbers of white male bonobos (and a considerable number of female white bonobos, too) feel strongly that Makgoba is deeply out of line for calling all white people in this country baboons. Especially since our new Constitution gives everyone the right to be whatever kind of baboon he or she wants to be. (Look around you. You’ll know what I mean.)

The said Makgoba, this white street thinking goes, should be severely chastised personally by Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki and sent back to Zimbabwe where he belongs, along with the rest of his ilk, and leave South Africa to its new-found Africans of undisclosed colour, who revel proudly and unconditionally in their new-found African stripes, like a zebra.

But I say again: even the clumsiest reading of Makgoba’s (admittedly rather clumsy) argument will tell you that he was merely railing against a minority tendency within a minority (that is: white) constituency.

Why this backlash then? The answer can only be found in that Bill Cosby metaphor of the inner city classroom: ‘Nobody calls my mother ‘stupid’”. Which makes you stand out in a really stupid light when you question it with the rest of the classroom watching you.

‘Don’t you go calling me a baboon,” comes the clamouring chorus. Which, of course, the good professor never did.

Nor a ‘bonobo” neither.

So where does that leave you?

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