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Mlungus, ubuntu and abantu

‘Mhla kwahamba abelungu kulelizwe, amakhafula ayothi ‘Basi’ lapha kithi” (when all the whites are gone from this country, kaffirs will say ‘Baas’ to us — the Mkhizes). I was about eight when I first heard one of my uncles make this bold declaration. UBab’ Omdala uMlamuli is now almost 90 years old and over the past 23 years, he has repeatedly assured me that his prophecy will indeed come true.

So it was with a slight sense of apprehension that I read Khaba Mkhize’s response to Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya’s April 28 column. In “So what exactly is mlungu,” (May 5) Mkhize suggests that the term mlungu derives from lunga, Nguni for goodness. He cites Beyers Naudé and Bishop John Colenso as examples of white men who deserve the mlungu label.

Consequently, his piece can be read as an attempt to entrench ubulungu (mlunguness) in our country — clearly a fatal blow to my uncle’s prophecy.

Ominously, there are already numerous instances where one encounters blacks “endearingly” calling fellow blacks mlungus. My late brother, who was a car mechanic, is a case in point. He consistently referred to anyone who drove a car as uMlungu Wami (my mlungu). This could be cited as evidence that he saw mlungu as a provider of employment and, by extension, livelihood — the goodness uBab’ uKhaba talks about. However, I would argue that Bhekubuhle actually meant the label to be a gentle dig at the exploitative relationship he enjoyed with his customers.

Overall, the term mlungu is actually a negative one that captures the inhumanity of the colonial oppressor. To get a sense of this alternative meaning, one needs to listen to Hapo Zamani. Miriam Makeba’s rendering of this tune contains the line “nindibona ndingenakhaya nje, kungenxa yabelumbi” (Abelumbi are the reason I am homeless). The word abelumbi/umlumbi is understood by Ngunis to be the basis for the term abelungu/umlungu.

The ultimate proof that Bab’ uKhaba’s interpretation is but a fanciful fantasy of a staunch proponent of Mandela’s one-sided brand of reconciliation is found in the Nguni people’s insistence on drawing a distinction between abelungu and abantu (people). If Ngunis regarded whites to be endowed with inherent righteous qualities, then why do they not accord them automatic membership of the abantu family?

Oom Bey and Bishop Colenso epitomised the fundamental principles of ubuntu. The challenge for uBab’ uKhaba is to encourage more mlungus to embrace the spirit of ubuntu so that once again, at long last, they can become abantu.

Sadly, his task will not be an easy one because unfortunately, colonialism succeeded in significantly swelling the numbers of mlungus by recruiting a lot of bantus into their ranks. It is these Johnnies-come-lately (coconuts some prefer to call them) that are likely to mount the fiercest defence of ubulungu.

As for Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya’s almost perfect piece, I do not even want to comment on his boast that his son, Ntsika, is an Orlando Pirates supporter.

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