The 21-st century pencil test

As attacks on foreigners intensified and spread across Johannesburg, mobs began pulling people out of shopping queues and forcing them to take “tests” to establish their nationality.

In a practice that recalls the humiliating “tests” used by apartheid officials to classify coloureds as white or black, reports came in that South African mobs were using similar techniques to identify foreigners.

A language test is first, where one is asked to label certain body parts in isiZulu. Certain words in the Zulu language are no longer used on a daily basis.

For example, people generally speak of their fingers as iminwe rather than ucikicane, the more formal word for the pinky finger. South Africans are still familiar with these more archaic words, however, foreigners would probably not know them.

While speaking to displaced victims of the violence in Alexandra, one of our reporters was warned by a woman to find out what an elbow is called in isiZulu, or he might find himself under attack if stopped by the mob and unable to give the correct answer.


Angeline Motowanyika, a Zimbabwean woman who used to live in Jeppestown, was not so fortunate.

“They took my money and my passport and asked me what is the name of this [elbow] in Zulu and I did not know and they started attacking me”.

The formal Zulu word for elbow, indololwane, has also become extinct; most people now refer only to arms and hands. Another test is to ask people to give the Zulu name for toes — inzonzwane.

An isiZulu pronunciation test is also being used to target foreigners: people were ordered to “say Coke”. Foreigners apparently tend to pronounce the soft drink “Cok”.

And if this doesn’t clear things up, you might be ordered to say “short left”, a phrase used by people when they want to get off a taxi — foreigners apparently say “shorty left”.

For almost 30 years during apartheid, officials used a pencil test to classify some coloured people as black and others as white.

Race classification was dependent on whether the pencil slid out of your hair (that made you white) or got stuck (which made you officially black).

This and other tests caused thousands of families to be torn apart when paler or darker-skinned relatives, or those with curlier hair, or different features, were placed in separate categories and were therefore forced to live apart.

Fourteen years into our democracy, it appears that some South Africans are using similar degrading methods to oppress and violate fellow Africans.

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