Word power

Aids. Crime. Culture — race, rights, tradition — transformation.
Trauma. Truth and reconciliation — (and particularly in the past few months) xenophobia. We hear these words all the time.

Some of us may have opinions on them. Or we may just wish they’d go away. Perhaps if we move, or pretend to move, in the circles of the great and the good—or (if we are perhaps politicians) the low and devious—we may actually use them. We may even know what they mean.

In a world constructed by language (or so sayeth many a postmodern theorist), words are power and keywords or concepts encapsulate the political, cultural and economic realities. Words mystify and obfuscate as much as they clarify and elucidate. (For those who reach for their dictionaries: see, I have made my point!) More than ever today, knowledge is power—the power to succeed, to influence or to control. And in many ways the mastery of the keywords, the words that express questions of power, economy and culture, is the “key” to power, particularly in what we today call the “knowledge society”.

Inspired by a book published in South Africa 20 years ago, Emile Boonzaaier and John Sharp’s South African Keywords: The Uses and Abuses of Political Concepts, the editors of the present volume have collected essays on political concepts that are common parlance, but I suspect frequently misused or misunderstood, in contemporary South Africa.

The task is difficult, to say the least. Here’s a challenge: quickly pick one of the words in the first paragraph and say out loud the word you first associate with it. Do it in a group (with drinks if it helps!). I’m sure you’ll get a range of associations. My point (apart from promoting social drinking) will be clear: each keyword is loaded with rival meanings; meanings that have histories and context as diverse as South Africa itself. Pity, then, the poor scholars who have tried to sum up these keywords in essays of a few thousand words each.

Reading this book is a bit like playing the word association challenge. As one progresses through any essay, a comment or observation or illustration of the point sparks off a range of personal associations in the reader. These could be connected to who s/he is, where one lives, where one stands on a range of political and economic questions, one’s past and present experience and one’s future expectations.

Imagine one is a business­person economically indisposed by the recent power cuts. Reading the piece on social and economic transformation (by Thieven Reddy), while understanding its origins in various political traditions of the ANC and perhaps acknowledging its long-term social importance, do you think: “OK, fine, but I wish they’d get the bloody power sorted out!” As you, a granny in a township, read Jonny Steinberg’s closing paragraph, that crime “is something of a repository for disappointment and for anger”, do you think “A fine sociological analysis” or “But those tsotsis are out to steal my pension each month!”?

Or, if you are a young woman student from a rural area feeling harassed by urban male “culture”, will you not, on reading Helen Moffett’s essay on gender, associate her analysis with your own experience of harassment? (And perhaps echo the saying “All men are bastards!”)

The point is not to belittle the fine essays of Reddy, Moffett and Steinberg; far from it. What I suggest is that they—and the other authors—hopefully generate powerful responses from readers, who are not just passive scholars, but participants in the reality that these keywords point to.

While clarification and contextualisation of these terms is an important and valuable contribution to scholarship, for which the authors are to be universally applauded, the deeper contribution of this book will, I suspect, provided it gets the wide readership and coverage it eminently deserves, be to jolt readers into grappling with terms that reflect the dramatic changes that have swept, and continue to sweep, through post-apartheid South Africa.

I am sure we can all benefit from parts of this book. How many whites, for example, know anything about Indigenous Knowledge systems? How many blacks, too, are aware of the complexities of post-colonial identity as reflected in much African literature?

When I reviewed this book’s illustrious predecessor 20 years ago (I was a young reviewer, he insists defensively), I was struck by how well it summed up the keywords of its era. It is still an excellent reference work, even now that apartheid is no more. It also, I recall, represented the best of a certain kind of “engaged” scholarship—struggle scholarship if you will—that seemed to call the reader to take sides. While many, indeed most, of the keywords in its fine successor are new, the sense of engagement remains.

This is not only to be welcomed. It calls us to new engagement in a new reality.

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