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From one lekula to another: Get over it

Poor Julius Malema. It’s one thing to insult farmers, Botswana and even Helen Zille. But he didn’t know what hit him when he took on the Indians.

You don’t want to mess with Indians. We didn’t get this far after stumbling off a boat 150 years ago by accident. We’re not just amazing at bargaining, as Jimmy Manyi has pointed out. We’re pretty good at defending ourselves.

But I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve gone too far. Even though the ANC Youth League has offered an apology, members of the South African Minority Rights Equality Movement laid charges of crimen injuria with police yesterday, following an incident where the leader referred to Indians as “makula”. There has also been a DA-led march about the incident.

A few high-profile South African Indian leaders have been dismayed at his statement. Not just the usual parochial types either, like Minority Front leader Amichand Rajbansi. Mahatma Gandhi’s very own granddaughter, the gentle and elderly ANC stalwart Ela — a firm devotee of non-racialism — expressed great sadness at the incident. I don’t blame her: Reports said Malema had, in typical firebrand fashion, referred to Indians using an immensely offensive word: coolie.

The gist of what he was saying to protesting township residents, on the outskirts of a predominantly Indian suburb, was translated in the media as: “Your children must be allowed to go to school with coolie children.”

But here’s the thing: that translation may well be disingenuous.

Malema was speaking in his native Pedi dialect. Like a few other local tongues “makula” (or its singular, “lekula”), while clearly sharing a connection with the offensive English word “coolie”, does not carry the same tone or attitude towards Indians.

As far as I can tell from conversations with colleagues and friends, not speaking the language myself, it was a word that was absorbed into the various languages with a very functional purpose: to refer to Indians. It does not necessarily insult or denigrate them as its English version does, nor is it comparable to the equivalent for black South Africans, the abominable “K-word”.

Now I have had many issues with Malema’s statements in the past — and not just the highly publicised slurs that have landed him before various authorities.

But in this instance I’m not convinced he is being treated fairly.

Of course the national project of non-racialism has been under threat for some time now, which is no doubt a serious issue. Malema’s so-called racial slur was exacerbated by the fact that at the same time the highly-qualified Indian candidate for the position of judge president in KwaZulu-Natal, Judge Chiman Patel, faced the ludicrous charge that he would unfairly favour other Indians, during an interview for the post. The two incidents sparked fears of growing anti-Indian sentiment.

But criticising a respected judge unfairly about his race is not quite the same thing as using a term you have learned in your mother tongue with no harmful intention, as Malema probably did.

Now I may be getting that slightly wrong. It’s hard to tell with language. There are probably many instances when the word has been used with great malice. But largely it seems to be a term that has come into common use to refer to a certain people group. And here’s the thing, I’m more inclined to give this explanation the benefit of the doubt. Because something tells me that that’s the way we rise above the erosion of the non-racialism values we once prized as a country: By being less petty, and a lot bigger.

If the term is starting to grate a little lets talk about it. I doubt the majority of people who use it in what seems to be a mostly harmless way would mind finding an alternative name, just as the English lexicon has had to make similar adjustments as certain terms became increasingly sensitive with time.

Critics of the incident have called on President Jacob Zuma, whose closest confidantes and ministers are Indian, to take a stand. But they forget that Malema himself has Indians in his camp — Magdalene Moonsamy, for example, who has been put in the unenviable position of defending her boss’s supposed slur of her own people.

The petite youth league spokesperson is an anomaly when it comes to race in the league. But when she opens her mouth she can talk revolution and militant politics along with the best of them.

And while she had something of a minor role when Floyd Shivambu was communications head honcho, she has found herself at the forefront, recently, with Shivambu embroiled in a party disciplinary hearing.

Knowing this, I couldn’t wait to hear Moonsamy’s reaction when the incident happened. Expecting political double-speak, I was pleasantly surprised when I read her response in the Sunday Tribune.

Her explanation confirmed my own misgivings about the reaction to the situation:

    “The domestic worker is still known as ‘the girl’ and the gardener is ‘the boy’. Unacceptable as it is, it remains a consequence of — a system that forced us to live apart and entrenched tendencies that are wrong without us knowing it.

    “The word makula is as bad as ‘the girl’ or ‘the boy’. We all don’t think it’s wrong, but this must be attributed to our omnipresent past. The president of the ANCYL has apologised for having used such a word. He used it in the vernacular, because the architects of apartheid taught us that is how we refer to each other.

    “It is our collective responsibility to defeat the ghosts of the apartheid past and embrace an earnest apology, reminding ourselves every day of the unintended wrongs we may commit.”

It was a humble and thoughtful response that didn’t get the kudos it deserved.

It reminds me of a saying that went around the Indian neighbourhood where I grew up: ‘n boer maak a plan, maar a coolie maak a beter een.

It was a play on the Afrikaans saying: an Afrikaner makes a plan, with the rejoinder — but an Indian makes a better one.

And in the strong tradition of discriminated groups everywhere, we owned the incredibly derogatory term “coolie” in this instance and made it our own.

I think we can do one better this time. We can try having a little more grace for each other. Like Patel said, when he went on to emerge successful from the ugly racially-loaded interview to become the country’s first Indian judge president last month: “I don’t bear any grudges. I would prefer not to say anything. My duty as a leader of this division is to build team spirit and move forward.”

Impressive. From one lekula to another, that is how you do it.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every week here, and follow her on Twitter here.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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