Friday, February 22, 2008

Let's All Get Dekaffirnated

Pieter Dirk Uys coined this term - it was the title of one of his shows at the Tricycle Theatre in London (click here if you don't believe me) in circa 1999. It was an excellent show of course, Uys made some excellent points on the subject... and you know Uys' wit was still ringing in my head when I went to work Monday morning (this was at Canary Wharf, London's Sandton City).

So I'd been emailing this South African who was working in the building - a sort've business email led to "Oh, you're also a South African". But after about 6 weeks of her cancelling lunch dates at the last moment I started to get gatvol. Jeepers. I am a South African working in the same building as you. I'm new, you're not, let's gesels, and hey, it might be a nice way to experience lunch far from home every once in a while. Because her excuses were so pathetic and because I was about to finish my contract, I started to realise she was totally taking the piss. I had been sincere, and I got the feeling she was stringing me along intentionally for the entertainment of her colleagues (maybe she wasn't, but it sure felt like she was).

So towards the end of my tenure, and my tenure I think was ending in part because my VISA was finally approaching the 2x365 days limit, I sent her an email, and I couldn't resist putting these words in the subject field:
My meaning was pretty clear. Sort out your KAK attitude towards other people. She was a white girl - need I say - and she wasted no time circulating this email (which I'd sent on my last day) to everyone in London. I had to make apologies to, let's see, her, my boss, the recruitment agency, John Major, Harry Potter and a small dog that was running around the office who happened to look up at the computer screen. (Okay, I'm exaggerating slightly, it was just a puppy).

It was an interesting scenario though. It shows just to what extent the is ABSOLUTELY verboten, even beyond these shores. But let me ask you though, seriously, if you're black person, and especially a South African black person and you hear a white South African person say to another white South African person: "Hey, get dekaffirnated for God's sake," isn't this one of the best possible things one white South African can say to another white South African? Hmm? Exactly! Get Dekaffirnated!

I've travelled through Germany and if you want to hear a pin drop, whisper any of these words in a bus, subway train or on the trading floor of the Franfurt DAX:
Nazi, Hitler, Second World War, Auchwitz, Holocaust.
In Ireland, whisper the word 'Roman Catholic' or 'Protestant' to a classroom of kids, and you'll get a chilly silence. Then duck, and get ready to pack your bags if you want to see tomorrow.

Ironically, a lot of people in other countries - I've found - who like South Africans, think it's cool to break the ice by making jokes where the K word is sprinkled liberally. In Korea a Kiwi (who was half white, half Maori, and three quarters a nutter) would dedicate 90% of total talking time to making racist remarks. I told him quite a few times: "Dude. The lesson we learnt in South Africa is that racism is fucked up. So your racist jokes aren't hitting any target market here. Get it? Got it?" He must have been addicted, he couldn't stop, and he was the only one laughing. Yet he married a Philippino woman (there was some arrangement to send some money to her family every month) and he took huge offence if anyone made some sort of disparaging remark about her. Koo koo.

Where am I going with this? Well, when people get emotional - and let's face it, sometimes a single ugly word can trigger a lot of eina - it's easy to lose focus. When I said to that white women 'Get Dekaffirnated' I was actually referring to my own private mental construct. Granted, if you didn't know Pieter was performing in London (or what his show was about), maybe you'd be allowed a little extra leverage in terms of eyebrow raising. Even so, I think I'm entitled to a little leverage too, well, not leverage, just an opportunity to explain what I meant.
I meant: Sort out your shit. You've behaved like a shit, stop doing that.

Instead she used all the dirt that is associated with the K-word and flung the mud at me. There was so much mud at least I knew my message had gotten through to her, which is sometimes the real reason we outsource our English. The risk when using trigger rich language is that the failure to listen may be enhanced even more. The lesson then is the same as it always was: rather stick to ordinary english. Chances are everyone will understand you better.

Postscript: I met with PD Uys the following year. We asked him to be our spokesmen for an Akrikaans condom campaign (Afrikaners is Plesierig) and during our meeting I related this story to him to obvious amusement.

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