Monday, February 23, 2009



By Fred Khumalo
Feb 22, 2009

The feisty French are not scared to join a good fight because they, like the enemy, know the revolution does not have a sell-by date

I’ve been in France for a month and have lost count of all the strikes they’ve had

If there is any commonality between South African masses and their French counterparts, it is simply that they love a good fight.

The French routed the ruling classes and gave the world their revolution in 1789, and we South Africans humiliated the Brits and gave the world the battle of Isandlwana in 1879.

The French gave the world the guillotine, and we delivered the necklace.

Okay, now, let’s not get carried away — those were extremes. But you get the drift; both our nations are fighters.

In South Africa we get whipped into a frenzy of toyi- toying at the slightest provocation. Somebody proposes a name change for some obscure street in Bapetikosweti, and we toyi-toyi either for or against it.

Peter Marais crosses the floor and we toyi-toyi — even before we know which party this serial floor-crosser is going to join this time .

I’ve been here in France for just over a month and have lost count of the strikes that they’ve had. Every other day there is a strike at the harbour across the road from where I’m staying.

I think the French, if they had their way, would toyi-toyi in front of God’s gate for the terrible weather.

They love striking.

Nationally, there has been quite a serious strike to protest against the right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy and how it has handled the economy.

I felt a glow of joy when I saw them burning tyres in the streets. It felt like home. I wanted to join them.

But I couldn’t. My hands were full: a baguette in one hand and a glass of Bordeaux red in the other.

I was taught as a kid that it is bad table manners to dance while you are eating. So all I could do, between mouthfuls, was to shout encouragement: “Viva la revolution, comrades!”

Anyway, to get to the serious part of this: I went to address a group of students at the University of Nantes the other day. It made me proud that they were doing a degree course in what they call South African civilisation, which covers our politics, literature, film and so forth.

How humbling.

One of the movies they had seen as part of the course was Hijack Stories, and they kept asking me if this gritty movie was based on the truth.

I wished I could tell them it wasn’t.

Anyway, my address almost didn’t take place as there was — you’ve guessed it — a strike at the university. A serious one.

It involved both teachers and students and related to the government’s funding of education.

The government wanted to shirk its responsibility of funding the universities, according to the people who tried to simplify the complicated picture for me.

But the government was not coming outright and telling the institutions and their people what its intentions were .

No, the government, like all good governments in the good civilised world that gave us the credit crunch, was using polite-speak, spin-speak, to say: No, we are not cutting funds, we are merely giving you universities autonomy.

Autonomy, my foot.

Thankfully, a lot of these people, students and teachers alike, were not dumb.

Rumour had it that the strategy was to privatise, for lack of a better word, the universities. You appoint somebody good at keeping a balance sheet. It doesn’t matter if he is a former CEO of a rivet-making company, as long as he is good with figures — no pedagogical inclinations necessary. Just run the blerrie university as a business operation.

In France, tertiary education had been very cheap, almost free, thus far.

With the new Sarkozy plan, this might change, and everyone was fighting.

“Even those right-wing people at Paris universities have joined the strike,” one of my informants told me, expressing incredulity at the power of the strike.

How I wished we could have fought the same fight to keep university education affordable in South Africa .

Maybe it’s too late now. But, hey, the revolution does not have a sell-by date.

Having addressed my group of students, I was on the train back to my apartment when I had a light-bulb moment. Einstein, here I come.

Seeing that I had thus far failed to impress the French — I can’t speak their language, I can’t withstand their cold weather — I thought I should come up with something to bowl them over, seeing as I was about to leave their shores.

I thought that at the next demonstration or strike, I should teach them and lead them in the singing of Umshini Wam so they could see my revolutionary credentials.

And not only would I sing Umshini Wam, for crying out loud, I would translate the blerrie thing into French and teach them the melody!

As soon as I arrived at the apartment, I got my pen and paper ready, hauled out my English-French dictionary and started humming in Zulu.

I wondered, for the first time, how Steve Hofmeyr would sing Umshini in Afrikaans. Ah, the United Nations in song!

So I started writing the new, fresh-as-French-polony version: “Ma mitraillete, ma mitraillete; passé-moi ma mitraillete; ma mitraillete ...

It looked good on paper, Grammy award-winning stuff, I thought. Until I opened my mouth to sing it.

The French ‘r’ is pretty harsh on that funny pink lump of meat at the back of my throat. Every time I say my name in full in the French manner, I feel sore in the throat.

So, by the time I had practised my French Umshini Wam a few times, I realised how raw my throat felt.

A glass of Bordeaux red was in order. And some rest.

The revolution could wait. It has no sell-by date.