Sunday, August 2, 2009



BY Fred Khumalo
Published:Aug 02, 2009

What’s the collective noun for those obsessed with people’s ethnic origins?
Is this what we fought for? Now that we are on the plateau of victory and democracy, we are reverting to that shameful past of ethnic bias

This has been a week of action — mad mothers and fathers shamelessly trashing the Johannesburg city centre in the name of workers’ rights, deranged Muslims in Nigeria wreaking havoc in the name of Allah, people burning tyres in the name of the struggle for service delivery and so on.

In the middle of all this, what has captured my imagination is the language used to explain the insanity.

The trade unions justified their members’ crassness as a manifestation of the power of “collective bargaining”. Some analysts then pointed out that government should take “collective responsibility” for the crisis that this nation is in; and some said there was a collective sense of jubilation at the appointment of the colourful Zulu cowboy as our new police commissioner.

I love the word “collective”. It lends itself to many uses (and abuses). For example, when I was younger, we used to own a newspaper (collectively). And it was edited collectively (and an editorial collective used to take collective responsibility for some of the collective stupid mistakes that we made).

Collective nouns are by themselves entertaining , which is why I have succumbed to the temptation of reminding you of some of these colourful morsels from our pedagogy.

Who can forget a litter of pigs? A shoal of fish. A congress of baboons. A pack of dogs. A memory of elephants. A piteousness of doves. An implausibility of gnus. A culture of bacteria. A bob of seals.

I am lapsing to these collective nouns for the simple reason that someone said the striking workers were behaving like baboons. Which is interesting, because they are campaigning under the badge of the Congress of South African Trade Unions. A congress of baboons, the English language tells us.

Of course, I don’t want to spoon-feed you. I want to test you on our more contemporary collective nouns. You fill the gaps.

A convocation of... ? Well, if you live in Nigeria, it’s a convocation of professors. But in this country, it’s a convocation of tsotsis. A... of Englishmen? A flight of Englishmen. They are always on the run, of course. A... of Afrikaners? A laager of Afrikaners. Always inward looking these guys are, and defensive too.

A... of Irishmen? A pubful of Irishmen. They love beverages, these folks. An... of Scotsmen? An indecision of Scotsmen. The Scottish can’t decide if they want to flee, or fight back, or drink; an undecided lot (Sir Alex Ferguson being the exception ).

Okay, let’s get more challenging.

A... of Greeks? A corner cafe of Greeks. A... of Italians? A mafia mixed salad of Italians. A... of Indians? A bargaining council of Indians. Ah, my good friends love a good bargain.

Which reminds me of this young man, Rashad is his name. He comes back from school and hardly touches his food. His mother notices, and asks him what’s wrong. The boy says: “Mommy, am I an Indian like you, or am I a coloured like daddy?” The mother pats him on his head and says, “Boy, you are only a human being!”

Dissatisfied, the boy waits until the father gets home. And then he confronts him: “Daddy, am I a coloured like you, am I an Indian like Mommy?”

“But son,” the father coos, “Why are you asking such a serious question?”

“You see, Daddy,” Rashad says , “the neighbours are selling a bicycle for R100. Now, I am wondering if I should go back there as an Indian and bargain with them and get the bicycle for R50. Or whether I should go there as a coloured — when they are asleep I steal the bicycle from the garage.”

Which takes us to the collective noun for coloureds.

A... of coloureds? A gang of coloureds. Or, better still, a reformatory of coloureds. A... of Shangaans? A curtain-length of Shangaans. These friends of mine wear clothes as colourful as curtains. A... of Sothos? A flight of Sothos. Same as the English, these folks flee at the slightest provocation. A... of Swazis? An insult of Swazis. Swazis have the gift of the gab — and their language is crude. An... of Russians? An escort agency of Russians. Have you noticed how many Svetlanas and Tatiana’s we have at the escort agencies? (Well, I know because I read the classified ads in newspapers — for research purposes. Dali Tambo taught me those research strategies.)

To move on. A... of Xhosas? A parliament of Xhosas. Eish, these people love talking — but seldom act. Typical parliamentarians. Go to any pub where darkies drink. The guy holding court is invariably Xhosa. A... of Pondos? A kingdom of Pondos. For a long time these people were mistaken for Xhosas. But now that they have come into their own, they all claim to be kings. Every Pondo person I’ve come across lately is claiming to be a king of some long-forgotten Pondo kingdom that was emasculated by Xhosas. Eish!

A... of Zulus? Wow, now you have a variety. We can start with a hostel of Zulus. And move on to a taxi rank of Zulus. Or, better still, an impi of Zulus. Or, if you prefer, a provocation of Zulus. Or a restlessness of Zulus.

Which brings us to the more serious aspect of this column: no sooner had Bheki Cele been appointed as our new police commissioner than a worrisome, tribalistic debate hit cyberspace. On The Times’s website, some contributors complained that the man had been hired for the simple reason that he was Zulu. One noted that the security cluster in Zuma’s government was Zulu-dominated. Jeff Radebe, the minister of justice, was cited as an example. And so were Nathi Mthethwa, the minister of police and intelligence minister Siyabonga Cwele. And the commentator further pointed out that when Judge John Hlophe is appointed to the Constitutional Court, the Zulu deal will be complete.

Now, these comments are worrisome. They are worrisome because they do not come out of the blue. There is a history here. When Mbeki was in charge, there were perceptions that his administration was Xhosa-dominated.

When Mandela was president, accusations also flew around that he had appointed mainly Xhosas to his cabinet. Which was actually a lie. I remember sitting with two good friends of mine — educated chaps, sober-minded chaps when they choose to be — and going through a list of cabinet members. Faced with the list of names, they conceded that the majority of Madiba’s cabinet were not Xhosas, as they had argued. But then they changed tack, and pointed out that even though it was not Xhosa-dominated, Madiba’s cabinet had a Nguni bias. Ah, you just can’t win these ethnic fights.

The very fact that we are debating ethnicity is a disgrace. Is this what we fought for? When we were in the trenches, we spoke about nonracialism and anti-tribalism. But now that we are on the plateau of victory and democracy, we are reverting to that shameful past of ethnic bias. Do we not remember what ethnicity did in Rwanda and Burundi? Do we not cringe at the ethnic scourge as it plays itself out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ? Do we not relive with horror the ethnic wars in Nigeria — Biafra in particular?

Look, inasmuch as one should be proud of one’s heritage, one shouldn’t use that identity to suppress those of a different heritage, or use that identity to consciously and consistently challenge other people’s identity.

The struggle was about a celebration of our diverse identities, and not the usage of those identities to undermine those who differ from us. We should be ashamed of ourselves.