A Xhosa101 lesson for Helen Zille

Mphuthumi Ntabeni says the DA needs to do some critical self-reflection

We ought to see far enough into a hypocrite to see even his sincerity - The Crimes of England: Gilbert Keith Chesterton

There's no question that the leader of the DA and current Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, is politically eying the Eastern Cape and Gauteng as the focus of the DA's expansion strategy. The failings of the Eastern Cape education system has seen her go into overdrive, seeking to use it as a weapon of propaganda against the ANC. Nothing really wrong with that since politics are about using your opponent's weaknesses to your advantage?

We are all used to politicians manipulating facts and putting "spin" on issues to ensure they best favour themselves. But, personally, I thought we had left condescending tones and blatantly ugly language towards black South Africans behind. A notion the Premier, through her actions, apparently does not share. 

Take her latest Twitter verbal diarrheal for instance. Nobody can argue with the fact that the Western Cape provincial government has a better educational system than the Eastern Cape. The Eastern Cape's Education system has collapsed almost on all levels. Early last year we saw the ending of the essential School Feeding Programme. Now the actual teaching side is in disarray. So we all agree, education in the Eastern Cape is not doing the children of the Eastern Cape any favours and heads need to roll and turnaround strategies employed. 

Problem is, none of us are focusing on the solution, thanks to the manner in which Zille frames her argument. The children of the Eastern Cape are getting a raw deal. Their progressive constitutional right to a good basic education is being hindered through no fault of their own. Zille might have sympathy for them, but it is not apparent from her depiction of those of them whose parents' have transferred them from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape to study as education as ‘refugees.'

Refugees are persons displaced from their country through political or social upheaval, who fear violence or persecution if they remain at home. The parents of these children are simply exercising their section 21(3) Constitutional Right that "every citizen has the right to ...reside anywhere in the Republic." And making an intelligent choice about what is good for their future. 

Not surprisingly, the topic followed the DA leader to the House Sitting in the WCPP (Western Cape Provincial Parliament) on 22 March 2012. After her comments had endured a sustained attack by opposition members she heckled loudly in anger: "Uthetha ububhanxa." The Xhosa speaker and Western Cape Leader of Cope , honourable Ncedana, immediately interjected by objecting to the premier's use of an expression, which is tantamount to someone saying "you are talking shit".

He asked the Xhosa speaking Speaker, honourable Majola, to call her to order. The Speaker asked her to confirm if she had actually said what was being alleged, and she replied; "Yes! And I was taught it means ‘you're talking nonsense'."

Bizarrely, the Speaker was all for re-defining the meaning of "Uthetha ububhanxa" when honourable Ncedana, raised a Point of Order and said; "You know that it does not mean that, and is in fact rude." Suddenly, becoming fluent in his mother tongue once again, the Speaker took the point and asked the Premier to withdraw her statement unconditionally. The Premier withdrew it and replaced it with a milder expression of; "Uthetha infungumfungu." The proceedings of the house continued.

However, it was clear that the Premier had not internalised any of what the opposition MPLs had said, because the following day while the Premier's Vote was being discussed she replied to yet another Cope MPL who called her "rude" for the "ithetha ububhanxa" comment. She said the Xhosa members of the House were playing double standards in their outcry against her, and again insisted that children who came to the Western Cape from Eastern Cape for learning were refugees.

Confusingly, the justification for her petulance was that opposition members made no fuss when the Premier of Gauteng called those who went from the Eastern Cape to Gauteng mines "migrant workers". Why the opposition members were supposed to be angry with the Premier of Gauteng for using an established sociological term of describing people who habitually move from one area of their country to another for employment as migrants beats me.

The Premier went on to say it is contradiction for Xhosa speaking people to call themselves amaGoduka while at the same time referring to themselves as permanent residents of the Western Cape. She said until those contradictions are resolved the members had no right to criticise her. "The ANC can't have it both ways," she said before reiterating that ububhanxa meant nonsense and had withdrawn it only because she respects the rules of the House! 

Most Xhosa members of the house were again outraged. Not only had the Premier insulted them, she was now telling them they were being fickle by taking offence at the insult. Eventually the Premier disingenuously claimed that her only failing was not being so nuanced in Xhosa, which begs the question why then was she bothering to argue that she was correct, and the mother tongue speakers were wrong. 

It was left to Cope's Ncedana again to give the Premier a ‘Xhosa101 guide' to history of the word amaGoduka. In the bad old days, migrant workers in large cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Kimberley, and Port Elizabeth had to carry a Work Pass, usually valid for six months.

Every time the permit expired they had to return to their district or regional towns to renew them. The security forces, which were mostly white, would say, when they caught them with an expired permit; "Goduka wena!" ["You must go home!"] This is where the expression amaGoduka comes from. In a literal sense it means ‘those who go home,' but colloquially refer to migrant workers.

However, as language is a living thing that adapts with societal changes, modern day usage of the term has come to be a means whereby people from rural areas differentiate themselves from City Slickers. Rural South Africans everywhere like to refer to themselves as amaGoduka to show that identify with rural life.

The Premier must appreciate and start to take full cognizance of the fact that people from the Eastern Cape have migrated to other areas since time in memorial as an intelligent, informed choice for a better standard of living, not because they are refugees. The fact that they are settled in the Eastern Cape area is actually due to their migratory tendencies.The present day Eastern Cape happened to be the most suited area for the Nguni (Xhosa) lifestyle, after they tried many others.

Ngunis arrived from the northern parts of Africa, some via the Drakensberg mountains, whilst others travelled through the Namib desert via the Western Cape to settle in the Eastern Cape. The colonists and the Apartheid laws did little to dampen this spirit, with Xhosas migrating to the Transvaal and the Cape Colony, particularly after disasters, such as Nongqawuse.

Indeed, South Africa's second largest township, Mdantsane near East London, was created from the forced removals of Xhosa people in various places like the Western Cape (Ndabeni, Simonstown, Kensington, District Six and so forth). The only Africans who survived deportation to the Eastern Cape were those with work permits, who were eventually dumped kwaLanga.

The notion that the Eastern Cape is suddenly fleeing to the Western Cape for a share of the DA's perfectly run Province is classic DA propagandist fallacy. Historically, everyone who had no interest in working in the mines from the Eastern Cape preferred to go to Cape Town, especially if they had historical links. This is the case with my own family, for example. I am a fourth generation Eastern Cape Xhosa of those who have lived and worked in Cape Town.

I do not fault the Premier for her lack of nuance with Xhosa words and expressions. She is like any other non-mother tongue speaker. Where I fault the Premier, and fault her loudly, is in her handling of being corrected. She simply lacks the humility to realise that you cannot compel the vernacular users of a language to adopt your false meaning. It comes from the occidental notion that you can and must always correct the ignorant Africans, even about their own culture and language.

As a Xhosa speaking person I regard the expression "uthetha ububhanxa" as offensive. I might tolerate hearing it from my friends or brethren if I knew they were messing around and delivering it in a jocular manner, but I would be deeply offended if a stranger said it to me, let alone a political opponent.

The DA may be trying to attract black people to their ranks. However whenever the Premier makes her gaffes she is able to unite opposition MPLs, especially black ones. If the DA is serious about attracting black people they need to do some serious critical self-reflection. In fact, all of us, in our quest for proper self-consciousness, because of our history that's still very much contested, we need to engage in robust debate among ourselves, but we also need to do so in civil dialogue, and not through public mugging of each other.

Mphuthumi Ntabeni is research manager of COPE in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament

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