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Slurs, slander and slang: The red overalls’ racist insults need to be called out for what they are


Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and author of ‘Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid’.

Once again at SONA 2020, one of the red overalls kept referring to Pravin Gordhan by his middle name, Jamnadas, similar to ‘jananda’, a slang word for ‘Indian’. Among the gangsters and prison numbers, it is a deliberate racial insult, one rung lower than the ‘c’ word.

What’s in a name? To the EFF, clearly a lot. Once again at SONA 2020, one of the red overalls kept referring to Pravin Gordhan by his middle name, Jamnadas, while the rest of the gang, on cue, burst out laughing. Mondli Makhanya, City Press Editor, tells us that:

“The EFF wants us to believe that its attacks on Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan are based on principle and political difference. Yet everything in the party’s language and behaviour reeks of racial antipathy and suspicion of Indian South Africans. The latest iteration of this, which the EFF seems to find funny, is its reference to Gordhan as Jamnadas. Although this is his second name, it doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to work out that the EFF is playing with the term “jananda”, a slang word for “Indian”. So each time an EFF parliamentarian says “Honourable Jamnadas”, they are really snottily calling him “Honourable Indian’.” (City Press, 2/12/2109).

Not just slang, but in among the gangsters and prison numbers, it is a deliberate racial insult, one rung lower than the “c” word.

Remember Obama telling us that when he was canvassing for votes, people could not come to terms with his surname?

“Where’d you get that funny name, Barack Obama? Because people just couldn’t pronounce it. They’d call me “Yo Mama”. And I’d have to explain that I got the name from my father, who was from Kenya.”

And let’s remember the right-wing political capital that was made of his middle name, Hussein. Do the EFF leaders know that their revolutionary hero Frantz Fanon’s middle name was Omar?

And Cassius Marcellus Clay? At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Clay was proud of his name, telling journalists, “Don’t you think it’s a beautiful name? Makes you think of the Colosseum and those Roman gladiators.” But then the reality hit him when he returned home: “With my gold medal actually hanging around my neck I couldn’t get a cheeseburger served to me in a downtown Louisville restaurant.” 

As Mike Marqusee points out: “In changing his name, Ali was demonstrating what he meant when he said: ‘I don’t have to be what you want me to be.’ For the first time, here was a black American sports hero who would not allow himself to be defined according to racist categories. He was seizing back his persona. Johnson and Louis (Floyd Uncle Tom) Patterson and Liston had been endowed with their public identities by the white press; Clay was going to create his own identity and shove it down their throats. Before his fight with Patterson, Ali waxed;

I am going to put him flat on his back,
So that he will start acting Black,
Because when he was champ he didn’t do as he should,
he tried to force his way into an all-white neighbourhood. 

Ali was referring to Patterson being forced out of a white neighbourhood, despite attempts to ingratiate himself to white Americans. Fifty-five years later, another Floyd would try to cosy up to the Stellenbosch mafia. Only to be swatted aside with a right hook. And this is the nagging doubt about radical politics these days: how much is principle and how much hustling for a slice?

My mother and father’s full names are Mary Theresa Hannah Rowley and Gulabbhai Paragi Desai. I take my father’s name, going by the name of Ashwin Gulabbhai Desai. My father told me that Gulab means Rose. Whenever I teasingly insisted my mother call me Rose, she would respond that where there are roses there are thorns. And my, what a thorn she was. Pricking and poking. Neighbours, the parish priest, family, me, no one was spared. 

Hark back to the story of Paul. God embedded a thorn in Paul’s flesh because he had become “conceited, puffed up, haughty, exalted beyond measure”. One could easily write these words of the EFF. Remember that God put the thorn in the flesh in order to keep Paul humble.

And how beautiful to know that in joining my mother and father’s names, I am Rosemary.

When the Indian indentured arrived at Port Natal, they were given numbers. Later, when they found work in the city, they were referred to as Coolie Mary or Sammy, a play on Ramsamy, by the colonial bosses. When they did address Indians, the white overlords delighted in making fun of names unpronounceable to tongues trained on John, Ben and James. The “stranger” the name, the easier it is to mark these brown people as alien, a veritable Asiatic menace. 

Now, the EFF, for all their rhetoric of decolonisation, mock an Indian name. Would they have done the same if Gordhan’s middle name was Tom? Among the definitions of the Hebrew word shibboleth means a “peculiarity of pronunciation, mode of dress that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons”. As Judges (12:4-6) reveals, its origins lay with the Gileadites. They used the word as a way of identifying the enemy tribe, the Ephraimites, as they tried to flee across the Jordan River. The Ephraimites could not pronounce the sound “sh”. This play on pronunciation was used during the rounds of xenophobic violence and now by the EFF.  

Godrich Ahmed Gardee, watch out, you will slide further and further away from favour as time bigots by.

The EFF, of course, does not idly yell Jamnadas. They shout it into a well of racial chauvinism growing in the lower middle class. It’s an eclectic constituency of clawing male youth, frustrated clerks, ambitious tenderpreneurs, desperate graduates, political adventurists and a small but vocal suckling of racial nationalists bravely manufacturing outrage on Twitter.

You can say what you like about so-called progressives from “minority” communities, but their path to activism forced them to confront and reject the ugly parts of their own culture and communities. And there are many resentful, bitter, envious and downright racist Indians, coloureds and whites. People who make fun of other races pick up on signs of Otherness, glory in dog-whistle stereotypes and fantasise about racial revenge.

Africans are the dominant victims of apartheid. That is a socio-political fact. But I sometimes wonder whether that cloak has prevented a thoroughgoing, honest (self)-evaluation of the ugly parts of an emerging black social and political culture. Brave black journalists and academics have done so, but black politicians do not seem terribly aghast. It will come to haunt us all, because when wannabe Idi Amins verbally target people based on their race or storm podiums in Parliament where they stand – unpredictable and uniformly negative outcomes beckon.

We need to confront this tribalistic behaviour before it takes root and becomes a thorn in our flesh.

Next time Malema or Floyd call Pravin Jamnadas, we must understand it for what it is – “Coolie” – and deal with the slur accordingly. After all, the past tense of rose is risen, as Ocean Vuong reminds us in his beautiful On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. DM


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