“Boy”. It’s not often that I recoil from a printed word but this leaps off the page with such force that I am physically jolted. A few hours later I put the same page in front of a friend and see exactly the same reaction.
The offending sheet of paper is a copy of a house plan dating back to 1970. And the word ‘Boy’ so starkly printed upon it, describes accommodation provided for a gardener.
I raise this the next time I see my architect and he shrugs. It’s typical of plans back then. Sometimes the room would be labelled ‘Girl’, sometimes ‘Servant’s Quarters’ and of course I know this to be true. In fact, he tells me that he still occasionally comes across even older plans where the outbuildings are marked ‘Native Boy or Native Girl.’ Just recording that here is a challenge for me. The plans of our own recently-built house have rooms labelled Guest Suite/Staff Accommodation and I find this acceptable.
I would have been about 14 when these old plans were drawn and looking back, my family might well have referred to our venerable elderly gardener as our ‘Garden Boy’. I know that we called all our staff by their first names (Anglicised, of course) although we did sometimes refer to Alec, the gardener as Madala, meaning old man. I think this was more respectful and no doubt, he preferred it.
In my daily life, encountering people from diverse African backgrounds, I am sometimes called ‘Mama’. This is fine with me and I prefer it to Goga which means ‘grandmother’, or perhaps more bluntly, ‘old woman’… I’m not sure, but I don’t remember my mother or grandmother being called anything but ‘Madam’ or ‘Missus’ while white men of those generations were only ever referred to as ‘Master.’
I am perhaps overly sensitive to semantics at the moment given the seemingly bottomless depths to which we have again descended in this country in terms of racism. A war of words has broken out and suddenly we’re all tiptoeing around each other again.
It’s a pity, since while it might seem to some South Africans that we haven’t made enough progress in our 22 years of democracy, just my reaction to the word ‘Boy’ says otherwise.
That is not to say everyone feels the same. I have had several white workmen in my home over the past 6 months who have apologised for dust and other messy aftermaths while glibly suggesting that I ‘just ask my Girl’ to clean up after they’ve left. Each time someone says it, I catch my breath. I don’t have ‘a girl’. I have a dignified woman who helps out in my home a few times a week. Nor do I have a “Boy”. I have an enthusiastic young man who works wonders in my garden.
Who are these people still talking about Boys and Girls and where do they think they’re living? We don’t speak like that anymore and I can’t help feeling that better word choices could lead to better attitudes. The words we use say an awful lot about us and our state of mind.
I’ve become quite preoccupied with this subject. I remember about 10 years ago, taking a tray of cool drinks and cakes out to the team of young guys working in my garden. Even this has a very African background story. Our own gardener, who in the end worked for us for over 30 years and who lived on our property, had become very ill and mowing the lawn had become almost impossible for him. And so we had taken on a “garden service” company. Once a week a group of about 6 young Zimbabweans came to mow and generally tidy up our garden, leaving the easier work for Joseph. It was a particularly hot day and as I carried out the tray of drinks, I called “Hey Boys, here is some coke for you”. As the word “Boys” left my mouth, I felt myself freeze and as I turned back to the house, I found my son, in his early twenties at the time and home from university, looking at me in absolute horror. “Mom, you can’t say that!” I knew that, of course, but the thing was that I often – and still do – addressed him and his group of friends as “Boy” or “Boys”. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world and this group of young guys were hardly out of their teens.
Maybe it was the way in which I’d said it or maybe it was because I was giving the unexpected treat of coke and cake, but the offending word seemed to fly right over their heads. They came, beaming their appreciation, from all four corners of the garden and the moment passed. I remember though, feeling that it had been a close shave and I have no doubt that if in our current political climate, I were to address a group of young black South Africans in that way, no matter what the tone or context, I would be in trouble.
But thinking about it, as I’ve been doing, I can’t help feeling that not using the term ‘Boys’ when addressing a group of black youngsters is a kind of distorted racism in itself. I could still use it when speaking to a group of white boys and I would be perfectly comfortable using it when speaking to a mixed race group of boys. The fact that I will never ever let my guard down enough to use it to address a group of only black boys, has to imply that I am aware of and that I consider their race before I speak. Surely that’s not right either?
Out for lunch a few days ago with a friend of my daughter’s, my heightened sensitivity to semantics kicked in again. This exceptional young woman and her husband, in their early thirties, have 3 adopted black teenage sons. During lunch, Anna’s cell phone rang. She picked it up and to my great satisfaction said ‘Hi Boy’, just exactly as I do when I see my son’s name light up my cell phone screen. After the call I discussed my current preoccupation with language and she confirmed that she uses ‘Boy’, as I do, frequently and as a term of endearment. So in the end, it seems that the context – and perhaps the tone – in which certain words are used, qualify the response one gets to them.
Ironically, I sometimes encounter ex-South Africans who left this country before democracy in 1994 and who, when they return, still use generalised derogatory racial terms with a casual abandon that leaves me reeling. We’re not those people anymore and that sort of indiscriminate indifference offends many of us. Perhaps those who weren’t with us on this journey need to read the new guidebook.
It’s a very long time since I last wrote on Africadayz. When I started out, I hoped to write mostly about issues and experiences that resonated positively with me and sadly, last year did not provide me with much material for that. Since the debate and subsequent removal of Rhodes’ statue on the UCT campus, we seem to have been on a slippery slope to nowhere and in the end, I look back on 2015 as being a year best forgotten.
It was interesting though, to arrive in England in December just as a similar debate broke out at Oxford University where two South African students – one on a Rhodes Scholarship and the other on a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship – demanded that the Rhodes statue in front of Oriel College be removed. And so the whole argument raged on again. What was most intriguing to me was not the debate itself, but the way in which the British public reacted to it. With my heightened sensitivity to acceptable and unacceptable language, I was shocked and fascinated by the no holds barred verbal outrage unleashed. James Delingpole, in an article entitled ‘Leave Oxford Alone’ was particularly vehement in his response.
But two phrases he used stuck with me: The one was that the students in question were “murdering history”. I wished I had come up with that expression myself as it sums up what I was trying to say in my last post. And the second was ‘autres temps autres moeurs’ – other times, other customs. We cannot go back with the benefit of hindsight and change what went before and perhaps I should apply the same logic to the language of my childhood. It’s the way it was back then. The important thing is that it’s all very different now and going back is not an option.
All in all, 2015 was a messy year but even at its lowest points, there were flashes of hope. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign was followed by Fees Must Fall. Despite feeling this to be an issue far too complex to be solved by blanket free tertiary education, it was illuminating to see students of all colours, cultures and creeds protesting together at what they perceived to be unfair fee hikes.
Zuma Must Fall came quickly on the heels of ‘Fees’ and contrary to what was portrayed in most of the media, protest marches drew a true rainbow collection of participants from all walks of life and this particular movement continues to simmer quietly.
I doubt anyone thought our exchange rate would fall to the depths it now plumbs. I doubt anyone thought buying a generator or investing in water storage tanks and pumps would come to seem a good idea. With that sort of foresight, it’s questionable how many of us would still be here. But here we still are and all we can hope for is that all those students who raised their voices in unison last year, will eventually become the generation that lifts this country back up to where it belongs.