Fortunately I am an Afrikaner and not a South African. So I do not have to feel bad about my countrymen being fanatical rapists, robbers, murderers, as well as having the worst soccer team in the world.
Apart from their predilection for acting like those kids on an island without adult supervision in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, South Africans also show a great propensity to kowtow. English is a marvellous, Creole language that has absorbed all sorts of terms from other languages, from Afrikaans to Chinese.
Kowtow, like “no can do” is an example of Chinglish, or Chinese English and, according to the little dictionary widget that a friend was kind enough to install on my laptop means:
1. kneel and touch the ground with the forehead in submission as part of Chinese custom.
2. be excessively subservient towards someone.
Believe it or not, I have something in common with Jacob Maroga, the outgoing head honcho of Eksdom, as blogger Anton Barnard calls our national electricity utility. We both studied at a place called Wits University. I happen to have a Wits Ph.D. from a now defunct department, which more or less makes me unemployable. However, if my genetics had been different I might now have been resigning from one parastatal job, walking into another, and paying myself a golden handshake of five or ten million rand just for the hell of it.
But let met not lapse into braaivleis gripes about affirmative action here. The point is that, not so long ago, Wits sent me their alumni magazine in which Jacob Maroga of Eksdom was more or less held up to be a genius. How Wits ever got hold of my address to remind me of an earlier, forgettable part of my life, I don’t know. Being subjected to Jacob Maroga’s hagiography – “A Wits man solving the country’s electricity problems” or something in that vein – was actually worse than one of those phone calls offering you a free carpet shampoo when your house actually has tiles.
It somehow set me thinking about the Seffrican capacity for kowtow, touching the ground with your forehead in the presence of some illustrious personage who, inevitably, will be black.
You see, Wits or the alumni magazine or both, was kowtowing in front of this great man Jacob Maroga who had actually made our lights go out. As they will no doubt continue to do.
Somewhere in the late eighties a lot of Afrikaners stopped being Afrikaners. They became Seffricans and like Marthinus van Schalkwyk tried to “fit into” the new scheme of things. Afrikaners, or at least those who had connections to the National Party or the Broederbond, used to have a kowtow culture of their own, defined by the somewhat off-colour word “gatkruip”. Which explains, I suppose, why they took so readily to the current habit of sucking up to the sundry demigods you can see lounging about in five-star hotels or pushing you off the road in their two-million rand four-by-four, with or without a set of blue lights.
Maybe that funny set of characters on your ugly national emblem, purporting to be from a dead language, really means: “We kowtow, no matter what.”
No matter how bad things get, South Africans will always be grateful for just being allowed to breathe.
When next time the robber loots your house, just be “thankful you are still alive”.
And send a donation to Wits. They need it to promote East African feminist literature over there, with a queue of Tanzanian professors waiting for their tenured posts.