Khoza's k-word opens a can of worms
It is only six letters long, yet its mere mention evokes Herculean emotions.
For decades the word has been despised, pilloried and eventually declared unlawful by the South African government.
Calling a black person by the word is not only considered ill-advised, but it could land the culprit in jail.
Yet last week, South African soccer supremo Irvin Khoza did what some may consider to be not only unthinkable, but even insensitive.
A proud black man who has probably suffered his fair share of discrimination and ridicule under apartheid, Khoza, is reported to have labelled a Johannesburg journalist a "k*****".
Khoza, who is chairperson of the 2010 Soccer World Cup organising committee, was apparently angered by the black journalist's apparently pessimistic view of the country's ability to successfully stage the tournament.
He apparently told the journalist this was the perpetuation of a mindset that saw black people as "k*****s".
It was unbelievable. Here was a man who surely must have been called by that insulting k-word one too many times in his own lifetime, using the same hated term to describe another black person.
In the week since the incident, a debate of sorts about the acceptability of the term has kicked off.
Is it racist if a black person uses the term against another? What about other race groups, can they use it? If it is supposedly an insulting epithet, then why use it at all in casual conversation?
The Cape Argus SMS Feedback line has been inundated with responses that asked these and many other questions about the incident and the k-word.
Khoza has also been solidly criticised by personalities such as Alex Boraine, the former vice chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Human Rights Commission (HRC) has promised an investigation into the incident.
The rights body has also asked Khosa to apologise for using the word.
Rhoda Kadalie, the robust social commentator, stoked further controversy around the matter when she said there was hypocrisy involved.
"When the tables are turned, when a white person is 'racist', we cry foul, we go berserk. This whole Khoza saga has lifted the lid on the hypocrisy of 'racism'," she told the Cape Argus.
But was she right? Is it hypocrisy if blacks use the term? And shouldn't other blacks be champing at the bit to roundly condemn the person?
Surely for black people to walk around labelling others with the k-word is to erode the sense of self pride and worth that people like Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and many others worked tirelessly to instill among black people. Or is it?
Khoza's comment has not only elicited a stony silence from political parties and social movements that draw their support from the black community, but it is as if it did not happen. Instead black intellectuals have sprung to his defence.
Two of Cape Town's most fervent proponents of black pride and empowerment, Mxolisi Mgxashe and Bennie Bunsee, said last week nothing sinister should be inferred from Khoza's usage of the k-word.
"Depending on what the situation is, a negative term that is generally considered to be offensive can be used in a positive way, among those who are familiar with one another.
African-Americans often say n*****; and the person to whom it is directed knows that it is not used to denigrate, but to say wake up from where you were put down.
However, a member coming from an oppressor class cannot use it because it is obviously offensive," Bunsee said.
Khoza himself apologised for using the word when he confirmed and repeated his comment to a press gathering, but he has insisted since that the context of his comment showed that did not carry ill-will to the person to whom it was directed.
He said the word was commonly used by black township residents.
"I know the word also has another meaning, but in the context in which I used it, it refers to dubious character and unreliability," Khoza has said.
Sandile Memela, a government spokesperson and former journalist, has also defended Khoza.
He wrote in an article published at the weekend that Khoza was using the k-word in a positive context.
"The open secret about Khoza's use of the word, especially among blacks intuitively connected to township culture, is that despite its negative connotation in white minds, his serious intention was to question the integrity of a black journalist who entertains prejudice and stereotypes about Africa and her people," he said.
"What got to him was a perception that the media is hell-bent on perpetuating the view that 2010 is destined to fail simply because it is happening in an African country," Memela added.
The questions that, therefore, need to be asked are: whether it was racist of Khoza to use the k-word? Who is supposed to use the word and under what circumstances? Can whites use it?
There is no doubt that the k-word is offensive and degrading to the dignity of black people. Over decades it was used to denigrate and insult black people.
The word comes from the Arabic language and means an "unbeliever".
In the colonial era, it was used as a pejorative that described Africans as a backward people, with no belief systems or values.
However, while the k-word may be described as insulting and its usage should be discouraged, it must be noted that in their continued quest for self-empowerment, black people have in the recent past adopted the word with a more positive intention.
In townships and villages, black people will often be heard uttering the word. Its usage is meant to convey a message to the other black person that goes along these lines: Free your mind from the colonial, apartheid, racist baggage that seeks to hold you down.
It seeks to say: Let your mind roam free and do not believe all the racist nonsense that because you are black you will never rise above the status of a garden boy or maid.
Therefore, among black people it is not considered to be racist for a "brother" or "sister" to say the word to another. Usage of the word is an exercise in empowerment among black people.
Of course, the word is still considered insulting and under no circumstances can non-blacks use it to describe a black person.
The context in which Khoza was using the word was clearly one in which he was chastising the journalist for harbouring negative thoughts about our country's ability to successfully organise the Soccer World Cup.
There was nothing wrong in what he was saying. His was an attempt to bring about mind decolonisation.
While racism is an exercise in denigration, Khoza's use of the k-word was an attempt at freeing the youngster's mind from imperfect thoughts about our ability to excel.
As for the HRC, they must leave Khoza alone. If they are to fulfil their mandate, then they should focus their attention on more pressing matters.
There is nothing wrong with black people embarking on the delicate task of emancipating their minds from decades of subjugation and brainwashing.