Deconstructing Hong! Hong! Hong!
We must distinguish innocent laughter from poisonous attempts to halt conversation about serious matters, writes Eusebius McKaiser.
I got zero for my first English Language oral test in Standard 6 back in 1992. There was no way in hell I was going to stand up in front of white kids and speak in my terrible coloured accent, mangle English grammar and be the butt of jokes. I simply refused, sitting at my desk, and the teacher let me off the hook, mercifully.
This fear of speaking with an accent that might be mocked, or making grammatical mistakes that could result in boys laughing at me, haunted me during my first year at Graeme College Boys’ High. Model C schools had just been established and I had gone from an Afrikaans primary school to an English school despite hardly being able to speak the Queen’s language.
Other boys from the township had similar experiences. I’ll never forget a confident boy debating with the history teacher whether the teacher was wrong about how to say and spell “barbed wire” or whether this black boy was right. I cringed at my classmate’s mistake, but secretly wished I had his confidence to be so loudly wrong in front of the class.
Harold insisted that Mr Grant was wrong and that the proper word was “bob” and not “barbed”! I didn’t know whose side to pick. Mr Grant was very clever, and my hero who introduced me to academic philosophy at that young age. So he must be right, I thought. On the other hand, I knew that my dad was clever too, and, like Harold, when dad erected new fencing at home, he had called it “bob wire” too!
I was extremely competitive and set out to deal with this accent embarrassment. I joined the debate club for the sole purpose of learning to speak better English and never to get zero again for a class oral. I was also determined to beat the white kids at English, and that goal was achieved by matric when I got the prize for English and a distinction in the subject.
But it was a long journey. Mrs Whitehead the librarian helped me to get rid of my flat vowels. At the back of the school library after school was out. I had to attend lots of debate classes and tournaments. And I had to practise the colloquial speech not found in books, like “sarmie”, “oke” and other bits of cultural grammar.
But, dammit, you can’t guarantee your real self won’t betray itself when you’ve had too much to drink or when you’re not on your accent guard! It is tough worrying about how to speak like others whose accents seem to have social value worth tapping into.
I’m recalling this horrible South African reality of learning to speak the grammar of whiteness in light of Willie Madisha mocking Naledi Pandor’s accent with his bizarre “Hong! Hong! Hong!” outburst in Parliament. The only thing scarier was the facial contortions he put on display while performing this poor imitation. It was less funny than just bizarre, to be honest, and rather stupid looking.
It is also why those of us who learnt the grammar of whiteness knew that there are no guarantees that such fluency would make you look cool at home. I dreaded, in the days before cellphones allowed you to run away from the scene to speak out of earshot, getting a call from white friends and being told by a cousin there’s someone on the landline who wants to speak to me. That meant having to speak English in our bedroom where the phone was, and my cousins or granny listening to me speaking “like a white person”. Accent policing is a cruel business.
What’s interesting both about Madisha’s “Hong!’ madness and the president’s now (in)famous “NKAAAAANDLA!” mocking of those who can’t pronounce African words accurately is that mocking is clearly a South African sport across class, linguistic and political lines.
This is a dangerous game we’re playing. It represents the worst attempt to deflect attention away from argument and onto the person who is making the argument. It’s simply an obsession with playing the person as substitute for evidence-based reasoning and logical deconstruction of what they have to say. It aims to demean, to delegitimise and to silence. It is cruel and ungenerous and contributes to an impoverished public discourse.
We have such a rich history of laughing in the face of adversity that one doesn’t want to reduce the space for laughter. Political speech should not be restricted to factual claims and formal logical moves. Laughter is an important weapon to deal with tension and everyday absurdities. So we shouldn’t become immune to poking fun at each other.
But we must distinguish innocent laughter from poisonous attempts to halt conversation about serious matters like Nkandla. When President Zuma mocked his critics, he wasn’t aiming merely to poke fun. He was rejecting accountability. And that’s not funny.
* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media