We are ‘coconuts’, but there’s levels ‘bru’

Katleho“I choose to appropriate the term ‘coconut’ and self-identify as one, because I believe it offers an opportunity for refusal, and this very refusal allows for radical anti-racist politics to emerge,” said Panashe Chigumadzi at the Ruth First Lecture this year.

Validation, resonance and irony in her humour is what I walked away with that evening. That said, I don’t know if she’ll accept my subsequent notion.

Of course I identify as a ‘coconut’, my whole upbringing dictates that I should; Model C schooling, occasional white best friends, ‘creamy-crack’ hair (see Chris Rocks Good Hair), hell, even smugness in sporting braces in Grade 6. But I like that I can now decide and accept that I am a coconut but still be able to refuse the assumed notion that I too am a benefactor of white privilege. There’s a kind of freedom in that.

But have you ever met some young black girl or guy and thought, damn, “you really are a coconut of the coconuts? Perhaps even the queen of coconuts?” You know, those whose speech is consistently punctuated with unnerving amounts of, “laarks” and “reeeallys”, or that “yah bru”

“The truth is hard to swallow when the belly’s full of lies.”

There are levels in life, I think one should know theirs and be comfortable with it. But more, one shouldn’t have to get defensive when another black person not quite on their level mimics you and things get all emotional and personal.

It’s understandable, that kind of outrage, seeing oneself through someone else’s eyes has rarely been funny. “The truth is hard to swallow when the belly’s full of lies,” said Jamie Foxx in Ali. And it’s not just in the tone of language, it’s the ‘hi-how-are-you?’ as you quickly walk by, not waiting for any response (then why did you ask?) Some coconuts don’t even have any speech impediments but just a denial that they are in fact Black. Others walk around calling themselves black feminists but laugh at the black rural girl who’s English isn’t that great. It’s a constant conflict.

“The ‘extreme coconut in denial’ skates close to the very whiteness that black people are constantly battling against.”

My fundamental concern with the ‘extreme coconut in denial’ is how it conducts itself with the older black security guard, domestic worker, gardener or ground staff in various environments, as if there’s a subliminal hierarchy at play. There’s a disrespect that has a likeness to when you’re discussing race with someone white; a not-listening, a defence mechanism, the kind of pose that says I’m just trying to get through my day, so I don’t have time to really acknowledge your presence.

The ‘extreme coconut in denial’ skates close to the very whiteness that black people are constantly battling against. I know that the black female waitress sometimes deliberately gives you bad service, but it’s nothing personal. She’s angry with a system that doesn’t recognize her as worthy and she hates her manager because she always has to pretend she’s busy even when she’s not. No, I’m not saying you deserve bad service, but tact and reverting to your mother tongue usually works.

Denying your coconutism is the very mechanism that allows some to perpetuate a free spirit, the candid race-doesn’t-matter-to-me attitude. Race matters and it’s an issue. Because being a coconut only means I’m Model-C schooled, black-taxed and sometimes free.

Mandarin in Mzansi

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has signed off on plans to introduce Mandarin as a second additional language in the South African education curriculum.

The South African Department of Basic Education (DBE) announced this week that Mandarin will be introduced into the South African curriculum.

Scholars in Grades 4 to 12 will have the option of taking Mandarin as a second language option as from January next year.

Plans to introduce the language started last year when Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga signed an implementation plan to strenthen educational ties between the Ministry of Education in China and the DBE at an institutional and policy level.

Over the years South Africa and China have joined together and signed several strategic agreements that aim to strengthen bilateral relations, trade co-operation and create sustainable investment. China is also one of South Africa’s top tading partners.

Not a replacement for existing languages

Motshekga’s spokesperson, Troy Martens told Wits Vuvuzela that the introduction of mandarin is part of a language and cultural exchange between the two countries.

Although the DBE says that the implementation plans were still being finalised, Mandarin will be available to scholars in a select number of schools around South Africa from 2016.

Mandarin will join the likes German, Serbian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu, as alternative language options for students.

“It must be emphasised that this is not a replacement for any of the existing languges offered. It is a second additional language option,” Martens said

Trish Cooper, course coordinator at the Wits Language School (WLS), said “[Mandarin] is an exceptionally difficult language to learn. It takes about 600 to 800 hours to learn a European language whereas it takes more than 2000 hours for Mandarin.”

“My concern is that kids are already coming out of school with little mother tongue competence. Which makes it difficult to transfer the necessary skills into a second language,” said Cooper.

Although acknowledging the importance of Mandarin for business reasons, Cooper adds that she believes that African languages and culture need to be promoted more and should come first.

Language Policy stalled at Wits

Published in Wits Vuvuzela 17th Edition 27 July

Wits’ language policy to introduce Sesotho as the university’s second language has been a failure, says Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Yunus Ballim.

The policy, implemented in 2003, aimed to have Sesotho spoken by all lecturers and provided for academically. “I think it’s fair to say the document failed. In its intention it was noble, but in its practical implementation sense it was ill-conceived. It is in serious, serious need of a rewrite,” Ballim says.

The person responsible for that rewrite is Dean of Humanities Prof Tawana Kupe, who wants to move back to the basics by “beefing up” the African Languages department. This additional “academic scaffolding” would provide the structure for the department to lead the university forward with an updated policy.

The policy is almost ten years old. The aim was for Wits to join the University of the Free State and the University of Lesotho in advancing the Sesotho language in the academic arena.

Ballim explains that a fundamental error in the policy is its attempt to carve up the language geography of the country. “We were mistaken in the way we conceived of the language policy … in part what we had responded to was an apartheid conception of the geography of African languages.”

While the policy itself has not led to any direct developments, it is not all doom and gloom for the advancement of African languages at the historically English-dominated university.

Ballim implemented a compulsory Zulu course in the Health Sciences, which is now an examinable subject in 2nd year. This was a departure from the Sesotho-based policy, and isiZulu was chosen as a more accessible language for interaction, most importantly for communication with patients.

Ballim used the influence of creative writing as a more effective tool for challenging academic discourse, rather than trying to learn from a textbook. “Universities have not responded to the dynamism in language. We need to modernise our conception of the teaching of African languages.”

Kupe agrees, pointing to the diversity of languages used in local soapies and the changing way we perceive language. “We need to teach language in a way that people understand.”

On the policy’s lack of success, Ballim concedes: “I’m embarrassed to say it is an area we should have picked up and we didn’t, and it is something we should have done better at.”Students chatting on the Great Hall steps