Spanners, baboons and climbing mountains


SOMETIME last week one of the daily newspapers had headlines screaming about Comrade Jacob Zuma wielding the bobojaan spanner (I will not bother about the correct spelling) on Zimbabwe. There are several possibilities that arise from this dainty little phrase. Maybe the writer was trying to be linguistically creative and normally it would read: Zuma wields the axe. But this would give the facilitator more power than he was given by the Southern African Development Community. An axe is a lifethreatening weapon that can chop off a limb or even a head. The writer chose a blunt weapon that can bludgeon and pulverise its victim rather than sever limbs. End of speculation number one. It is a truth that bobojaan is derived from Afrikaans (Chibhunu) the language of the Afrikaner (Mabhunu) and it means a monkey wrench, a huge, ugly spanner used by plumbers in the maintenance of water mains. I do not hate Afrikaners, some of my closest colleagues and mentors in academia are Afrikaners, but every person in Southern Africa and probably elsewhere, knows that Afrikaans/Chibhunu/ Isibhunu was closely related to apartheid and all the horrors it stood for and no one can deny it. Apartheid was more than a culture, it was a political institution which decreed that the black people were lesser beings not fit to govern themselves and shape their own future even in the land of their birth. I will not narrate the horrors of the apartheid era, suffice to say for Southern Africa, Afrikaans was a language of oppression and apartheid. Its unfortunate they have left it an official language in spite of the fight to ban it from the black schools during apartheid. Blacks called Afrikaans, Chibhunu/ Isibhunu and the speakers of the language were Mabhunu/ Amabhunu. These were deliberately derogatory terms that carried with them all the evils of apartheid. The Bhunu/Ibhunu was different from murungu in that the latter denoted any white person who spoke English and English was always Chirungu/Isilungu. Even today touts talk of any wellto- do person or their customers as murungu or varungu. So Chibhunu could never be the same as Chirungu. Afrikaans/ Chibhunu has always been despised throughout Southern Africa because it was the language of apartheid. It took nearly 100 years of struggle and a fair amount of blood to convince Amabhunu that apartheid was inherently evil and that all people were created equal. Maybe those who write about Cde Zuma’s being called bobojaan do not remember these simple facts. In Rhodesia, Chibhunu was somehow moderated by a larger population of whites who spoke Chirungu, not that the latter were any better. It is said on one occasion, at the University of Rhodesia, Smith and his white audience sang a song: ‘Bobojaan klim de berg’. I was very young then, but I remember the song sparked a row among black students at the university and the wider community. Apparently, the song translated as: ‘Black baboons go away and climb the mountains’ and this was referring to black students at the university. This was a deep insult and any student who was at the university those days will recall how demeaning and dehumanising the song was. This was a song composed by Mabhunu and today we write about Cde Zuma wielding a bobojaan! Are we saying by some miracle he is becoming a Bhunu? Now anyone who loves to use, for fun, a language that was closely associated with the worst forms of discrimination, must surely be odd. As we struggle and stammer and misspell bobojaan, Hector Petersen, Steve Biko and thousands of those who laid down their lives for the eradication of apartheid must be turning in their graves. They must be asking if we didn’t have enough oppression from the Rhodesians that we should try to smuggle apartheid across the Limpopo to our own backyard.


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