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Mandela, ubuntu, and the born frees of Mzansi

South African flag

The peculiarities of South Africa’s political and economic heritage meant that in the twentieth century it bequeathed to English, among other things, a number of political terms that captured the mood of those troubled times. February sees two notable milestones, the twenty-first anniversaries of the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and of the release from twenty-seven years of imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, both catalysts for a move toward a democratic South Africa.

From grand apartheid …

To play out that history in the words of the time:

If the 1970s was the time of grand apartheid (the partitioning of black South Africans into ethnic homelands or bantustans), then the states of emergency in the 1980s, the dying years of the apartheid regime, were the era of the Groot Krokodil (‘the big crocodile’) and his securocrats (then state president P. W. Botha and his militarized cabinet). Anti-apartheid protesters would often toyi-toyi (perform a high-stepping protest dance) during demonstrations to signal their discontent with the system.

The late 1980s saw the coming of ‘Pretoriastroika’, an almost comic analogy to Mikhail Gorbachev’s promotion of perestroika – which was being used to describe the restructuring of the old USSR – blended with Pretoria.

The early 1990s saw South Africa attain a negotiated revolution, stage managed from Codesa, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. However it was also a period of bloody and protracted battles in the province that was to become KwaZulu-Natal – ANC and Inkatha (IFP) warlords and their troops squared off against each other with qwashas – homemade rifles – and traditional weapons such as assegais and kieries.

… to the rainbow nation

The mid to late 1990s, with South Africa now a democracy and Madiba (Mandela) its first president of the new era, was a time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where both victims and perpetrators of apartheid told their stories; and of the beginning of the now almost forgotten Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). That was also when ‘the Arch’ – Archbishop Desmond Tutu (now emeritus) described South Africa as the rainbow nation; and people started getting down to imbizos, lekgotlas, and bosberaads. These are all contemporary terms for large-scale meetings, from Xhosa and Zulu, Sesotho and Setswana, and Afrikaans respectively, and signal the beginning of the transformation of a previously divided society into a linguistically and culturally inclusive one.

Since the beginning of the century imbizo especially has gained further currency from its use by the government to describe meetings between its functionaries and communities and the like; and from its application to other forms of conventions – so that one can have an arts imbizo, a science imbizo, and so on.

Ubuntu in Mzansi

African languages of South Africa have made further contributions to South African English – more so in the last two decades than ever before. One that should be better known is ubuntu, the quality of virtuous humanness prized by African peoples. Today an increasing number of South Africans refer to the country by its nickname, Mzansi (Zulu for south), and are learning to sing the national anthem, Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika (God bless Africa).

What in apartheid times used to be called a location or township (and where most of South Africa’s population still lives), is now styled as a loxion or ekasi. Squatter camps are now informal settlements, where the shacks of the poor may be emptied or destroyed by red ants, private security personnel in red uniforms who execute eviction orders on behalf of a local authority.

On the other side of the coin, many historically disadvantaged South Africans (the previously unenfranchised) have benefited from the government’s policy of black economic empowerment (BEE), and its extension, broad-based BEE (BBBEE or triple BEE). The results of this policy have seen the rise of black diamonds, black middle-class professionals or businesspeople. More ominously there has also been the emergence of tenderpreneurs, well-connected politicians or government officials who have become wealthy by securing government tenders and contracts.

The way forward …

Whatever the uncertainties that lie ahead, the first generation of born frees (those South Africans, especially black South Africans, who were born into a democratic South Africa) is approaching adulthood with the knowledge that the oppression their parents experienced in the twentieth century is a thing of the past, that a more just society is possible, and that Mandela’s liberation on 11 February 1990 was one of the turning points in achieving this.

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