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Khaya Sibeko

Football.Bookworm.Cinematic Music. "The greatest contribution from Africans will be to give the world a more human face" Bantu S. Biko,

Of Words & The Meaning Behind Them

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In the winter of 2007 I, along with two friends, decided to make our first ‘pilgrimage’ to the Town of Saints, Sinners and Students which is colonially and indigenously known as Grahamstown and Rhini respectively. While we were at the university town, we decided to attend a poetry workshop held at Joza township which featured amongst other Professor Keoprapeste Kgositsile and Lebo Mashile. The National Poet Laureate, Prof Kgositsile mentioned the importance of employing words consciously because at the end of the day one has to account for the word usage whether it’s in poetic sense or everyday speech. Words have power and that ought not to be undermined. The professor gave a sarcastic example of how words were unconsciously used and have become acceptable. He asked that when you refer to place known as “The Middle East”, from which direction are you standing?  And he had a point. If the region where Israel, Iraq, Iran and neighbouring states are situated is called “The Middle East”, then where is the “Near East” from which we would be able to compare and/or measure the “The Middle and Far East” against? That was one example of bad and unconscious usage of words from a man whose more than seven decades on Earth have been centred around word.

How many times do we use words without giving thorough thought to the message we may be conveying in the process? Through words artists are able to make us part of their world. The 20th century produced some of the most gifted orators in the political arena. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchhill, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, Chairman Mao, Hendrik Verwoed and Nelson Mandela to mention a few. All these great and utterly disappointing men could easily command their audience’s attention by the words they spoke and they understood that very few methods of communication drive a point home more than the use speech. Hitler was able to organize disempowered and self pity drenched Germans into a Nazi machine whose horrors are all too documented. Mandela’s Treason Trial speech about freedom being an ideal for which he was prepared to die if such a need arose was by far one of the boldest statements uttered by a black man facing the gallows of Afrikaner supremacy.

When listening to hip hop we hear African Americans use the word “nigger” a lot and because of the domineering force of American popular culture almost everyone starts referring to their peers by such. “Nigger” was a term that was used by slave traders to disrobe Africans of their humanity and dignity and subject them to the most sordid of the (in)human(e) experiences on the cotton fields and through lynching. Because those Africans were called niggers it therefore meant, at least for the ‘masters’, that they weren’t dealing with people and so they could perpetuate any gruesome deed on them and not lose sleep because it was done to a nigger and not a human being. Fast forward to the present and some in Afro and Latino Americans who continue to refer to each other as niggers, albeit with an “a” at the end and not “er”, say that when they use it it’s in a ‘different’ context. The fact still remains that the word is of cruel origins and whether it’s contextualized or not, it’s still being used and why, if the meaning is ‘contextual’, can’t white people use it too, after all they would be saying “nigga” and not “nigger”, right? Chika Onyeni of “Capitalist Nigger” acclaim has a different take. He says that the value placed on the word will determine the reaction of a person being referred to as such. But because we aren’t the ones who were auctioned on Wall Street and being branded with surnames such as “Smith”, “Johnson” and so forth, we are able to formulate razor sharp intellectual arguments to justify the continued careless use of words such as “nigger”. In his poem titled:”Niggers, Niggas and Niggaz”, Def Poetry featured poet, Julian Curry says:”Here we are centuries after slavery/We are insulting our ancestors’ bravery by shouting phrases daily like, “where’s my nigga?”/” Wadup nigga”?/”You know you my nigga, right?”

In the African community it’s not uncommon to hear people refer, without intended malice, to Indians as “makula” a reference to “coolie” and coloured people being called “bosman”. To the many people who use such terms aforementioned when referring to Indians and coloureds, to them it’s perfectly ‘normal’ and they don’t know, and perhaps don’t bother to know any better, that those terms are equivalent to the word “kaffir”, which its original use is a word referring to those who don’t believe in Islam. Denigrating words become popularly employed in surroundings where ignorance is allowed to entrench itself and dictate human relations of which words are a central part of. I doubt you’d find a Jewish people calling each other “kykes” and it’s probably because they know they are better than that.

During the George W Bush administration tenure in office the words “War On Terror” were accentuated to mean fighting for good. Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded in the pursuit of the terrorists(read Muslim) and with closer inspection and latest Wikileaks(Google) expose of the many civilians who were killed by American led NATO forces since 2004, one wouldn’t be blamed for being confused as to who exactly are the terrorists in this never ending war. The use of the word “insurgents” when referring to the resistors of American led NATO occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan is a convenient ploy to strip those resistors of human sympathy. Even when innocent civilians clad in non military clothing are killed it’s always reported as “insurgents” and obviously an “insurgent” has no face or membership to the human family and therefore isn’t a cause for concern but when NATO “counter insurgents” are killed their identity is promulgated and therefore receiving hero like status because they are in pursuit of ‘democratic’ ideals. The same treatment is accorded the term “communist”, during the Cold War years the word “communist” was associated with terror and evil and all kinds of methods were devised to eliminate the communist threat. It has been widely reported that drugs were allowed to flourish in American ghettos in the 1960s and 70s and the profits were used to fund the fight against the communist “threat” and dictators sympathetic to Washington were installed in Latin American states just to derail the “bad” communists from governing their respective countries. In fact, the very Taliban “insurgents” who are giving Washington sleepless nights were trained by the America in order to fight against the communist Soviets in the 1980s.

The power of words is immense and everytime we use words we ought to think of the meaning of the words. Like numbers, words can be manipulated to heighten emotions that give insidious governments the authority for many  unjustifiable wars to be pursued in the name of an unaware citizenry. Racial intolerance, xeno and homophobias are peddled through words and manifest themselves in deeds and then we read in newspapers of lesbians who were raped in order to be “straightened out”. Once we use words like  “Us” ,“Them”, “Ours” we explicitly begin to accentuate one’s human membership over another’s, we begin to march down the path of destruction because we will say so and so is a Mozambiquean  and isn’t part of “us” and therefore who cares if he is burnt alive.

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  • TPP

    Awesome column, food for thought. I think poets should stop letting their egos write their poetry for them. That’s psychological homework…

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  • Donald The Neosapien

    Quite a splendid suggestion, I would love one. Well unfortunately they cut off the recording so I couldn’t make out whom he was speaking about lol.

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  • Lol Donald which minister was this gentlemen referring too..m thinkin this topic can make 4 a great indaba perhaps we shud organise one 2 pick @ each other’s minds the more *smiles*

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  • Donald The Neosapien

    Very very good point!! I agree with you fully. I too, am quite pedantic when it comes to words and language. This morning when I was listening to 702, they played a conversation by a drive time jock interviewing some gentleman sharing his views on a particular minister. This gentleman said the following: “He is not a very sophisticated man, he mumbles with grammar and he throws metaphors that don’t make sense which isn’t very good for someone at his level”. I laughed when I heard this, it made me realise that even though most people aren’t aware of the words they use, Leratos and Tuelos are, this further strengthens your point.

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  • @Donald the Neosapien…your concluding statement/rhetorical question is quite valid. As long as the message is reached to the audience or listener than we can SAFELY say that what in the world do words matter?! But hey if one is possessed with some idea to stir up some type of revolution in society (even if it may be in the underground, in any case that is where revolutions emerge right?) than we cannot dare to be safe… WORDS: Does it matter how we use them, when we use them, how we use them, or how we are used by them (hehe)? I say hell yeah!
    It helps to understand words and to politick how we use them coz when we question em or rather the manner in which diverse individuals adopt em, we are questioning the way(s) of the world. Words are the mediums of man’s spirit…an extension of his mind and plans. As writers/poets we need to be possessed with the idea of words and we need to politick em coz words always carry an agenda! As poets/writers and artists it is not enough to see words for what they are ( u know on the shallow surface) but we need to see them for what they can be. Words are carriers of meaning, of both great shifts in society; they’ve inspired war and peace, rebellions and uprisings, reconciliation and restoration, good or bad at a lack of a better expression. This is our essence as artists, to always attend to words and to have an awareness of their use, their significance and varying meaning(s). I cannot help it, it is not even a conscious effort on my part but I have this irritating awareness of these little terrors called words. ..

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  • Donald The Neosapien

    Khaya firstly praise be to God for the gift He has given you and secondly well done for this sublime and thoroughly thought provoking article!!!!

    You have found the words that drive a very significant point, the power of words and its uses. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, please spread the link around. I commend Lerato and Tuelo, very good points that you guys raise. Do you think the usage of words in this modern age is a direct reflection of the mentalities? i.e. words like ‘ayoba’, ‘schwarka’ and so forth? Why do you think the way you do?

    What is your opinion on the usage of what non-reading society describe as “big words”? Many a times I have found myself in a conversation with someone who likes saying that particular words are ‘big’, is there such? excluding extreme cases such as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of course.

    There’s poets/mcs/writers, who at times use words simply because they sound fancy and not because of their meaning, which is very irresponsible considering their role in society as they are disregarding the very purpose of words.

    Then there’s people in general who also allow the inappropriate use of language and words, ironically they understand each other. E.g “Sawubona ma, ukhona uTuelo?” “Angazi yazi mtanami mara ‘im sure’ ukhona”. So can one argue that provided the intended message reaches the recipient the way the sender intended it, then the usage of words doesn’t matter?

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  • Sivu

    @Matt to the most cognitive brother i know who deserves recognition. K you inspire me to know more man

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  • @ Khaya and A sense…haha u guys have got me ur thots hv invaded mine and given me new perspective ,just goes to show that words are political… A Sense I get ur line of thinking bra…Some words are monuments of experience and so “loaded” with historicities that no matter how much time passes they will always carry burdens of dominant idelogies that exploit the life journeys of those who’ve been posited or labelled as underdogs according to society hierarchies and structures. Words camouflage themselves as simple mediums of communications but if words were pple and were to be stripped away at layer by layer they would be found terrorists. Ja words neh…such a complex topic. Khaya bra u really take the trophy on this one. Mo Faya!

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  • Tuelo (A sense)

    Ashra Kwesi used an example of something that fits perfectly in your article: “you see them “gangsters” walking like they are bouncing thinking they are cool… dragging their left foot behind, thinking they are cool… the fact is that we haven’t moved on from the slave eras, they are still dragging the chain and ball that they used at slave auctions… the difference is that: the chain is not on the leg anymore, it’s in the mind… we’re still dragging the chain…” i think he raised a valid point… but i have to say: to a certain degree, i do agree with Lerato. words evolve, but let’s just be careful, another word that is slowly evolving into the rap culture is “bitch”… just be careful that one day your children’s children will be your wife, their grandmother, a “bitch”. Music is by far the most influential word-medium in the world… let’s just be careful of the music we produce… Music is life configured to a page… and when you put life to a song, think about the lives of present and future children. Art imitates life and vice versa… a song can shape a life… so all im saying is, yes, words evolve, but are there certain words we want evolving? like bitch? Nigga, dyke, and as Khaya said, Umlungu…?

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  • He’s my fwnd**, and one day wen he’s writing for M&G everyone else will know jus how knowledgeable a writer n thinker he is… let’s expand the platform saan…

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  • Khaya

    firstly,thank you for taking the time to read the piece,Lerato.You are correct in saying that words grow out of their original meaning in certain instances.i also get the school of thought that you are coming from as far as the nigger-nigga debate is concerned in that hip hop diluted,if not bleached,the slavery stains of the word.Does that mean the new-nigga is,as a rejections of American of white supremacy, exclusive in its ownership and use,if so,is it fair?If the meaning has supposedly change,doesnt the right to use it have to change too?any other thing i realized after writing the article was how as indigenous Africans we refer to each other as abantu and to whites from,say,england as mlungu-which is said to mean in early isizulu rubbish that was spit by the sea.the fact that we dont refer to them as abantu,doesnt that at times influence our inter-relations?just a thought.

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  • Yo Khaya fantastic article man! My mind is exploding ryt now wit all dat u’ve shared of the power/use/significance of words and even the abuse thereof. Man I agree wit u for the most part. Words hold immense power and since we are all instruments of communication in sum manner or other we shud consider this fact of the power of the words. I get dat and m with u on dat one. But about the issue of the words being eroded, used in different “contexts” while they remain historically ‘bad words'( to qoute u made reference of “cruel origins”), I have a counter-argument to make. Frankly speaking words evolve over time. The meaning of word WILL change over time. It’s a fact. For example the word “gay” in Old Englsh refers to the act of being happy or simpy happiness. Okay maybe this example is a bit lame but th point that I’m tryin to drive across is that words have a life of their own, they breathe just we breathe. They have power- a point that u also mentioned. Which is why sometimes revolutionists take words and re-define them or re-appropriate their meanings for a new agenda. I want to argue for the use of the word nigga my hiphop heads. The mcs of the 80s began to use the word “nigga” in order repress the cruel origins of its meaning, to make a statement that “yeah we are black, we are different from you(white) culturally, in skin colour and otherwise but so what?!”. This was their best way of finding retribution and to avenge their “name” without using arms. They used words militantly, and somehow in a lame and inconspicous way, and somehow this re-appropriating of the meaning of the word “nigga” has helped African Americans to gain their “pride” back. It’s absurd I know but hey we live in an absurd world.

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  • TPP

    Awesome column, food for thought. I think poets should stop letting their egos write their poetry for them. That’s psychological homework…

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  • Donald The Neosapien

    Quite a splendid suggestion, I would love one. Well unfortunately they cut off the recording so I couldn’t make out whom he was speaking about lol.

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  • Lol Donald which minister was this gentlemen referring too..m thinkin this topic can make 4 a great indaba perhaps we shud organise one 2 pick @ each other’s minds the more *smiles*

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
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  • Donald The Neosapien

    Very very good point!! I agree with you fully. I too, am quite pedantic when it comes to words and language. This morning when I was listening to 702, they played a conversation by a drive time jock interviewing some gentleman sharing his views on a particular minister. This gentleman said the following: “He is not a very sophisticated man, he mumbles with grammar and he throws metaphors that don’t make sense which isn’t very good for someone at his level”. I laughed when I heard this, it made me realise that even though most people aren’t aware of the words they use, Leratos and Tuelos are, this further strengthens your point.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • @Donald the Neosapien…your concluding statement/rhetorical question is quite valid. As long as the message is reached to the audience or listener than we can SAFELY say that what in the world do words matter?! But hey if one is possessed with some idea to stir up some type of revolution in society (even if it may be in the underground, in any case that is where revolutions emerge right?) than we cannot dare to be safe… WORDS: Does it matter how we use them, when we use them, how we use them, or how we are used by them (hehe)? I say hell yeah!
    It helps to understand words and to politick how we use them coz when we question em or rather the manner in which diverse individuals adopt em, we are questioning the way(s) of the world. Words are the mediums of man’s spirit…an extension of his mind and plans. As writers/poets we need to be possessed with the idea of words and we need to politick em coz words always carry an agenda! As poets/writers and artists it is not enough to see words for what they are ( u know on the shallow surface) but we need to see them for what they can be. Words are carriers of meaning, of both great shifts in society; they’ve inspired war and peace, rebellions and uprisings, reconciliation and restoration, good or bad at a lack of a better expression. This is our essence as artists, to always attend to words and to have an awareness of their use, their significance and varying meaning(s). I cannot help it, it is not even a conscious effort on my part but I have this irritating awareness of these little terrors called words. ..

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
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    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • Donald The Neosapien

    Khaya firstly praise be to God for the gift He has given you and secondly well done for this sublime and thoroughly thought provoking article!!!!

    You have found the words that drive a very significant point, the power of words and its uses. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, please spread the link around. I commend Lerato and Tuelo, very good points that you guys raise. Do you think the usage of words in this modern age is a direct reflection of the mentalities? i.e. words like ‘ayoba’, ‘schwarka’ and so forth? Why do you think the way you do?

    What is your opinion on the usage of what non-reading society describe as “big words”? Many a times I have found myself in a conversation with someone who likes saying that particular words are ‘big’, is there such? excluding extreme cases such as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of course.

    There’s poets/mcs/writers, who at times use words simply because they sound fancy and not because of their meaning, which is very irresponsible considering their role in society as they are disregarding the very purpose of words.

    Then there’s people in general who also allow the inappropriate use of language and words, ironically they understand each other. E.g “Sawubona ma, ukhona uTuelo?” “Angazi yazi mtanami mara ‘im sure’ ukhona”. So can one argue that provided the intended message reaches the recipient the way the sender intended it, then the usage of words doesn’t matter?

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • Sivu

    @Matt to the most cognitive brother i know who deserves recognition. K you inspire me to know more man

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • @ Khaya and A sense…haha u guys have got me ur thots hv invaded mine and given me new perspective ,just goes to show that words are political… A Sense I get ur line of thinking bra…Some words are monuments of experience and so “loaded” with historicities that no matter how much time passes they will always carry burdens of dominant idelogies that exploit the life journeys of those who’ve been posited or labelled as underdogs according to society hierarchies and structures. Words camouflage themselves as simple mediums of communications but if words were pple and were to be stripped away at layer by layer they would be found terrorists. Ja words neh…such a complex topic. Khaya bra u really take the trophy on this one. Mo Faya!

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • Tuelo (A sense)

    Ashra Kwesi used an example of something that fits perfectly in your article: “you see them “gangsters” walking like they are bouncing thinking they are cool… dragging their left foot behind, thinking they are cool… the fact is that we haven’t moved on from the slave eras, they are still dragging the chain and ball that they used at slave auctions… the difference is that: the chain is not on the leg anymore, it’s in the mind… we’re still dragging the chain…” i think he raised a valid point… but i have to say: to a certain degree, i do agree with Lerato. words evolve, but let’s just be careful, another word that is slowly evolving into the rap culture is “bitch”… just be careful that one day your children’s children will be your wife, their grandmother, a “bitch”. Music is by far the most influential word-medium in the world… let’s just be careful of the music we produce… Music is life configured to a page… and when you put life to a song, think about the lives of present and future children. Art imitates life and vice versa… a song can shape a life… so all im saying is, yes, words evolve, but are there certain words we want evolving? like bitch? Nigga, dyke, and as Khaya said, Umlungu…?

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • He’s my fwnd**, and one day wen he’s writing for M&G everyone else will know jus how knowledgeable a writer n thinker he is… let’s expand the platform saan…

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • Khaya

    firstly,thank you for taking the time to read the piece,Lerato.You are correct in saying that words grow out of their original meaning in certain instances.i also get the school of thought that you are coming from as far as the nigger-nigga debate is concerned in that hip hop diluted,if not bleached,the slavery stains of the word.Does that mean the new-nigga is,as a rejections of American of white supremacy, exclusive in its ownership and use,if so,is it fair?If the meaning has supposedly change,doesnt the right to use it have to change too?any other thing i realized after writing the article was how as indigenous Africans we refer to each other as abantu and to whites from,say,england as mlungu-which is said to mean in early isizulu rubbish that was spit by the sea.the fact that we dont refer to them as abantu,doesnt that at times influence our inter-relations?just a thought.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
  • Yo Khaya fantastic article man! My mind is exploding ryt now wit all dat u’ve shared of the power/use/significance of words and even the abuse thereof. Man I agree wit u for the most part. Words hold immense power and since we are all instruments of communication in sum manner or other we shud consider this fact of the power of the words. I get dat and m with u on dat one. But about the issue of the words being eroded, used in different “contexts” while they remain historically ‘bad words'( to qoute u made reference of “cruel origins”), I have a counter-argument to make. Frankly speaking words evolve over time. The meaning of word WILL change over time. It’s a fact. For example the word “gay” in Old Englsh refers to the act of being happy or simpy happiness. Okay maybe this example is a bit lame but th point that I’m tryin to drive across is that words have a life of their own, they breathe just we breathe. They have power- a point that u also mentioned. Which is why sometimes revolutionists take words and re-define them or re-appropriate their meanings for a new agenda. I want to argue for the use of the word nigga my hiphop heads. The mcs of the 80s began to use the word “nigga” in order repress the cruel origins of its meaning, to make a statement that “yeah we are black, we are different from you(white) culturally, in skin colour and otherwise but so what?!”. This was their best way of finding retribution and to avenge their “name” without using arms. They used words militantly, and somehow in a lame and inconspicous way, and somehow this re-appropriating of the meaning of the word “nigga” has helped African Americans to gain their “pride” back. It’s absurd I know but hey we live in an absurd world.

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