An Impendle Lexicon

An open letter to President Jacob Zuma.

Dear President Zuma

I am concerned about your speechwriter. I’m concerned because he or she is not coming across as particularly well-versed in English. Before I’m branded a racist, please let me explain.

Mr President, I’m referring to basic word meaning and the appropriate choice of words to convey the intended meaning of a phrase or sentence. English people call it vocabulary. I’m Jewish, but I’m not sure what the word is in Hebrew, or Yiddish for that matter, because I’ve lost my culture. I’m pretty sure I’ll find it under all the bills in my office one of these days. I know it’s there, with my glasses.

Oh, and my mezuzah fell off my door and my husband hasn’t helped to fix it. Between you and me, Mr President, I do believe he’s trying to undermine my cultural expression with his reluctance to pick up a screwdriver.

I digress. This is part of the reason I haven’t written a novel yet. The Afrikaans word is woordeskat – I know this because my Afrikaans teacher was terribly scary and skrikked the word right into my young mind. By the way, I think your idea to make learning an African language compulsory in every school is a great idea. I wish I’d carried on with Zulu instead of Latin. I thought I could help those poor Romans to resurrect their dead language. Talk about a vanished culture. But I’m happy to say that I do remember all the Zulu farm words I was taught as a youngster, like ingulube, and ugandaganda, which I have to say are a lot more useful in daily life, than Hannibal’s defeat in the battle of Zuma Zama, which we had to translate in high school.

Oh dear, there I go digressing again. Vocabulary. What dictionary does your speechwriter use? I can really recommend The Oxford Dictionary of English Second Edition (Revised) 2005. It really is very good. I am not sure what your budget is looking like after the big spend on your home, but perhaps you could make provision for a dictionary in the New Year?

In the meantime I’d just like to share with you some of the words and phrases from your Impendle speech that I have picked up as problematic. The press has been so kind as to share with us some of your speech – I only hope that they’ve quoted you verbatim. You never know with these journalists though do you? Well, if you find any glaring errors below, please don’t blame me, blame the free press.

Here goes – I do hope that you’ll find these useful for your next speech.

Spending money to buy a dog and taking it to the vet and for walks, belongs to “white” culture (paraphrased)

Racism. The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

For example, saying that keeping dogs as pets, walking them and taking them to vets belongs to white culture is racism. It is a sweeping generalisation with no factual evidence to support it. Dogs have been a part of African life for a very long time indeed. The domestic dog was brought into South Africa with the migration of Early Iron Age Bantu speaking people and since this time, Africans have been living with dogs as both pets and as working companions.

I can also confidently say that your statement is misleading, because I happen to run an organization that works with disadvantaged children and dogs of all different colours. From my experience with The Underdog Project, as many black households have pet dogs as white households. The only real difference is a lack of access to education and disposable income that marks how their pets are cared for. Middle and upper income dogs (that’s your LSM, Mr President), get to ride in cars to the vet and hang their heads out of the window. They get to sleep inside. Lower income and impoverished dogs are walked or carried to a local shelter for treatment or they wait for a visit from mobile animal clinics. They mostly sleep outside. Caring for an animal, Mr President, is more of an economic identifier than a cultural identifier.

Your speechwriter could have written that keeping and caring for a pet dog is a part of economic freedom and is something that black South Africans should not emulate. If it was up to me though I would have simply left this bit out of your speech, because even this version makes no sense at all.

Next time you are in Cape Town you must come and visit The Underdog Project. I know the Mother City is not your favourite place to visit, but I don’t normally have tea with Helen or Patricia on a Wednesday so that’s a really good day to visit if you don’t want to bump into them. We’re in Hout Bay. Bring your next speech along with you and I’ll help you edit it. I have a Masters in Creative Writing, a beginners course in isiXhosa, Grade 4 in isiZulu, the Kiddush in Hebrew and a guilty conscience in Yiddish.

“previously oppressed”

Previously: at a previous or earlier time; before.

Oppress: keep (someone) in subjection and hardship, especially (but not only, Mr President) by the unjust exercise of authority

Now I want to really commend you speechwriter on this most excellent and applicable use of this phrase. He or she was absolutely correct in the usage but I would like to suggest a small edit that would more appropriately fit in with your speech about Ubuntu and decolonising the African mind.

Currently oppressed. Mr President, the fact of the matter is that a large majority of our black South Africans are currently oppressed rather than previously oppressed. This means that they are still being kept in subjection and hardship. As leader of this country you are now in control of how its people live. They don’t really have much say because one vote does not equal freedom.

I had to do some research for a speech I was writing about the state of education here in South Africa. Did you know that although more historically disadvantaged youth are entering the school system, fewer are actually finishing? Studies show that children are taking longer to finish school with many simply dropping out before they matriculate.

A 2010 report indicated that 1 in 4 youths have considered committing suicide and almost a third (32.7%) have actually attempted it.

By not investing money in teachers, mental health workers and nurses, you are contributing to a current generation of youth who are illiterate, stressed, clinically depressed and academically ill equipped to enter the job market?

If, Mr President, we continue to look back, continue to use words such as previously and historically, we might forget to look where we are going. We might trip up, or worse, like Lot’s wife, turn to pillars of salt, and go nowhere, fast.

“decolonise the African mind”

Decolonise: [of a state] withdraw from (a colony), leaving it independent.

This is a lovely example of using a word as a metaphor, and your speechwriter is spot on with his/her phrasing. As an aside, you may have noticed that decolonise can also be spelled with a z (as in decolonize) and the simple choice of using an s in place of a z comes down to colonisation of English by Americans. One has the freedom to use either, but the small choice is significant and I must say, I prefer to decolonise my decolonise spelling with an s rather than recolonize it with a z. The devil, Mr President, is in the details.

As I was saying, the metaphor is correct, but again, the context is misinformed. Owning pets and straightening hair with lotion (personally I prefer GHD straightening irons for straightening the Jew right out of me, which is less toxic and not tested on animals) are not going to impede the creation of independent African minds.

The only thing that can create independent, free thinking, decolonised African minds is education. And by education, I refer to that experience where children attend classes with textbooks, stationary and passionate, skilled teachers for 12 years. Whether the classroom is an academically focused school or a skills-focused trade school does not matter. The keys for decolonised minds are 100% access to early learning, libraries, literacy programmes, emotional and social welfare support, education and hard and soft skills training before the age of 18.

Mr President, independent Africa needs to take its place at the forefront of invention and innovation in 2013 and beyond. Africans, black, white, coloured, red (which is what our Gauteng holiday makers are looking like here on Hout Bay beach), need to be educated before they can do this. Africa needs young leaders and young leaders need education. They’re not getting it. You need to stop worrying so much whether their hair is straight or frizzy, or whether they have a Ridgeback or Chihuahua at the end of their lead. All you need to do is give them some textbooks, teachers and after school care. And maybe a dictionary or two.

“lack of humanity”

Humanity: the qualities of being humane; benevolence.

Humane: having or showing compassion or benevolence.

Mr President, have you heard of something called Humane Education? I am sorry that your speechwriter hasn’t. Humane Education “is defined as the teaching of compassion and respect related to animal welfare, environmental, and social justice issues.” I won’t quote the whole thing, but this definition on Wikipedia is really easy to understand and I think you should have a quick read over your next cup of coffee. I’m going to add a few links to the bottom of this letter as well, for your information.

Mr President your speechwriter has failed to grasp that treating an animal with compassion and kindness is an indicator of how a person treats his or her family, and how he or she behaves in the community.

Your speechwriter uses the example of the employer driving with his dogs in the front and the workers at the back, but this is a stereotyped image that belongs rather in a satirical cartoon than in an example proving a point about Ubuntu. The more widely acknowledged truth is that employers that abuse and mistreat their employees, are more than likely abusing their pets and family at home too. This  kind of situation is unacceptable for all races.

Dogs, along with all other animals, are indicator species for the emotional and ethical health of society.

“In addition to a growing sensitivity to the rights of animals, another significant reason for the increased attention to animal cruelty is a mounting body of evidence about the link between such acts and serious crimes of more narrowly human concern, including illegal firearms possession, drug trafficking, gambling, spousal and child abuse, rape and homicide.” [read more]

By pigeonholing pet ownership into “white culture”, Mr President, your speechwriter is not only placing animals into a difficult position as weapons of cultural destruction, but also limiting the opportunities for African children to learn empathy and compassion. Empathy is a net of neural circuitry in the brain – it can be eroded by exposure to violence and abuse that so many of our children are exposed to on a daily basis. But it can also be cultivated.

Whether owning their own animal, visiting animal farms or joining programmes like The Underdog Project, children can learn empathy by caring for animals. Empathy is key to Ubuntu. Ownership and caring for a pet is not a one of those “practices that are detrimental to building a caring African society” as your speechwriter phrases it – it is an integral part of African society.

Mr President I’m going to end this by saying that I really admire the work that you are trying to do in boosting the self-confidence of our African youth. And I do hope that you find a new speechwriter soon to help you continue with your work. I’m sure that one day we can both look back on this Impendle speech of yours and laugh about it together over a cup of tea and a teiglach. Perhaps I’ll even introduce you to my dogs.

Yours sincerely,

Jenna Mervis

“To date, one of the most promising methods for healing those whose empathic pathways have been stunted by things like repeated exposure to animal cruelty is, poetically enough, having such victims work with animals. Kids who tend to be completely unresponsive to human counselors and who generally shun physical and emotional closeness with people often find themselves talking openly to, often crying in front of, a horse — a creature that can often be just as strong-willed and unpredictable as they are and yet in no way judgmental, except, of course, for a natural aversion to loud, aggressive human behaviors.”

One thought on “An Impendle Lexicon

  1. Lovely irony and wit Jenna. Some superb points, well-made. Particularly like your awareness about empathy being a trained or learned process within our neural capacity.

    Regrettably this will probably be lost on the pre-modern idiot Jacob Zuma. I do not joke when I say that his tribal behaviour and theft of resources may have taken us back 500 years. Its that easy to lose the gains of the modern era. It will take much more than intelligent irony to deal with this cursed virus.


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