Zuma’s ‘clever blacks’: Lost in media translation

Considering the Babel of languages spoken in South Africa and how each developed verbal cues and connotations in state-sanctioned isolation, I think we’d all do well to ask, before assuming, if we’ve understood what the other is saying. This goes doubly so in instances when we think the other person has said something preposterously outrageous, as is the case with the ‘clever blacks’ comment City Press attributed to president Jacob Zuma.

Addressing the House of Traditional Leaders, Zuma said, “Some Africans who become too clever take a position (where) they become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything.” He went on to urge the House to play a role in helping Africans remember their roots.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of what Zuma said in this sentence, but City Press pounced on this, running the story as their Sunday lead under the headline “Zuma scolds ‘clever’ blacks”. The Sunday lead is usually reserved for the most scandalous, most riveting, most newsworthy story. Puzzling then that this fairly innocuous comment would receive such prominence in a speech riddled with other more shocking comments, particularly the double-speak on the unconstitutional Traditional Courts Bill.

City Press, it appears, took the ‘clever’ in Zuma’s comment to mean intelligence, so presented the article as though Zuma were saying that intelligent, educated Africans have become eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions. This is decidedly different from what the president most likely meant by ‘too clever’.

The Oxford English dictionary defines clever as: (adjective) 1. quick to understand, learn, and devise or apply ideas; intelligent. 2. British informal healthy or well.

A third, chiefly (black?) South African definition—which City Press probably should have discerned from Zuma qualifying ‘clever’ with the word ‘too’—does not appear in the OED. This connotation of clever portrays the same sentiment as the entry immediately below clever in the OED: clever-clever (adjective, derogatory), excessively anxious to appear impressively clever or intelligent.

This is what Zuma meant by ‘too clever’ (or ‘kleva’). He was saying that Africans who’ve adopted Western ways of doing things unquestioningly—and are thus ignorant of the worth and contribution to be derived from their own culture and traditions—are likely the ones most critical of their own history and traditions. In other words: Ba ithaya gore ke dikleva (they think they’re too clever).

It’s a fair comment, and one I’m inclined to agree with. Taken in the context of the Traditional Courts Bill, the subject of Zuma’s talk, it would be unfair to say critics of the bill ke dikleva, but that’s not what Zuma said. His was a broader comment on some Africans and their view of African traditions.

Not only is this apparent from the ‘too’, but also from the context of that segment of his speech, which was a lament of the loss of African values and the contributions they could make in solving problems. It’s not as prosaic as Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’ speech, but the same call for pride in being an African exists in Zuma’s words, too.

So what to make of Zuma’s being lost in media translation? What to make of the haste to use this as further evidence of Zuma as an anti-intellectual?

For one I think it raises the question: are African connotations of English words understood and properly translated in South Africa’s largely untransformed media? Yes, black journalists are now the majority (one was by-lined in the clever blacks story), but as Jane Duncan, Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at Rhodes University said, media transformation when measured against the BB-BEE score card “can lead to the flawed assumption that when black people replace white people, sustainable transformative changes to media practices will automatically follow.”

Duncan argues that to realise meaningful media transformation, more structural changes are needed; changes that would allow a greater diversity of voices. One of these structural changes, I argue, should be recognising that words have connotations that the newsroom might be impervious to. It’s an easy test: If something sounds preposterous, ask yourself and others critically if you’ve fully understood the meaning.

It’s also possible that this misrepresentation was wilfully or unintentionally driven by a dislike of Zuma. The black middle class, City Press’s primary audience, dislikes Zuma at the moment. What better way to play to your audience than to call their attention to an attack on their ranks by a man they revile? As a member of the black middle class, I, too, do not believe the man is fit to lead a pencil, not because he’s anti-intelligence, but because he is badly compromised. However this shouldn’t prevent me from understanding what he is saying.

Zuma hasn’t helped his cause either, but there has also been a consistent portrayal of the man as an anti-intellectual, and it was just too easy to see this as another instance of that. Troubling, though, was the strange subtext running through the article.

City Press said Zuma “revealed his true agenda” in the off-the-cuff comments, which “quickly turned into a roaring endorsement of solving ‘African problems the African way’.”

Woah. Smoking gun! Someone wants to do things the African way. This guy is obviously a backward bumpkin.

In the web version of the article, Zuma, the pro-African tradition, anti-intellectual, is presented in text alongside an image of Zuma in skins. The image is from his traditional wedding in 2010, not from the day of his address to the House of Traditional Leaders. He wore a black suit, white shirt and red tie on that day.

In the video posted below the story, at the 1:58 mark where Zuma makes the ‘clever’ comment, the images changes from the suit and tie to one of Zuma again in his skins, dancing holding a shield above his head.

This appears an (unconscious?) attempt to associate being an anti-intellectual with being very passionate about African culture and traditions, as Zuma says he is. Troubling.

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9 thoughts on “Zuma’s ‘clever blacks’: Lost in media translation

  1. Kenny says:

    Well written and sober in content. I wish to say that, irrespective of what Pres. Zuma said, City Press would have found a way (intentionally or otherwise) to make it Sunday front page material. My biggest concern is the fact that most of South Africans are failing to see past this hogwash.
    Ofcourse, alert we must remain, some of the ‘news’ and ‘columns’ we are fed are simply drivel!

  2. […] Considering the Babel of languages spoken in South Africa and how each developed verbal cues and connotations in state-sanctioned isolation, I think we’d all do well to ask, before assuming, if we’…  […]

  3. Tboz says:

    simple,the man should have said what he meant using a language befitting his stature, a discerning mind would easily be able to sort the wood from the trees,irrespective on who was reporting;as is, it is clumsy, hence the emergency spin doctoring.

  4. sindy mdliva says:

    You are a star!You have hit the nail on the head! Really what’s the hype about! People should learn to analyse a source and interprete it correctly before they reach crazy conclusions.The speech is very clear and the newspaper is selling a story,though I must say,in a rather unpleasant way.It’s up to us readers to know sensationalism and biasness that make our headlines these days.It’s crazy,you wonder why though,really

  5. Ewald Kruger says:

    I can’t help but wonder with which module of your man did you listen to what Zuma said. It should be obvious to you that is doing what he always does, trying to please all and sundry who will pay with their votes for his re-election and re-erection. He is a man of no principles, his actions over the past 4 years have spoken louder than words and no concern should be raised about it being lost in translation. What a load of Zuma sucking. Are you Mac?

  6. allseeingi says:

    EIther way, as the writer has said Zuma is fatally compromised and is unfit for the office of President, as he was before manipulating his way to power. He has presided over a fragmentation of the ANC in a way only its enemies could approve of, however, for the nation, the factionalism which has been the result has resulted in insecurity and a lack of confidence in the direction taken since Mbeki. Zuma’s endorsement of a legal system completely at odds with constitutional rights and to be administered in ‘traditional’ ways undermines freedoms which were hard fought for. “Freedom” does not mean the freedom to have one legal system in urban areas and a range or arbitrary variations on tribal justice in rural areas. This contradicts the idea of equality before the law that the ANC of Luthuli envisaged.

  7. GlobalCitizen says:

    To assign a certain level of intellect to a position (like presidency) means the incumbent must match up or exceed this level. When he speaks in public, Zuma is speaking to a national, if not global audience who will not understand his colloquialism. Therefore he must, by virtue of his office, assume language that is understood by his audience. To expect everyone to deconstruct what he says all the time in order to understand his colloquialism is preposterous. He is a statesman for goodness’ sake. Otherwise then we are saying that every time Zuma speaks, he speaks only to blacks who will understand his language. That is not fair. He is everyone’s president, whether they like him or not.

    I find Zuma’s public diplomacy very clumsy, if at all existent. He should be guarded enough to make sure that he says should always be stately. And that if taken out f context, it should not misrepresent him. We have heard him on many an occasion: it’s not good for woman t be single, woman should not be childless, gays were an object of abuse in his time. Goodness, he’s so out of his league he’s paying a different sport.

    As for City Press, the undertone of their article is insulting to Africans, and scares me to think that they think it s right to echo such to SA’s middle class, or anyone else for that matter.

  8. […] Considering the Babel of languages spoken in South Africa and how each developed verbal cues and connotations in state-sanctioned isolation, I think we'd all do well to ask, before assuming, if we've understood what the …  […]

  9. michaelgraaf says:

    Being acquainted with the “black” usage which you render as “kleva”, I read it into the City Press report from the beginning. But unlike your perception of this as legitimate opinion, I take the judgement that criticism of one’s “own” traditions is TOO kleva, to be an authoritarian and unacceptable one. However I agree with you that his other compromises far outweigh this.

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