Living in South Africa, this is a much-overused term, derogatory, harking back to the Apartheid era. In my opinion, it indicates a strange paucity of the English language in a very necessary area.
Let me start with a lot of my own opinions of words I have used in Africa, starting at primary school in Kenya.
Aged 6, a critical, central word in our vocabulary was kali, loan word from kiSwahili, that (like most swahili words) had broad, multiple meanings. It could mean sharp, like a knife, hot, like pepper, or quick to temper for an authority figure like a teacher. The very first thing to know about a teacher was kali or not - could you mess around in class. The kali ones would hit you.
After I moved to the UK, I found that this word had disappeared. Maybe this was not surprising, as it was a swahili word, but what was surprising to me was the concept had also disappeared - there was no equivalent word. And - teachers had changed - there were no kali teachers. Maybe I had just grown up.
Staying in France one summer, my French improved a lot, and I discovered the word ‘‘sympa’’ - which can roughly be translated as nice, orsympathetic, but is much more accessible than that in French. It means you like the person, and they have time to listen, empathise, support. There is no English word that catches the french meaning.
Since living in South Africa, I have also gained an appreciation for Afrikaans - a rough and ready working language like kiSwahili, with a lot of humour and expressiveness. I often come across Afrikaners with good english skills that are momentarily at a loss to translate some Afrikaans word into English. I don’t think it is their fault - I can easily believe that English does not have that word.
Let us move on to words for people of a different race. We inevitably dip our toes into racist waters - but lets be robust about this - we need words for this. The Zulus have a word for a white person - Umlungu. Various people will tell you that this is derogatory, and comes from white scum of the sea, or something. But if I am walking down a road in Zululand, a child will point and say Umlungu! She simply has no other word to use to point out this unusual thing. I am Umlungu. I wear it with pride. I do not see it as a derogatory term.
America has battled with this one - around black people. We are over nigger - a word white people cannot now use in any context. It is still a legitimate word for blacks talking about other blacks, where the racist angle is gone, and they just want to be derogatory - black trash. America has settled on African-American, and Black, as non-derogatory monikers.
South Africa has its own ‘N’ word - kaffir - unusable in polite company by anyone. We are not quite comfortable with Black - it still sounds a bit dodgy, but it is slowly shedding those connotations. Not quickly enough though - a newspaper report will not report a black motorist -they are just a motorist. Zulu, or Xhosa - works great - but you do not always know their racial background - a Tswana would not be happy being called a Zulu, like a Kiwi doesn’t like being mistaken for an Aussie.
The stage is set. Lights are on. I need a word that says I treat black people different to white people. Because I do. I try not to, in ordinary circumstances, but plain common sense says I do. Black people treat white people differently - because we are different. The girl says Umlungu!! - you can’t pretend to a six year old that I am just like all the other people on the road. I have better clothes, I am not carrying things, I don’t live or work there. I am different.
There are black people like me - if they walked the same road they would also get attention.
Stop the presses. Andy is a racist.
There is no other word in English that comes remotely close. Consider the english word-space as a collection of stars in the sky - bright stars, dim stars, empty areas. Afrikaans has a different set of stars - there is a big, fat, bright one that says LEKKER - a very accessible word that means tasty, nice, good, we are agreed, and a million other things. Swahili has fewer, but brighter, stars. In English there is a bright star that says RACIST. It is surrounded by a completely empty area of sky. There are no other stars even close - this one seems to have sucked all the light out of the immediate neighbourhood.
My South African friends don’t like to hear that. “No, Andy - you’re not a racist!” Yes, I have black friends, and No, I am not what they mean by racist. I just cannot find a good word for what I am - and that word screams at me.
The word is being bandied about a lot these days - lets pick South Africas favourite whipping boy, Julius Malema. He accuses Helen Zille of being racist, he has accused the DA of being racist, he has accused Jeremy Cronin of the SACP of being racist (despite Cronin’s impeccable communist credentials in South Africa). In turn, the Young Communist League accuses Malema of racism for his attack on Cronin. Don’t we have any other words ? It is all so depressing - I don’t think we do. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.