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Eusebius McKaiser: Mocking Accents is a Dangerous Game

Could I Vote DA?Eusebius McKaiser, author of Could I Vote DA?: A Voter’s Dilemma, has written a column about accents in South Africa.

In the piece, McKaiser speaks about the anxiety he experienced when he was required to give speeches as a teenage township boy who had gone from an Afrikaans primary school to an English school in Std 6. He says that learning “the grammar of whiteness” as a schoolboy helped in some spheres, but was a source of mockery in others.

The same is true in political spheres in South Africa:

Accent policing is a cruel business.

What’s interesting both about Madisha’s “Hong!’ madness and the president’s now (in)famous “NKAAAAANDLA!” mocking of those who can’t pronounce African words accurately is that mocking is clearly a South African sport across class, linguistic and political lines.

This is a dangerous game we’re playing. It represents the worst attempt to deflect attention away from argument and onto the person who is making the argument. It’s simply an obsession with playing the person as substitute for evidence-based reasoning and logical deconstruction of what they have to say. It aims to demean, to delegitimise and to silence. It is cruel and ungenerous and contributes to an impoverished public discourse.

We have such a rich history of laughing in the face of adversity that one doesn’t want to reduce the space for laughter. Political speech should not be restricted to factual claims and formal logical moves. Laughter is an important weapon to deal with tension and everyday absurdities. So we shouldn’t become immune to poking fun at each other.

But we must distinguish innocent laughter from poisonous attempts to halt conversation about serious matters like Nkandla. When President Zuma mocked his critics, he wasn’t aiming merely to poke fun. He was rejecting accountability. And that’s not funny.

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