ANIMAL insults appear in vogue. Although, come to think about it, animals have always seemed to play a disproportionate part in our political discourse. If a rat is not biting Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille’s toe, President Jacob Zuma is pontificating about the racial appropriateness of having a dog as a pet.
Of course, aside from the current glut of political insults, animals dominate no end of stock metaphors that can be both demeaning or complimentary: pig-headed, snake in the grass, laughs like a hyena, cunning as a fox, memory like an elephant. There is nothing new about allusions to animals — they are part and parcel of language.
But South Africa’s racist past has tainted many such comparisons. I remember a fellow tutor of mine at university, as innocent as he was naive, walking into a somewhat demographically representative tutorial and saying unthinkingly to the class: “Hello, you bunch of monkeys.” That didn’t end well.
Not everyone uses this metaphor naively, however. For example, should a white person call a black person a monkey, even if only in reference to clownishness, it comes inextricably coupled with a history of violent prejudice and the idea of a sub-human savage. It will be some time before the common allusion can be separated in the public mind from this historical injustice and, whatever the intention, such comparisons are best avoided.
Animals also play an important part in African culture. When Eskom sought to run a public campaign to deter cable theft, there was a reason it referred to such criminals as “izinyoka (snakes)” — the snake being a powerful cultural reference to something evil and reviled.
So animal metaphors and comparisons are perhaps more meaningful in South Africa than elsewhere and it is little surprise the public record is replete with examples of politicians denigrating each other in this way. It doesn’t say much about the level of debate (although that would apply to any debate defined by insult, whatever its nature), but it is worth interrogating because as we move from one temporary outrage to another, we forget just how prevalent such insults are.
Thus, I have delved into the archives and present in no particular order the top 10 animal insults — 10 types of South African political quotes that generally seek to demean, belittle and embarrass the enemy by comparing them to animals.
1. Monkeys and other primates
Former African National Congress (ANC) Youth League leader Julius Malema features heavily on this list, so it is appropriate we start with him. In April 2012, he compared Zille to a monkey, asking: “Have you ever seen an ugly woman in a blue dress dancing like a monkey because she is looking for votes?”
But he didn’t spare his own party from a similar comparison, saying of ANC leaders in January that year: “The people that did not want us here, they are baboons … but the baboons they didn’t know, they didn’t know how we work, that we have ways to get to our people. Those baboons, they don’t drink your tap water.”
Both comments caused an outcry. Malema defended the second by saying he was misquoted; with regard to the first, no apology was forthcoming. Interestingly, when a picture of him next to a monkey was circulated in June at a Bloemfontein school, Malema retorted: “Nothing shocks me … once you display a racist attitude, I don’t waste time, I deal with it right away because I know that is how they are brought up.”
Elsewhere, the DA’s Theuns Botha apologised in June for saying to the ANC’s Ntombizodwa Magwaza that “’n bobbejaan sê hoe (a baboon says how)” in the Western Cape legislature, and in January ANC supporters chanted at a rally: “Umama kaZille ugibel’ imfene, uZille uyathakatha (Zille’s mother rides a baboon, Zille is a witch).”
Again Malema holds pride of place, saying in October 2012, “If Zille had her way, she would declare the Western Cape an independent republic. You have put a cockroach in Cabinet and we need to remove that cockroach by voting the ANC into power.”
His closest competitor is former South African Students Congress leader Sitha Gqoma, who declared on Twitter earlier this year: “DA mischievous to visit Nkandla they will die KZN akudlawa pha and they must die like cockroaches!!!” After a complaint was laid with the Human Rights Commission he apologised. During the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were referred to as “cockroaches”.
Here we find one of former president Thabo Mbeki’s more famous quotes, and one might say prescient too. Writing in the weekly ANC Today newsletter, in October 2005, he warned the party was in danger of becoming an “ignoble, blood-sucking and corrupt parasite” because of power-hungry local councillors. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was more blasé when he said in December 2012 that, post-apartheid, the ANC suffered from “mosquitoes” who had started to treat internal elections as life-or-death struggles.
Zuma has a penchant for snake metaphors. First he would say of a departing Mbeki, in September 2008, “unjengomuntu oshaya inyoka esifile, ubhizi uyayishaya inyoka ife kudala, uyayishaya kodwa” (that is, it was a waste of energy fighting him — “you are like a person beating a dead snake”). Then, in July 2012, he warned against dangerous members within the ANC by saying: “You know you can live with a snake, but you must know whether it has teeth or it doesn’t, whether it is poisonous or not. If it is not poisonous, no fangs, you can play around with it. If it is poisonous and has fangs, you must learn how to live with it. Keep it at arm’s length. But understand what type of a snake, is it dangerous or not?”
Even intellectuals seem vulnerable to crass comparison. The South African Communist Party’s Jeremy Cronin said of the DA in May this year: “They can try to turn themselves into prime beef, but they will always be donkey.”
Back to Malema, who first said in August 2012, at a memorial service at Marikana, that “the democratic government has turned against its people like pigs”. He repeated the slur on a November 2012 visit to residents in Lenasia whose houses had been demolished, with an added flourish: “The ANC has become a pig and it is eating its own children”.
ANC national executive committee member Lindiwe Sisulu later responded: “The ANC that I belong to is not a pig.” All of which is rather ironic because in an August 2011 speech, Malema had said (in dismissing charges brought against him by the party): “The ANC is not a pig, it will never eat its own children. An ANC that eats its own children is no longer the ANC.”
“We’re headed for a predator state where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas are increasingly using the state to get rich,” warned Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in August last year.
8. Goats and Giraffes
What do goats and giraffes have in common? They are both nicknames. Former Nelson Mandela Bay metro mayor Nceba Faku is known as “Comrade Giraffe” and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe as “the Goat”. The latter is usually an affectionate reference but that didn’t stop candidates at Mangaung chanting “Iwile imbuzi! (The Goat has fallen!)” after Zuma’s leadership victory.
9. Elephants and hippos
“There is only one elephant in the room,” Zille said of social development spokeswoman Zodwa Magwaza in the Western Cape legislature in March this year. The ANC also accused the DA’s Botha of referring to ANC leader in the province Lynne Browne as a “hippopotamus”.
If Malema is the king of animal metaphors, Zille is surely the biggest target of this kind of insult. Her conduct “is more of a political vulture who can’t even wait for the prey to die but would rather go for the vulnerable”, said Cosatu’s Zet Luzipo of her in May 2011. But let’s conclude with another anti-Zille slur from Luzipo that captures nicely the inanity of all this animal name-calling: “Her approach confirms that she is a jackal in a sheepskin, a teenager trapped in a granny’s body. Come May 18 2011, all the monkey dancing and tricks will come to an end”.
A monkey-dancing jackal in sheepskin? What a dog’s breakfast.