Dashiki Dialogues: ‘Cleva’ is not the same as clever

2012-11-11 10:00
Percy Mabandu
Oh dear! What are we to do? The president seems to distrust education and educated people.

Perhaps we should all be outraged, like I failed to be last week when I read reports of President Jacob Zuma’s statement at the ­official opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders.

Among many things, he was quoted as having said things like: “The people who write in papers are educated. They think they are telling the truth. It is not . . . it is propaganda.”

I just shook my head lightly when I read this and other news of how the man from Nkandla rebuked what was reported as “clever blacks”. The president is said to have slammed black people “who ­become too ‘clever’”.

Zuma has the gift of resorting to the colloquial vernacular when he is launching an attack on his detractors. Either slipping into light-hearted Zulu platitudes and rapturous laughter or bursting into song, he deploys the commonplace to disarm threats of seriousness.

That’s all well and good. However, I found last week’s remarks about “clever blacks” ­particularly fascinating. You have to know how the tag “cleva”, not “clever”, is used in the black vernacular to get how it reveals the president’s attitude ­towards “high” knowledge.

In the neighbourhoods where most black people are socialised, “cleva” means more than just saying someone is intelligent. To say “you are a cleva” is not to say “you are clever”.

The former carries a dismissive punch reserved for clueless, self-important smarty pants or the delinquently astute fast talkers who terrorise unsuspecting victims, either on the playground or in neighbourhood meetings.

So when you find yourself in the tricky throngs of a smarty pants during a debate, you simply tag them as a “cleva” and dismiss all they say. The tag delegitimises everything they say as rank trickery.

Now, the tag “you are a cleva” as a weapon of debate tends to also make its way into grown-up ­discourse as a disarming tactic.

People confronted with ideas that strike them as more superior than theirs, or threatening to their hegemony, will dismiss the new views as criticisms of a “cleva” person.

It is the same with the uneducated or the uniformed who’ve once been hoodwinked by the “educated” tricksters who knew more. They ­become distrustful of anything that resembles the assailant who victimised them.

So, Zuma unlettered, ­distrusts education as the preserve of these “cleva” types.

It is worrying because all our dialogues about development will mean nothing unless they are wrapped up in education’s dashiki. Regardless of Zuma’s apparent bibliophobia.

» Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu