Time to clean up on racist talk

My late uncle Phiri Ditle loved to tell the story of a little boy who embarrassed his parents by merely being honest.

My late uncle Phiri Ditle loved to tell the story of a little boy who embarrassed his parents by merely being honest.

The story was that a long lost relative came home from "the whites" (our parents' reference to work) after so many years his family thought he had long died.

There was jubilation all-round as family and friends celebrated his return. He was now an elderly man and it was deemed disrespectful to take issue with him.

During the celebrations, someone introduced the "prodigal son" to the youngster, who could not understand what the whole fuss was about.

When the youngster recognised the name, he blurted out innocently: "Oh, so you are the Modise who left his wife and children for years without sending them money for food! I know you!"

Like many of uncle Phiri's stories, the tale does not go any further. It ends with both of us laughing our stomachs sore and getting on to the next subject.

I could have thought the tale of Modise was all fiction, until recently when another uncle came to visit me and brought a friend along.

The friend's name is Brown, and though he can pass for African in the sick South African racial classification, he also speaks with a heavy "coloured" accent.

Brown lives in Eldorado Park, an area apartheid South Africa designated for "coloureds". Let me digress: I use quotes because I believe you are either black or white, and so-called coloureds as black like me and you.

But that is a subject for another day.

Brown is a great story-teller. He has the gift to tell a sad story that makes you laugh when you should cry.

A little boy in his neighbourhood, he says, came into his house and innocently declared: "Oom Brown, is dit waar dat Oom Brown ook 'n kaffer?" (Is it true that you are also a kaffir?)

Brown laughs, my uncle does, and so do I. It is sad, but it is also funny.

Now, it is easy to lambast the parents of the young one for instilling hate speech into the fella.

But let us be honest: in South Africa we continue to call people hurtful, derogatory names when we are among our own.

One radio station I have since stopped listening to has presenters who let listeners refer to people as "lekula", "leboesman" or "leburu" without even objecting or correcting them.

It does not excuse the insult, but honestly, there are black people who sometimes do not mean to hurt when they call some of these names, but this is quite rare.

They therefore give their beloved children names like Nomakula, Malekula or Leburu.

But when we call people le-Shangaan, iVenda, leZulu, lePedi - the prefixes in these terms refer to inanimate objects, not people - we should not be surprised that some among Brown's neighbours think he is a "kaffir".

Let's clean up our own act so that when we call others racist, we are spindle clean.

Now take me to the Human Rights Commission.