It was business as usual in parliament when, on the 15th of February 2011, Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, delivered his speech at the debate on the State of the Nation Address which was presented to parliament five days prior. Within just a few minutes after the speech had been delivered, the whole country was inundated with tweets, facebook messages and comments and bloggers deliberating on what happened. It was no surprise when, the following morning, Dr. Blade Nzimande’s speech was front page news.

Nzimande’s speech was not visionary; in fact, it was the usual government stance on education and of course the result of apartheid. No, what got the whole country talking was his use of racist language.

“The 2010 improved matric results are a testimony to the fact that we are beginning to put our schooling system on an even better footing,” Nzimande said. “But unfortunately, from the media and the opposition benches, we have the same ritual every year. If the matric results are bad, this is taken as a proof that this government of "darkies" is incapable. If the matric pass rate goes up, it means the results have been manipulated by these "darkies". In either case, the sneering, arrogant tone of this discourse, which is often racist, frankly, is aimed at undermining the confidence of our people in both our education system and our government. And they will not succeed in that.”

The word “darkies” is township slang for being black and it is used when one behaves in a bad manner. It can be likened to the term “kaffir” or “nigger” in the US. It is a word that (white) racists use in dark corners and doesn’t represent who or what we are as black South Africans. For the Minister to be comfortable in using that word reveals the age of the democratic South Africa.

South Africa is one of the youngest democracies in the world. This year, on the 27th of April, we turn seventeen. After suffering forty-two years of apartheid rule one supposes that it’s understandable that Dr. Blade Nzimande was acting out like a seventeen-year-old child in parliament. I am positive by the end of it all, the invited guests—students from Cape Town High School—felt like they were in school witnessing their day-to-day activities.

Under apartheid we were subjected to humiliating and depressing situations where our forefathers were forced to call their employers “baas” – loosely translated boss. We were forced to carry a pass to move from one location to another. And we were forced to live in townships where matchbox houses were created to limit families from being with each other. Most of all, we were called names that cemented our already depressed state of mind like “darkies” and seventeen years down the line the Minister uses the word to make a point?

We don’t expect to see change in seventeen years; we know that it will take longer than that. We expect the Minister to respect our dignity and to use appropriate words in his speeches. If he had little to say, he could have resorted to elaborating on how the apartheid government’s racially segregated and unequal government – run education system affects his department’s work in the present day to elucidate his point—as is seemingly the tradition with Ministers.

In light of this media frenzy, I was reminded of Dr. Nelson Mandela’s words in his autobiography; Long Walk To Freedom, “I detest racialism because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.” Dr Nzimande should follow the exemplary leadership of his superior.

To assert the point, democracy and freedom are never an excuse for anyone to use racially charged words when addressing people. By using the word “darkies”, Dr. Nzimande missed an opportunity to keep our young democracy moving forward. Instead he reopened a wound that is just beginning to heal. As an honourable member of parliament, Dr Nzimande must serve as an example of rules that apply both to Black as well as White parliamentarians – without exception.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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