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Tsotsi Stole My Taal

by Athenkosi Matyalana / 04.07.2012

It’s a warm Saturday morning, a rare occurrence in the Western Cape‘s freezing wet winter. I’m sitting outside my house, downing a quart of Carling Black Label in an attempt to kill my babalaas. My mate Andies joins me with two cold ones. “Heita,” I greet him. My etiquette is rewarded with silence. Then laughter. I begin to grill him about the cause for this disrespect. “What is your problem?” He tunes me to never use such words when referring to him. “You should use proper Xhosa, English or Afrikaans when you speak to me.” He instructs.

How could a male of African descent have such negative attitudes towards Scamto? To those who do not yet know what Scamto is the reincarnation of Tsotsitaal. And Tsotsitaal was a fusion of South African languages, primarily based on Afrikaans, Sotho and Zulu and popularised during the 40s and 50s primarily by thugs, because, at first, only they could understand it. But back in the bad old days, anything underground and secretive was quickly co-opted as a form of resistance to apartheid. However, the association with criminals led to its near extinction in the 70s and reincarnation in the 90’s as Scamto. Its return to popularity was fueled mainly by the emergence of kwaito and bubblegum music. It gave voice to a rebellious black youth that had just been freed from the shackles of apartheid. And this gentleman grew up Soweto in the 90s. Right in the middle of a cultural and linguistic revolution!

“So Ta Andies you don’t like iScamto?” I ask, incredulous.
He retaliates with a quiz. “Is it even a language? Did our ancestors speak this kak?”
“Obviously, they didn’t.” I say trying to get over his condescending tone. Silence returns again. It seems my throat has become larger. I swallow two glasses in minutes.
He stares at me and says, “I refuse to speak this kak. It’s a form of bondage. It shows that the ‘darkie’ has not learned to speak properly. Plus, it is commonly used by uneducated people to belittle those who did not leave school at recess. I’m not a tsotsi; I don’t have to speak in code. Understand?”
I respond by blowing foam from my glass.
“Don’t you have anything to say?,” he asks me. “Well,” I reply. “To me Scamto is a sign of unity and tolerance amongst black people. It breaks down all cultural and ethnic differences.” He downs his last glass of beer and says, “end of conversation, I’ll see you tonight.”

After our ringas, I am left with questions about Scamto. Could Ta Andies be right? Could Scamto be contributing to high percentages of young people who are unable to pass exams in their mother tongue? Does it lead to the high dropout rates and illiteracy? If it’s not criminal, then why do those who speak it fluently have street cred? And anyone who can’t is seen as either rural or a coconut? There seems to be a strong new movement back towards traditional African values. And Scamto is one of those things that is easy to associate with the more negative aspects of township youth culture. In the search for self and rising paranoia of the fall of black people, we need to make sure we don’t end up relegating unique parts of our culture to the slag pile of history.

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