A homophobic fake washing powder ad was screened on SABC this week as a test to see how South Africans would respond to the use of the word “istabane” – and we failed miserably.
The ad for “Scoop” washing powder was broadcast on Monday night during SA’s biggest soapie, Uzalo. The fake promo featured an actor using the word, which is seen as a derogatory term for ‘gay’.
The ad was placed by the Find New Words initiative, which aims to devise or find new, non-derogatory terms or words in our home languages to represent the LGBTQQIAP+ (gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer, non-binary or non-conforming) communities.
The unique social experiment aimed to gauge if there would be a reaction from the nearly 10 million people who watched the ad. Incredibly, there were less than a hundred comments on social media about the use of the word, mostly from members of the LGBTQQIAP+ communities.
Find New Words founders Khanyi Mpumlwana and Nobantu Sibeko said the lack of outrage reflects how sexual and gender minorities are seen in South Africa. It also indicates the desperate need for the initiative’s work.
“If this was something racist, the whole country would have been up in arms,” said Mpumlwana in a statement. They added, “There might be sensitivities around istabane, but using it is not illegal. We want to change that.”
The Find new Words initiative was created by Mpumlwana and Sibeko in 2017 when they realised how difficult it was to have inclusive, representative and meaningful discourse when the only words that exist add to the stigma and “othering” of LGBTQQIAP+ communities.
In South Africa, the only words for those who identify as LGBTQQIAP+ in 9 of the country’s 11 official languages are derogatory or violent. “The existing words, such as istabane or imoffie, are insulting, violent and are based in ostracism and a culture of shaming,” explained Mpumlwana.
“In TshiVenda for example, people are labelled as matula/matudzi (bad omen/something unacceptable). So we need to create or reclaim LGBTQQIAP+ identifying words and phrases in South Africa’s languages that are humanising, instead of offensive.”
The search to find new words started earlier this year with workshops held across the country with academics, historians, anthropologists, sociologists and communities throughout South Africa to suggest non-offensive replacement terms.
Suggestions included changing verbs into nouns or combining two words together. During one workshop, for example, a group proposed the term Sekgele sa Mookodi for queer, which is derived from the words ‘umbrella’ and ‘rainbow’.
Find New Words Co-Founders Khanyi Mpumlwana & Nobantu Sibeko
Continued Mpumlwana, “To-date we’ve found over 150 words in 8 of our 11 languages and now want all South Africans to add their new words, or vote for their favourite ones via our website. Once that process is complete, we’ll engage with academics and linguistic experts to commence the process of vetting and refining the words to make them suitable for use in language.”
Mpumlwana went on to say how people cannot live with dignity and respect when they live in a society that has no choice but to label them as “unacceptable”.
“We need positive words in our own languages,” said Mpumlwana. “This will help in changing the narrative around what it means to be LGBTQQIAP+, and start to break the cycle of micro-aggression and prejudice that we experience every, single day.”
Once all the words submitted are vetted by the communities affected, they will be popularised via a countrywide campaign.