It was my activist uncle, the late Joey Marks, who first brought this use of language to my attention as a young boy. Their Orrel Laan home was around the corner from ours in Retreat, Cape Town, and I would often slip in there to admire his collection of racing pigeons and for my regular doses of political education.
Uncle Joey could be persuasive, especially so when he pointed to the racism revealed in the Good Book.
There it was, in the Song of Solomon: “I am black, but comely.” This was a shock to me.
Why would the poet describe Pharaoh’s dark-skinned daughter as contemptible and deformed, according to some commentators, but beautiful within?
Muhammad Ali would have had something to say about this – black and pretty, no “buts”.
Commentators have fallen over their feet to soften the blow but Uncle Joey was clear that even in the Good Book black was ugly.
I like listening to South Africans engage in casual conversation such as at the weekend braai. Next time, listen to how the word “but” enters the conversation.
“Oooo we have a new chap at work. He’s African but he’s competent, hey.”
I swallow hard on my chop and involuntarily think of the many uses of that braai fork. Why “but”?
Because we need to say two things – there’s an African at the office and believe it or not, he can actually do the job! Black incompetence is assumed, but here is an exception worth mentioning. The stomach turns.
There was this former colleague who would constantly bring rumours to my attention that somebody saw me drunk. Everybody knows I do not drink alcohol, but she persisted with these stories.
There were two problems linked together that she could not accept – a sober coloured teacher. I am not sure what irked me more, framing me as coloured – which in my politics is a call to arms – or insisting I was a drunk.
Then I remembered that this connection once enjoyed dictionary status – “so dronk soos ‘n kleurling onderwyser (as drunk as a coloured teacher)” – and so the exception was a “but” my colleague could not accept.
These “buts” run through all our conversations revealing deep prejudices and bigotry that we simply cannot shake off. It is part of us as South Africans, ingrained in our culture and education over centuries.
What follows, therefore, are oxymorons – an honest Muslim, a pacifist Zulu, a generous Jew, a strong woman, a smart African, a sincere Englishman, a fully-dentured coloured.
It is so easy to target the social media offences of Matthew Theunissen or Penny Sparrow. No need for “buts” with these unvarnished racists, they get straight to the point.
But in polite conversation we actually think of ourselves as more enlightened by inserting this contrastive conjunction (but) into what we think is an affirming sentence. Yet we are as guilty as Theunissen and Sparrow.
Maybe our over-anxious reaction to these offenders is, unwittingly, an attempt to deflect attention from our own complicity in everyday racism?
One of the challenges we face in post-apartheid South Africa is that our inherited language has not caught up with our transformation ideals. There is no dictionary to help ordinary citizens navigate this treacherous road called democracy.
And so “but” is often used innocently and the offending speaker would usually be surprised if you took offence. The way to deal with “the but people” should therefore be gracious rather than harsh and treated as a teachable moment rather than spur a rush to condemnation.
But in our accusatory culture, there is little space for mercy.
The prejudicial origins of the word “but” comes from our need to generalise, to make the sins of a few the affliction of the many. The moral infant Donald Trump is a noisy example of this behaviour.
To the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are rapists, women are, well, just about everything bad in his misogynistic world view. Back home, whites are racist and blacks incompetent, Indians are thieving and coloureds are drunks. On and on.
But, the bigot responds, I have a Muslim or black or gay friend. “Stop digging,” my children would respond.
On a positive note. A dear friend of mine, a young doctor called Heinrich Volmink, recently joined parliament. But he is not corrupt.