Hey Coolie! From One ‘Coolie’ To Another Why The C-Word Is Offensive

The Indentured Naidoo family (L - R) BACK - Muniamma Naidoo, Dhanum Ramaye, Lily Ramaye Seated Moonsamy Naidoo, Muniamma's Parents

Showcasing the identity of the South African Indian as we remember the story of the arrival of Indian-indenture 160 years ago. The SA Indian community of South Africa are uniquely African and so are their stories . Submit your piece of history to us for a feature click here

OPINION: Historically, in India a ‘coolie’ is someone who carried luggage at train stations. But here in South Africa ‘coolie’ is a not so forgotten term that’s a derogatory term for Indian South Africans.

In 2019, staff at a fast-food KFC branch in KwaZulu Natal endured a stark reminder that racism is well and alive. I felt a sense of disgust watching the viral video of the incident.  And now we have Cathie Geldenhuys who made passionate love to the word ‘coolie b*stard’ which has now unearthed painful reminders for the South African Indian community.

Symbolically that word defines our ancestors’ history – one that bore the brunt of colonialism; the expectations of the White master; the expectation of being one that enriched the upper class and expect nothing in return; the baggage of being enslaved in essence.

I could go on but you know what I mean or I hope you do.

The term ‘coolie’ is classified as hate speech in South Africa – along with the likes of the k-word.

kfc south africa racism
A White patron unleashed the k-word and c-word a number of times to the disgust of bystanders.

ALSO LISTEN: KFC racist man identified, wife speaks out. Read the full story here

[Coolie] became the bureaucratic term for the British invaders who used to describe indentured laborers. It gradually developed into a highly charged racial slur.

Why is ‘coolie’ not as bad as the ‘k-word’?

As you can see I cannot bring myself to type out the ‘k-word’ but I am splattering ‘coolie’ all over. I am trying to make a point here. The k-word infuriates many but my problem lies with the word ‘coolie’. The derogatory term for Indians is seen as a watered-down version of the k-word – one that doesn’t equate the same rage.

However, I do hope as of today that it will be taken with the same passion we share for one being called the k-word.’ I look back at my grandparents and their journey, I remember vividly cases where my grandfather was called ‘a f*ckin’ coolie’ a number of times.

Have you forgotten that us Indian South Africans have endured as much as any other ethnic group under the Apartheid regime?

So why are we as Indian South Africans not fuming and speaking out about it constructively?  

Are we that disillusioned of our place in a democratic South African society? Does our identity as a South African Indian mean less? It seems between the Black and White race wars, the Indian identity just slips through.

Or is it that we as an ethnic group just lazy – wanting politicians to say ‘coolie’ is just as bad as the k-word?

I am not encouraging you to take up arms but its time to open dialogue on this. Educate not just your brown kids about racism but educate everyone around you that it’s not okay – in any conversation – to call someone a ‘coolie’.

Equality court magistrate John Sanders ruled on the matter of two members of the KwaZulu-Natal African-consciousness pressure group, the Mazibuye African Forum. The two were found guilty of hate speech for “anti-Indian” comments they made in articles and interviews including the use of the c-word.

Sanders had this to state in his judgement:

 “Hate speech is not constitutionally protected, precisely because it strikes at the heart of human dignity, equality and freedom, and has the potential to impinge adversely on the dignity of others and to cause harm.”

He ruled that one comment, while it may be hurtful to some, did not “contain the vital element of incitement to cause harm”.

Origins of ‘coolie’

The dictionary definition of “coolie” is “a hired laborer.”

The term is synonymous with the thousands that left their native lands to be part of a system of indentured labor in British colonies. The word “coolie” is a derivative from the South Indian language Tamil and Telugu, in which the word “kuli” means wages; similar-sounding words with equivalent definitions exist in other South Asian languages as well. The British soon adopted the word into the English language in the 1830’s as the indentured labor system gained popularity rather than the use of the word slavery.

But for many in the Indian South African community, the word ‘coolie’ is a painful reminder of a troubled history of indentured labourer in South Africa. But don’t rush too quick to call it the ‘c-word’ just yet, the British identify the c-word for the derogatory term ‘c*nt’.

That’s how I would define the White patron at KFC he is the c-word – the British version that is! Let’s take this man to task. The rule of law applies let’s make this stick, you are as much as any other citizen here in Mzansi; you’re a South African.

Like the saying I have heard many a times, ‘n boer maak a plan, maar a coolie maak a beter een.’


About the writer: Naufal Khan is Publisher at ADISHAKTI Media, connect with him here


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