A colleague of mine in July passed me an interesting article from the South African Sunday Times on the battle which was raging in the South African media about the word lekgoa. The two protagonists in this battle were Mr. Tony Harding as well as the poet, Antjie Krog. At the heart of the argument is what the etymology and meaning of the term “lekgoa” is. An exploration of this useless debate took me to corners I had not imagined. “The root of the word ‘lekgoa’ (plural ‘makgoa’)”, writes Hardy, “is the ‘(go) goa’ which means to ‘tease’, provoke’, challenge.’ The spelling ‘lekgowa’ is preferred as it reflects the correct pronunciation of the word, even though common dictionaries use the form ‘lekgoa.’ He continues to argue that: “A further verb derived from ‘(go) goa’ is ‘(go) gwaela’ which means ‘to tell stories at someone else’s expense (in order to annoy him/ her).’ In ordinary terms the word is described as having the following contextual meanings: ‘to lack decorum’, ‘to be rude’, ‘to be annoying’, ‘to cause embarrassment’, ‘to be an embarrassment (or a person who embarrasses you)’, ‘to be disrespectful’, ‘to have no regard for other people’, ‘to have no shame.’ The word ‘lekgowa’ denotes a person who is ‘disrespectful’ towards you or ‘undermines your dignity.’ The English language talks of ‘defamation of character’, and this is sometimes given as a further explanation of the word.”
Where does Hardy come from? Has he discovered something new or his rumblings are an eye opener? He continues to argue: “If you use the verb ‘(go) kgoa’ about someone, either black or white, you are saying that certain behaviour is socially unacceptable. The term ‘lekgowa’ means that the person is part of a class of persons who ‘lack respect (for other human beings).’ The term can be used for a black person, but with a negative content – that ‘the person thinks he/she is white (i.e., lacks respect for other human beings.’” Where has the usage been captured in the literature? Hardy continues to argue that the The Groot Noord Sotho Woordebook (Comprehensive Northern Sotho Dictionary) ascribes the meaning of the verb ‘(go) kgoa’ as ‘to tease, provoke, challenge.’ In another sense, the word ‘kgoa’ when used as a noun, can refer to a fighter. A similar word is the Northern Sotho word “goa” which would mean in English ‘to shout’, which is sometimes offered as the root of the word ‘lekgoa’ with the explanation that ‘whites shout instructions to black.’ The word ‘dikgoa’ means ‘the screaming of many people.’” What’s wrong with Mr. Hardy’s argument? Well, only one thing: His argument is based on faulty etymology. There is no evidence that the term lekgoa has its roots on kgoa or goa? He dreams his claims. Then comes in Prof. Nhlanhla Maake – former chairman of African languages at the University of the Witwatersrand who argues that the word simply meant “white person”, which was only negative if “one attaches it through the tone of voice”. Given, but the term certainly doesn’t just mean any white person. Maburu ga se makgoa although they are white! But wait the battle is not over yet. Krog had also argued that the term lekgoa may be traced to the noun kgoa or in our spelling kgofa or tick. Here she was suggesting that blacks saw whites as ticks or blood suckers, and therefore called them called them makgoa. And here comes John Shaw Diphaha who justifies this meaning thus: “Tswana-speaking exiles in London explained that the reference is to whites behaving like parasites in their dealings with Africans in the same way that ticks do on “the hindquarters of domestic animals” or any animal.” Is the dreaming over? No! Diphaha continues: “In Tony Harding’s explanation some years back, the word “Lekgoa” was derived from the verb “Go Kgoa”, to spit. As a noun, “Go Kgoa” falls under class 5, and when the “Go” is dropped and “Le” is prefixed, a class 3 noun is created. The word Lekgoa then takes the meaning suggested by Krog and Harding. A further refinement has been suggested, which is less offensive than the other two. The spitting here is said to refer to “those who have been spat out by the sea”, a reference to how the whites first arrived on African shores. But the question is, why the choice of the word “spit” as a root for the word? Why not a descriptive word relating to the sea, “Lewatle”, their supposed place of origin, as is common in Setswana when naming anything? My teacher’s explanation was that the whites were so acquisitive and inhuman, even the sea could not hold them; it just “threw them up. Things have changed, with the old concepts and mode of expression having been overtaken by the global village. Lekgoa has metamorphosed; the black middle-class are also referred to as Makgoa (the plural form of Lekgoa). Whatever linguistic twists are adopted, Lekgoa is by no means complimentary to white folks. Should it be “K-worded”?” If you follow the arguments carefully they are loads of guess work, which masquerades as informed etymological research. Some guess that lekgoa comes from kgofa (tick), kgwa (vomit or spit), goa (shout, scream) while others guess that it is from gwaela (tell stories about others).What is however common about all these pieces, is that none of them has any shred of evidence. There are no examples of the contextual usage of the term at the turn of the century, or even some 50 years ago which reflects the changing semantics which might suggest origins. Go ikwalelwa fela kwa ntle ga bosupi. This kind of semi-scholarship is dangerous since it can be believed as fact, especially that now it has since been deposited in Wikipedia – something which some may take as holy-writ. What is clear is that the term as used at least in the past 50 years, has positive connotations of wealth, educatedness, cleanliness, leadership, good smell and gentlemanliness. The suggested negative connotations are not known to Batswana and are only imposed on the language.