When I was nine and my brother was seven, we went to school in Washington D.C. for about six months. My dad’s work had taken him to the U.S., and the rest of my family tagged along. We lived in a part of D.C. that is now apparently very gentrified, and we went to the school round the corner, and had the best and grooviest time imaginable.
I loved my teacher (her name, no kidding, was Mrs. Love), and I loved having all these new pals with American accents, and having lunch every day in a cafeteria like I was in some kind of movie, and not having to wear a uniform, and being able to buy ice cream sandwiches on the way home from school, and sort of consciously feeling like we were having an Adventure. Another thing I loved, which I don’t think I was capable of fully articulating to myself at the time, was how my brother and I, two very ordinary South African children with what I see now were weird haircuts and super uncool sandals, were treated like we were celebrities from the moon. Like we were real big shots. None of the other kids had ever met a South African before, or even really knew what a South African was, and my brother and I were the talk of our primary school for a short while, there: two children from Africa.
The Lion King had come out that same year, which really ratcheted the whole thing up to another level. Kids used to ask us if we rode elephants to school, or if we had lions as pets, or if we knew any hyenas personally, or if we lived in a hut or a treehouse, or if we had ever been in a car before, etc. We would always tell them no, that in fact we lived in the thriving metropolis of Durban on South Africa’s eastern coast, in a house, that we were seasoned veterans of being in a car, that we had never so much as touched a lion, that at no time had a giraffe given us a ride to school. The other children were as disappointed by these answers as you would imagine. It would definitely have made my brother and I seem much cooler if we had gone along with the whole hyena business, but I clearly remember thinking that it was important not to lie about it, primarily because it would be so embarrassing for us when the other children found out that it wasn’t true. I see now that this was an error. It would have taken them ages to figure out the truth, like maybe until they were in their teens or even older, by which time the Lyster siblings would be long gone.
This was 25 years ago, and obviously since then I have come across many people who know all sorts of things about South Africa, such as where it is, or what apartheid was, or that Cape Town nearly ran out of water, or that it is a very scary place to be a woman, or that is it extremely beautiful, or that it is consistently measured as the most unequal country on the planet. I have learned that some people know all kinds of things about the place where I live. However, what I have also learned time and again is that for many citizens of this world, South Africa might as well be the moon, still, and that if one were so inclined, one could tell the most batshit lies about this place and they would be believed.
When you are in South Africa and you call someone a “pedo guy,” what you are doing is suggesting that they are a pedophile.
Two recent examples spring to mind: Melissa Cohen, a.k.a “Jungle Girl” the South African woman who married Hunter Biden a few months ago, and Elon Musk, the South African man who is Elon Musk. A story about Melissa Cohen came out in the Daily Mail a few weeks ago, and while there isn’t necessarily time to point out every single bonkers thing this woman has said in the process of constructing her self-mythology, nor is there time to really go deep on how insanely, almost cartoonishly racist the article itself is, it seems crucial to give at least a brief overview.
From the second paragraph: “But according to an online profile Cohen posted, she was first raised by a tribeswoman who took her on 'frequent visits' to her native land of Transkei in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. She claims she only learned English at the age of six, her first language being Xhosa, a tribal dialect.”
The “online profile” itself seems to have been taken down, but even if the Daily Mail distorted every single word of it, and even if she herself didn’t describe isiXhosa as “a tribal dialect,” this is still absolutely demented. Is it within the boundaries of human possibility that Cohen, a white person raised by English speaking parents in a wealthy (read: predominantly white and predominantly English speaking) suburb of Johannesburg, spent the first six years of her life speaking only isiXhosa? I do not believe so. Is it possible that she actually believes that the former Transkei was an independent country instead of an apartheid homeland? Once again, that is a no from me. Does she feel a bit sick when she tells people that she was “raised by a tribeswoman” when what she almost definitely means is “I had a Xhosa nanny.” Doubt it. Is she is trotting out this nonsense secure in the knowledge that few people outside of South Africa will question it, or even really care? Certainly.
Many South Africans are at least somewhat familiar with Cohen’s particular flavor of bullshit. We have seen this movie before, and will no doubt see it again. This morning, however, we woke up to a new one, when, in an effort to get a defamation case against him dismissed, Elon Musk alleged in a court filing that the term “pedo guy” was “a common insult used in South Africa.” That’s just how people talk in South Africa! They say wacky things down there! According to Elon Musk, when you are in South Africa and you call someone a “pedo guy”, you are simply remarking on their overall creepiness, merely “insulting their appearance and demeanour.” What you are absolutely under no circumstances doing is suggesting that they are a pedophile. No sir.
It feels insane to write this down, but let the record show that “pedo guy” is not a common insult used in South Africa. When you are in South Africa and you call someone a “pedo guy,” what you are doing is suggesting that they are a pedophile.
Again, it boggles the mind that I am typing these words, but it’s not just me who is standing firm on this point. I woke my boyfriend up this morning to ask him if he had ever heard anyone say “pedo guy” to mean something other than “pedophile.” He said no. Not even in high school, when the main hobby of boys is saying disgusting things? No. Not even at the particular all boys’ high school he went to, where it sounds like they were all incredibly mean to each other? No. Sure? Yes, very, and please can we stop talking about Elon Musk it is like 6:30 in the morning.
I asked my friend A, who also went to an all boys’ high school. Once again: no. I asked my other friend A, who said “we called people PK in junior school which was short for Porn King, but no. Pedo Guy has never been a common insult.” H, who went to a private all-boys boarding school sort of nationally famous for generating the most repulsive “locker room slang” imaginable: “As a world authority on this kind of stuff, the answer is a resounding no.” B: “It’s not a thing.” E: NEVER. Other B: “Never heard “pedo guy’, and we had an actual flasher who used to frequent the primary school bathrooms.” R: “No.” R, further: “How dare he blame it on being South African. The nerve. This is just like the thing with Hunter Biden’s girlfriend.”
It is just like the thing with Hunter Biden’s girlfriend. You would never be able to get away with this kind of caper if you were French, or Brazilian, or possibly even Australian. American cultural myopia is real, and there is a certain level of incuriosity about the rest of the world that comes along with that, but if Elon Musk was German, there is no way he would say something like that. He would be too scared that he would be immediately busted for making up one of the weirdest lies I have ever encountered. If Melissa Cohen was Italian, she would simply have to content herself with being extremely conventionally attractive, and have no recourse to all the “jungle girl” stuff about growing up with her best friend who was a cheetah or whatever. This is all just a long and dispiriting way of saying that most of the time, most of the world doesn’t give a shit about South Africa, or about any other country on the continent. We all knew that already.
Another thing many of us are all too aware of is that people love to believe things that Elon Musk says, even when they are extremely strange, and even when the animating principle behind them is “It’s fine that billionaires exist.” Perhaps this new pedo guy lie will just join the list of mad and obviously implausible assertions that people are simply hellbent on believing, alongside stuff like “car tunnels would be more efficient than a subway” or “It’s ultimately not a dealbreaker that Mars doesn’t have an atmosphere.” Nevertheless, I must take a stand on this issue: “pedo guy” means a guy who is a pedophile in South Africa, as it does the world over, because come on.