Jou Ma se poes!
Spend a bit of time in Cape Town and you’re bound to hear that insult being let fly on the streets. Often it’s contracted to ‘Jou Ma se’ or, sometimes, a short, pithy ‘Jou Ma’.
While it sounds a bit clumsy in English, it works very well in ‘street Afrikaans’ and, despite being totally vulgar, falls into the classic genre of insults that heap dishonour on the recipient’s mother.
Vulgar or not, the shortened ‘jou Ma’ is often used tongue-in-cheek, almost affectionately. Which is a bit like saying ‘You silly cunt’ to an English person and not meaning it insultingly. The English, being a tad sensitive to the 'C-word', don’t readily appreciate being called a ‘silly cunt’, especially if they don’t know you too well. There's been many a night out when I’ve found myself ingratiatingly trying to explain that, being South African, my calling someone a cunt was not meant to be insulting. That’s when I tend to get told ‘You’re in England now, not South Africa!’
When I first moved to Cape Town in 1977, ‘jou Ma se poes’ was a phrase that I quickly learnt. Not that it ever became part of my vocabulary, I hasten to add. But, it took me a few years before I heard the extended version, a version that will turn the air blue in any surroundings.
My wife and I used to spend a lot of time browsing round good, second-hand clothing shops in a constant hunt for funky clothes. It was more a hobby of hers than mine but I went along for the ride, hoping to find good, second-hand books to keep me happy. A string of ‘Care Gift’ shops, a source of income for an age concern charity, stretched throughout the southern suburbs. Most of them could be relied on for some interesting stuff but the best one of all was in Kenilworth, a suburb we moved to from Observatory in 1980, and moved back to 10 years after leaving there in 1984. It was next to Super Meat, one of Cape Town’s best butcheries, and run by the very capable Mrs Jefferies, a small woman who never tired of talking about her son, Stephen Jefferies, the cricket player.
It was probably the combination of Mrs Jefferies’s management and sourcing skills, her staff of friendly old women, and the location, one of Cape Town’s more affluent suburbs, that made it the best of the Care Gift shops. Like many a charity shop that largely sells clothing donated by old people or the families of old people, the shop had a slight, but distinctive mustiness that can only be described as mothballs meet sweat and old perfume. But, to us, the place was an absolute treasure trove. We were there most Saturday mornings and even I, not one blessed with much patience when it comes to shopping, was happy to spend time browsing there.
A lot of the clothing was from the early seventies and sixties, not a trendy decade at the time, but lots of older clothes could also be found. Before long, my wife’s wardrobe was stuffed with beautiful and interesting clothes from the thirties, fifties and forties. I had a vast collection of beautiful collarless, cotton shirts and gorgeous silk ties that had been fashionable when my father was a young man. We even bought our wedding outfits there. Mine was a luxurious tuxedo from the fifties; hers a severe, but stunning forties outfit in soft, black, knitted fabric with interesting black velvet detail just below the collar bone.
One Saturday morning, during out customary browse, two bergies (*), a man and a woman, wandered into the shop. Kenilworth, despite the affluence of the area, has always had quite a large bergie population and one stretch of Main Road is sometimes referred to as ‘Prostitutes’ Mile’. I recognised the bergies as being part of a group who spent a lot of time outside the post office round the corner. No matter how drunk they were, which was all the time, they would always greet me with a toothless ‘Hello, Mus-ser’, sometimes, ‘Hello, Baas’. My wife would be greeted with ‘Hello, Mer-rem!’ More often than not, they’d ask for money.
The shop was quite quiet that morning. Mrs Jefferies was there, as were two of her assistants. There may have been one or two other shoppers apart from us. The two bergies started browsing amongst the clothes, permeating the shop’s mustiness with their pungent alcohol fumes. They were very unsteady on their feet, bumping into things while talking loudly to each other.
Mrs Jefferies asked them to leave.
She may not have been particularly rude to them but even drunks have a sense of injustice when their dignity is affronted by rudeness or a patronising attitude. They started to argue with her. As the altercation developed, they got louder and louder. The shop assistants huddled nervously in the corner, aghast at what was going on. Mrs Jefferies, as indomitable as ever, ordered them to go, threatening to call the police.
As they stumbled out, the woman turned round and spat out, ‘Jy is uit jou Ma se hol gebore, want haar poes was te besig!’ (**)
The insult hung like a heavy cloud. You could almost see the air turning a very dark blue. The shop assistants’ hands shot up, covering their faces in horror. Even Mrs Jefferies was stunned into silence. The shop assistants seemed to recover first, their faces flushed bright pink. ‘Oh, wasn’t that awful!’ ‘Did you hear what they said?’ ‘Well, I never!’
My wife and I looked at each other, nodded, then left the shop. We quickly got out of earshot and cracked up with laughter.
(Alcoholic hobo who hangs out on the streets of Cape Town) The word Bergie comes from the Afrikaans “Berg” (Mountain) of Table Mountain, where they used to live. Some still do, in bushes or caves. Many stay in the city these days. You seem them huddled in corners at night, wrapped in a blanket, wrapped around a bottle of booze. They are a colourful people, with their own mores and subculture. Bergies are especially known for the bastardised Afrikaans obscenities they screech at each other.
Wikipedia says that Bergie is a derogatory term used for a subsection of homeless people in Cape Town. However, I'd say that it is more of a neutral term than a derogatory one. You'll find many Capetonians regarding bergies with a degree of affection as they are relatively harmless (to others) people who have fallen through society's cracks.
(**) 'You were born out of your mother's arsehole because her cunt was too busy.' Rather crude and close to the bone, don't you think? It makes Yo Momma insults seem like compliments.