Was “pedo guy” a common insult among the youth in 1980s South Africa?
That’s one of the questions currently before a federal court in Los Angeles, which heard opening arguments in a defamation suit against Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Tuesday. The trial will interrogate Musk’s public spat with British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth, who helped rescue a Thai youth soccer team from a flooded cave in July 2018. After Unsworth insulted Musk’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to help with the rescue by building a small submarine, the Tesla CEO tweeted that the British explorer was a “pedo guy.” Musk then told BuzzFeed that Unsworth had a 12-year-old child bride based on information from a private investigator who’d previously been convicted of fraud. Unsworth’s lawyers are now suing for unspecified damages and accusing Musk of using his platform, which includes tens of millions of Twitter followers, to falsely smear a private citizen as a pedophile.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson told the court that the case would hinge on whether a reasonable person would read Musk’s tweets as accusing Unsworth of pedophilia. Alex Spiro, Musk’s lawyer, asserted in his opening statement that the term “pedo guy” is in fact a nebulous insult that was popular during Musk’s youth in South Africa and does not literally refer to pedophilia. During his own testimony on Tuesday, Musk said, “ ‘Pedo guy’ is used in other countries also. It’s quite common in the English-speaking world. I’m quite confident if you do a search, it will just say ‘creepy old dude.’ ” (It is unclear why Musk would hire a private investigator in an apparent attempt to substantiate the pedophilia claim if he simply meant to call Unsworth creepy.)
To check Musk’s claim that “pedo guy” was a term commonly used when he was growing up in South Africa, I got in touch with 17 people who attended Pretoria Boys High School in the 1980s at around the same time that Musk did. (Musk graduated from Pretoria Boys High School in 1988.) Of those 17 people, 13 of them said they did not remember the term. Three people said they’d heard “pedo” used in their youth, and one person remembered hearing various permutations of “pedo guy.”
Although a majority of the alumni did not specifically remember “pedo guy” as an insult, many of them did say that slurs were commonplace during their high school days, particularly racist and homophobic ones. (The school was largely all-white, though it did admit its first black student in this era, before the end of apartheid.) Several of them also cautioned that even though they were unfamiliar with the term, it still may have been used at the school. “I’ve never heard the term ‘pedo guy’ before. That doesn’t mean, though, that it might not have been around. Just not one that was used in my circle of friends,” said Norm Calmeyer, now a digital marketer in New Zealand.
It does appear that some people from Pretoria Boys High School remember “pedo,” but not “pedo guy,” as an insult in 1980s South Africa. Michael Cartwright, now the CEO of a software company in New Zealand, noted that he’d heard his classmates use “pedo” to refer to a house master and speculated that Musk was likely just using the term to mean “lecherous creep.” Peter van der Merwe, now a communications director in South Africa, noted that “pedo” wasn’t a common insult but that he’d heard it directed at people who “did something annoying or stupid.” And David Malan, now a photographer in South Africa, said he remembers “boys occasionally being called a ‘pedo’ if they showed an interest in a girl that was still in primary school or a few years younger than us.”
Ultimately only one person, Derick Smith, the CEO of a software company in Belgium, specifically recalled the term “pedo guy.” He wrote, “It is a variation on a theme. ‘Pedo Guy,’ ‘Pedo Freak,’ ‘Pedomuncher,’ and various others. Mostly means a suspicious looking guy (older) who hangs around schools, ogling kids.”
While there does seem to be some divergence in memory among this cohort of Pretoria Boys High School alumni, none was particularly sympathetic to Musk’s current legal defense. “The point is that boys made up and said incredibly offensive, dumb things and Elon Musk’s assertion is entirely plausible BUT we also had integrity, humanity, and empathy drilled into us and we were above all taught the value of ‘doing the right thing’ and standing up for what is right,” wrote Carl Wesselink, now a director at a nonprofit in South Africa. “And even if those values somehow didn’t rub off on everyone, most people eventually grow up.”