What’s in a name?

2011-04-09 13:57

Aletta is my neighbourhood mielie lady. Whenever I need a mielie fix, I respond to her calls and go out and meet her on the street.

I look forward to our brief interactions and I assume she does too because she always picks the juiciest of her stock for me, for which I happily pay double.

We chat about various things: the weather, how her kids are doing, how business is going.

The point is that we chat, and we chat in Afrikaans.

My Sesotho is halting and so is her English, so our common ground is Afrikaans – such is the irony of South Africa.

Aletta has three kids so supporting a family on mielie sales can’t be easy.

But she perseveres and that commands my full respect.

It was out of respect that I first asked her what her name was.

I had become one of her regular customers and I thought it appropriate that we at least took the anonymity out of our interactions.

I remember her expression of both puzzlement and suspicion when I asked for her name.

I explained that if I was to be one of her regulars, I did not want to be rude and not greet her by name each time. She smiled then hugged me, and we’ve been on a first-name basis ever since.

Delani Dlamini is a car guard who works outside my office complex.

He supports his girlfriend and their five-month-old baby, who recently had to be taken to hospital for digestive problems – probably due to being fed inappropriate food.

Last weekend, Delani and his family were evicted from the building they were squatting in.

He sent his family to Eastern Cape while he remains homeless and continues to scrape together whatever car guards earn to send back to them.

These are the stories of millions of impoverished South Africans and I happen to know these particular stories only because I asked Aletta and Delani what their names were.

We are all aware of “the struggling masses”, but their reality never hits home.

“They” are usually used as political pawns, or numbers and statistics, to track our economic development, and “they” are always someone else’s problem, that is, until you put a name to the face.

One of the many life lessons my late father taught me was to treat a street sweeper with the same amount of respect you would a president, and I benefit from the wisdom of those words daily.

Like Aletta and Delani, I make a concerted effort to find out the names of the invisible people most people come across (but don’t see) on a daily basis.

So my daily morning journey alone brings me into contact with Bongi the newspaper seller, Vusi the security guard, Siphokazi the cashier, Freeman the barista and David the Homeless Talk seller.

I’m really bad at remembering names, so it has taken quite an effort to memorise everyone’s names. But a little effort has brought immense reward.

There’s a subtle but significant change in the attitude of a person you greet by name.

The most important change is the eye contact. There’s not only a deeper sense of recognition, but a friendly smile that accompanies a sincere greeting.

If there’s time, there’s a bit of chatter about this and that, which then leads to a slow unveiling of personal details – as in the case of Aletta and Delani.

What this simple interaction creates is a tentative bond of trust and mutual respect, and trust and respect is what our society is desperately lacking.

In South Africa we are good at calling each other names, but we prefer hurtful names. We spit them out carelessly and thoughtlessly.

We like names that stick like tacky labels: the ones that leave a residue of glue that never quite rubs off.

Last month, a volley of insulting names were hurled at “the coloureds”.

More recently, a member of a teachers’ union called white people “Satanists” and a Hawks detective called black people “baboons” while hurling abuse at a security guard (one of those “invisible” people).

We love our name calling.

It keeps our perceptions in neat, stereotypical boxes because unpacking those boxes is hard work, and you never know what you just might find festering at the bottom.

South Africans are quick to link poverty to high levels of violent crime in the country, but recent studies have shown that it is not so much poverty but social inequality that breeds a violent society.

The simple act of asking someone’s name won’t bridge the gap of inequality, but it does acknowledge that person as an individual rather than a faceless demographic.

However fleeting that acknowledgment is, it plants a seed of respect. Just imagine what we could harvest if we all just sowed a few simple seeds.
» ?Chang is the founder of Flux Trends

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