Last night, a friend and I walked into a bar in Port Elizabeth. We entered into a delightful dialogue with two gentlemen about the harsh realities of life and cultural experience in South Africa. These gentlemen happened to be isiXhosa speaking, black South Africans. At some point in the evening, two white English men entered the bar and introduced themselves. On being unable to pronounce the name of the one gentleman, one of the white men asked, “but what’s your ‘English’ name? Everyone has an English name.” The attitude of the English man caused my new isiXhosa friend visible distress, and he attempted to engage in dialogue with the man about why his attitude towards the African name is offensive. His efforts at dialogue were dismissed, and very shortly after their dismissal, a bar brawl ensued. Lips were split and brow ridges beaten. Admittedly, much alcohol had been consumed, but I have always found that alcohol serves rather to expose latent attitudes rather than inventing attitudes that did not originally exist.
I am a white, English speaking South African, and, once again, I was forced to examine some of the harsh realities of English attitudes about race and cultural difference in South Africa. And, more importantly, I was presented with a choice. Should I have left, returned home and avoided taking any part in the violence that ensued? Or was I to add my voice to the criticism of this attitude of white, English superiority? If you’re English and consider yourself to be a ‘liberal’, you’ve also faced that choice. It’s always presented itself, and will continue to present itself. It is not going away.
The consequences of that choice are simply frightening. There is no other way to put it.
In running away, we manage to secure our cultural identity, reaffirming, whether privately or publically, that our ‘Englishness’ – and all its associated privilege - is to be maintained above all other concerns. In running away, we tacitly condone the racial slur, and admit that racism is an organizing force that efficiently functions to maintain our position of privilege. And in running away, we admit that we are cowards, too much addicted to our comfortable way of life, and unwilling to part with the attitudes and beliefs that sustain our culture.
Through speaking out, however, we negate our identity. We admit, to ourselves and to those others present, that we are unwilling to maintain an identity that seeks to arbitrarily assert its linguistic and cultural power. We advertise the fact that we are not to be trusted, that we are a threat to maintenance of the language’s cultural position, and that we must be kept at a distance. And, most importantly, we cast off the restraints of a culturally inspired fear that prohibits the emergence of a human being.
I chose to speak out. And I will never again remain silent. It may cost me my identity, but I can no longer maintain a sense of self that compromises and undermines humanity, including my own.
Sadly, I get a real sense that the English have been regarded as ‘the better half’ of white South African populations. In the shadows of an increasingly militant criticism of Afrikaans and its position as a language of power, English has quietly tightened its grip on almost every aspect of life in this country. To put it simply, the English language is the most efficient colonising language in the history of the human race.
My surname has its roots in Ireland. At some point in the last one thousand years, my Irish ancestors would have spoken Gaelic. Woven into their language was a vast oral history around which all culture and thought was organised. At some point, English arrived in Ireland. It brought with it its alien systems and structures of power. It brought with it its church. And it incessantly began to eat away at Gaelic’s foundation. Today, less than twenty percent of Ireland’s population speaks Gaelic as a mother tongue, and almost none maintain historicised Gaelic cultural and religious practices. English has systematically erased the Gaelic language and culture. It has, quite literally, wiped it from the face of the earth.
This pattern is visible in much of English’s colonial past, and it continues to occur in South Africa. While one can easily appreciate the causes behind the vilification Afrikaans, we must begin to imagine English as the language of the oppressor - the language of the real oppressor. It is the only – and I mean only – mediator in the pathway to success in this country. If you fail to play by its rules, if you fail to integrate into its structures and systems, it will prohibit access to employment and an income.
My new-made isiXhosa friends are actively engaged in the re-emergence of Steve Biko styled Black Consciousness. Moreover, refusing to be bound by the traditional paradigms of race and racism, they have – with an inspiring effort – begun the process of re-imagining African identity and culture in ways that are lessening their binds to English life.
Names are not innocent. I will give my child an isiXhosa name. And it will be impossibly difficult to pronounce.