Open secret of black South African identity exposed

2017-02-15 09:14

It seems so convenient that you can call the maid so easily: “Gladys, please come and sweep the lounge.”

And James the gardener’s name is so easy to pronounce.

The fiction of names is a secret hidden in the plain sight of a new South Africa – an open secret that has its roots deep in the history of racial segregation that predates Apartheid.

In fact, even if you went to a so-called integrated school with black friends, it is unlikely that you even know that your friend Stanley might actually be Mmutlanyane, or Mike’s name might really be Matadingoana. It’s a game black people have been playing since the first settlers with guns arrived in what is modern day South Africa: Adopting names suitable for the eyes and verbal ability of their oppressors so as for themselves to be more palatable to the whims of a master. Slavery names

Slavery has had a deep and perhaps fundamentally disturbing impact of the culture of people of colour that can never be regained.

In the corner of the Slave Lodge museum in Adderley Street Cape Town, you will find a simple exhibit that harkens back to the days when slaves were traded in the mother city.

And here, within spitting distance of the modern parliamentary precinct, lies the legacy of names given to slaves by their masters: Januarie, Februarie, Maart, to cater for months of the year, or Van Wyk, Van Jaarsveld to indicate their white owners, the near amusing Gedult (Patience) and Storms, and the downright unimaginative De Swardt and De Bruin (The Black and Brown). No matter what names were given, there is no doubt that they were a world away from their original names, rendering a solid full stop to the history of an entire people. While this practice mainly applied to slaves imported from the East, it must be noted that culture suppression was endemic in the colonial outposts, regardless of who was the colonial master.

The dawn of majority rule has done nothing to change the fact that many people of colour continue to perpetuate their own modern oppression with these slavery names.

While I’m a native English speaker, I do not find that Ayanda is a difficult name to pronounce, yet an Ayanda felt it important to introduce herself as Princess.

It was only when I confronted her about her identity that she revealed her name.

Dehumanising bureaucratic process

From Apartheid history, a bench with the sign that it was reserved for whites only. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Even as we celebrate the icon Nelson Mandela – and even call him by his clan name Madiba – it is rare for most, including those in the media, to call him by his given African name, Rolihlahla.

The name Nelson was given him by his teacher, Miss Mdingane, on his first day of school.

In her poem, My Name, author Magoleng wa Selepe takes aim at the procedure during the dark days of Apartheid, but the reality of political power without economic power has left many non-white South Africans in the continued position of adopting the slavery name as a prospect to gain economic opportunity.

To illustrate how dehumanising the bureaucratic process was in assigning palatable names, it is best served to borrow from the excellent poem:

He gives me a name

Convenient enough to answer his whim:

I end up being

Maria …

I …

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa.

The problem, of course, is deeper than names, but names in themselves are symptomatic of a person’s identity.

Aren’t you offended (even a bit) when someone gets your name wrong? (No-one buys that “A rose by any other name” stuff anyway).

People of colour not only live with this reality, but, in a weird twist on Stockholm syndrome, an entire people have taken on the attitude of their oppressors by denying their very identity.

Authentic reconciliation

How does this lack of cultural identity affect people? What are the symptoms of a nation in denial of their true heritage?

There are few non-white South Africans who can trace their family history more than four generations. More often than not, the trail runs cold after great-grand parents, if you even get that far.

In my own family, the oppression of the Mixed Marriages Act (55 of 1949), Population Registration Act (30 of 1950) and Natives Land Act (27 of 1913) forced a change in surname so that my paternal grandfather Fred Mohlale became Fred Alfreds.

On my maternal side, a Mashego morphed into Marsh resulting in the acceptability of that generation to access housing and common careers open to people of colour at the time.

Slave names posted at what was once the site of slave trading in the Cape. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Can South Africa be redeemed the history of racial oppression through the denial of identity? Perhaps, but it must be through the anxious and determined pursuit of true national reconciliation rather than a fancy talk shop.

Such reconciliation is the only legitimate methodology to generate national integration that narrows the space for neo-racist ideology to surface.

But take this warning: It is not an easy or straight road, and will no doubt raise some ghosts from the past that many would prefer remain buried.

Try these African names for size:

Xhosa NameMeaning
GugulethuOur pride
KhuselwaBeing protected
BonganiPraise you all
LelethuOur own
LisolethuEye for us

Zulu NameMeaning
NonhlanhlaMother of luck
NomceboMother of wealth
NobuhleMother of beauty/goodness
SiyabongaWe are grateful
AndileThey have extended
VusumuziRekindle the family
S’fisoWish/what we had wished for
JabulaniBe happy

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