More to our beloved African names than just a label

S'thembiso Msomi Without the Gang
Image: 123RF/HONGQI ZHANG

We need to talk about names, our names, African names.

Even people with a cursory understanding of the global African experience under slavery and colonialism know how even the right to one's name was not always guaranteed for black people.

Africans snatched from this continent and sold as cargo in the trans-Atlantic slave trade would, on reaching the other side, lose not only their rights to their culture and language - but would be banned from calling themselves by their birth names.

Who can forget that scene in Alex Haley's Roots where the protagonist, Kunta Kinte, is whipped to near death for refusing to accept his slave name, Toby, and for insisting on being called Kunta Kinte? For his capturers it was important that he accepted the new name as it symbolised acceptance of his fate as the property of someone else.

Back on the African continent, in colonised societies, conquered people were also forced to take up European names - and sometimes surnames - as their rulers sought to erase their pre-colonial identities.

This is why the African liberation struggle often went hand in hand with the drive to decolonise people's names.

In our case, there is generally a difference in the names of people born before 1990 and those born afterwards. Most of us born before the collapse of apartheid have at least two names - one African and the other European.

But you hardly find this among the so-called born-frees.

A name identity is therefore a political issue, an emotive one.

It is for this reason that I am troubled by the phenomenon of deliberately changing the names of people we disagree with in order to ridicule them or register our unhappiness with them.

My first encounter with this post-1994 was during a teachers' march in KwaZulu-Natal a few years after we attained freedom. It was a march organised by different unions and the protesters were fairly racially mixed.

The unions' anger was largely directed at then provincial education MEC Prince Vincent Zulu. But there were these banners carried by some of the protesters which had the MEC's surname spelt as "Zooloo".

This disturbed me and left me wondering if these protesters realised that they could be accused of insulting an entire clan, rather than their intended target.

And then, a few years later, I came across an American leftist academic and activist who was fond of telling audiences that "Thabo" - in reference to then president Thabo Mbeki - was "Botha" when read backwards. Implied here, of course, was that there were similarities between Mbeki and the apartheid-era president PW Botha.

In recent years, especially as the push-back against the Gupta state capture project gained popularity, we have seen those associated with the treasonous plot getting their names amended.

Andile Mngxitama has transformed into Mguptama and Malusi Gigaba has, to some, become Malooty GiGupta. It is a lot of fun, for sure, and is very much in line with that South African trait of finding something to poke fun at even during extremely difficult times. But is it right, though, given our history?

To most Africans a surname is not just a last name, it is one's identity and a connection with a clan from which they spring.

Some even believe that when you greet someone by their surname you are not only acknowledging them but their people too. Given all of the above would it take anything from our criticism of wayward figures if, in doing so, we continued to call them by their given names?

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