What is in a South African name?

Reading time 5 min.

A few weeks ago, South African Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana informed her nation that she had approved the changing of twenty-eight names in Mpumalanga, one in Gauteng, five in the North West and eleven in KwaZulu-Natal provinces. This raised so much hue and cry, inevitably from the ‘career’ opposition Democratic Alliance and other political organisations like the Afrikanerbond and Freedom Front Plus (FF+) traditionally operating at the extreme end of the governing African National Congress [ANC]socialist ideological scale.

Names mean a lot to South Africans – a huge conflagration of rural and metropolitan culture that was bruised by years of the brutal Gog and Magog Apartheid regime. I would not be surprised if Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island triggered an avalanche of inkululeko [freedom] names! In fact, names mean a lot to us Africans, since they carry a strong message about ancestry, cultural and spiritual connotation. South Africans love traditional indigenous names, while we Zimbabweans and Zambians prefer English and Jewish nomenclature. South African blogger Sipho Hlongwane once wrote that ‘black people are far more likely to be named after one of the 12 Disciples, or a medieval Anglo-Saxon despot!’ This of course, would exclude Judas ‘the traitor’ Iscariot.

African parents tend to stay clear of names with historical connection to political dictators, but the predicament is that nationalists start so well, luring whole communities to be named after them, including buildings, streets, airports, colleges and stadiums. By the time they become nasty, thirty years into a brutal fascist rule, children get burdened with names of fallen heroes everybody hates. In my long life – if half a century is not long enough – I have met Southern Africans named after Kwame, Samora, Kenneth, Robert, Hastings, Muammar … African nationalists whose glory faded in a mist of bad governance.

Coming back to case in point, the ire of South African Caucasians against name change is understandable. Perhaps some of the place names, like Nelspruit, have been etched in their genre since the seventeenth century. To now call it ‘Mbombela’ would be an affront to a hard core Boer traditionalist who despises anything Zulu. Others like Krugersdorp and Steynsdorp join a group of names that have strong Dutch relevance, which is why White South Africans argue that they are targeted for change.

In sovereign states, names assume a larger than life historical significance, thus when a country attains political independence, it is healthy to use original, traditional names for public places. But if there is a name that has caused so much controversy in South Africa of late it is ‘Ukweshwama’. This is no reference to a street, town, city or village, no. Another South African blogger, Sentletse Diakanyo says this is a ‘traditional ceremony [where] Zulu warriors [used to] kill a bull barehanded by strangling it to death. Perhaps during the days of King Tshaka such display of heroism by Zulu warriors were much more relevant as the era was about the survival of the fittest.’ Animal Rights Africa [ARA], a continental watchdog for animal rights have condemned this not as merely a name of traditional rites, but a masked reference to cold-blooded cruelty and murder of innocent defenceless animals!

Colonial historians have gone out of their way to associate Zulus with militant violence. Modern history has documented violent confrontation between ANC supporters and those of Inkatha Freedom Party – the one time icon of Zulu political supremacy. Traditionally, Zulu men carried knob carries and played games with sticks. We also know that it is acceptable for a ‘real’ Zulu man – including current President Jacob Zuma – to ‘dominate’ women by crowding them in one homestead calling them ‘wives’. During the liberation war, most mining hostels that were dominated by Zulu workers had unending tribal conflicts. And so in ARA’s mind, the overwhelming assumption is that ‘Ukweshwama’ is an extension of ‘Zulu violence’. They could be wrong, but in a democracy, everyone, including the Boers of Orania, is entitled to an opinion.

Names mean a lot. On any other day, the word Ukweshwama portrays an aura of blissful innocence. Names have that tendency. Izangoma – what South Africans call ‘traditional healers’ or ‘fortune tellers’ – practise nothing other than daylight witchcraft. Legend has it that even premier league coaches occasionally seek the misguided ‘wisdom’ of these apparitions to influence match results. FIFA 2010 has invited a wave of interest around the phrase ‘commercial sex worker’ to describe prostitutes who will swarm on unsuspecting millionaire ball players from Africa and beyond. In local Zulu lingua, these ‘workers’ tend to be called ‘izifebe’, ‘amahule’ or ‘amapimpi’. Feminists have sworn that such insulting terminology should attract a respectable prison term!

Take a ride around any South African city, and by the time you get to the outskirts, you are confronted by what development workers term’ informal settlements’. The big prize winners are Khayelitsha in Cape Town and Alexandra near Johannesburg. Of late, Zimbabweans fleeing Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime have camped outside Polokwane in ‘temporary relief shelter’, another nice name for shacks or the UN’s more respectable ‘tent city’.

Thus, when ANC’s Commission on Religious and Traditional Affairs retorts: “Don’t you EVER call our tradition bad names, you intrusive ‘whites’ with no respect for our tradition!”, their opinion requires attention. Yet even in true African uBuntu, taking a life, by any other name is murder, but in practise, the theory assumes twisted connotations. When Africans celebrate a wedding, we ‘slaughter’ a beast. Americans ‘slaughter’ millions of turkeys for thanks giving day, while Moslems ‘sacrifice’ sheep in praise of their God. We ‘kill’ poisonous snakes, and ‘put down’ pets we love so as to eliminate their distress. Liberals support guided ‘abortion’ while Christians hate those who ‘kill’ unborn babies. Chefs at five star hotels ‘fry’ lobster and game wardens ‘cull’ elephants. A careless motorist who runs over a drunken cyclist will be jailed for ‘manslaughter’, while O.J. Simpson was acquitted of first degree murder. And so, for ARA, that which is ‘sacrificing’ a bull barehanded is by any other name cold, blooded, cruel, murder.

Rejoice Ngwenya is a Zimbabwean think tank leader with COMALISO and an associate of African Liberty.

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Rejoice Ngwenya is a regular columnist for African Liberty. He is a Zimbabwean Freemarket Activist and Political Analyst based in Harare.
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