I love it when doyens of freedom of expression such as Eminem(yes, really) compose songs that land themselves to good use in the wonderful world of literature. If you don’t know who he is or his critically acclaimed hit ‘My Name Is’ I suggest you leave it at that because obviously cultural art laced with a few profanities is not your thing, and we don’t want you blaming me for introducing you to Mr Marshall Mathers III if you are not ready for him. Just in case you are wondering, I’m only borrowing the title of his song, ‘My Name Is’, and not the lyrical content.
I’ve never really had a heart-to-heart with my dad as to why he christened me Sydney, but I’ve always answered to various versions of the name. Sidi, Masidi, Syd, and the streetwise Signature, said with more emphasis on the –nature part, Sig-NATURE. If you really wanted to prove your township street-cred to me you would call me M-sig-Naro. And lest I forget, Smith, like you would normally say Smith, no twisted phonetics there. But that’s just it, I am Sydney, I own the name, in all its varieties. So what, you are asking yourself, or you should be if you’re not.
On two occasions recently I’ve been ‘insulted’ on social networks (okay, Facebook) for answering to a ‘colonial’ name, Sydney. On both occasions I’ve simply let the insults slide because I considered the insults water off a duck’s back. Only, I couldn’t resist raising my silent (or is it invisible) middle finger to those people. For me, once a person resorts to insults in the course of a discussion then it says more about their (flawed) character than yours and it’s best to exit the discussion with your dignity and reputation intact. I find my silent mental insults more dignified. Besides, I find it a whole lot easier to apologize for a mental insult if it turns out it was misdirected, silently.
Imagine my indignation this week when a Facebook post of an acquaintance sent my mind scuttling back to those two insults. The essence of the post was “if there is a black parent in South Africa today giving their child an English name then there is something wrong with them”(read ‘mentally enslaved’). This was a third insult and I could not let it go unanswered, three-strikes-theory sort of thing. Pent up anger is dangerous, I might raise more than my middle finger if I ever meet those individuals so I decided to do what any self-respecting writer would do, WRITE about it. Cathartic I tell you.
Look, I’m well aware of the role words have played in the continued subjugation of people throughout the world. Virtually every former colony’s vocabulary has a word that when used against the indigenous or oppressed population conjures up years and years of denigration and countless insults.
Names being words could not escape the bastardization that human beings seem to impart to everything they touch or look at. Like Maya Angelou put it in her short story, “My name is Margaret”: “Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name.” It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks”.
The only reason I’m responding to the said insults is because the people doing the insulting have taken on a mantle of being self-appointed spokespeople of the Black Consciousness philosophy, seeing as the demise of formal structures like the Black Consciousness Movement left the philosophy without formal custodians. Like every well-meaning philosophy or religion, Black Consciousness has not escaped being twisted to imprison those that it originally sought to liberate . It’s only a matter of time before children are abducted in the name of ‘freeing black people from colonial mentality’.
First things first, the liberation struggle has its boundaries. There are boundaries that it cannot and must not cross. I’m reluctant to quote the US Declaration of Independence for fear of being accused of being a ‘House Negro’ who has been culturally brainwashed to think Uncle Sam has an answer to everything. I bring this up because the right to name your offspring is not a legal one nor a cultural one, it cannot be dictated to by a phase of struggle or life philosophy, it is a natural right, an inalienable right. The words ‘unalienable/inalienable rights’ have come to be synonymous with the said Declaration of Independence, but are available for use to everyone, even those bearing colonial marks on their foreheads or Identification cards.
Some very enterprising parents have chosen to name their offspring after liberation heroes, so a Samora (Machel) is not uncommon. Some have chosen to name their children Freedom and Liberty, using the African version of the names of course. I know you’ve focused on Samora, Liberty and Freedom but the operative word there is ‘chosen’. The right to choose a name for your offspring, be it English, Xhosa, Tsonga or Russian is a right that must never be linked to legal rights.
In the course of fighting for a people’s liberation it is very tempting to want to become a custodian of ‘their total liberation’ because they cannot see that they are oppressed. Big mistake. The total liberation of a nation cannot come from outside, like personal liberation it has to come from inside. A liberator is one who would ‘educate’ the oppressed and lead them in the direction of their choice or urging, not one who anoints himself or herself to the point of declaring ‘English names are a sign of mental slavery’.
These self-anointed exponents of Black Consciousness or Pan Africanism are always on about how ‘you’ve let the enemy live inside your mind if…1) you give your child an English name, 2) appreciate elements of western culture etc. The list is endless. Yet no one judges them when they extract what they can from Western culture but condemn others when they do the same. Hypocrites!
Personally I’ve always been suspicious of anyone who boasts about something they had no part in acquiring. Maybe your parents named you Kunta Kinte or Sandile for instance, yes it’s African, but what freaking role did you play in acquiring the name?
Lest I sound like an angry child deprived of his favourite treat, I wish to indicate to you that I absolutely love beautiful names, African or otherwise. Both kids that I have been blessed with the opportunity to call mine bear African names, more than one in both cases. But the naming of my children was never a site for the struggle of the emancipation of colonially enslaved African minds. They were simply names that meant the world to me and my family.
I might add that our first-born, in addition to his two African names also answers to an English name. The reasons for him bearing that name would never in a million years be subject to “mental emancipation rules”, I would give him the name over and over and over again and …, you get the point, right?
Like I said, I don’t know why my old man chose to name me Sydney but I absolutely respect his right to have called me what he chose to call me, political and cultural emancipation not withstanding. I will proudly answer to that name and all its versions till my walk on this earth is concluded.
For those who choose to use the naming of their offspring as a site of cultural and post-colonial struggle, good luck to them. I respect their right to ’emancipate their minds’, my dearest wish is that they could respect everyone else’s right to do the same, choose what to call their children freely. Choosing without the threatening insult of being declared a ” colonial slave”.
Which makes me think, surely there is a word in literature somewhere for one who sees the enemy in every corner they look, imaginary or real? This enemy lives in the mind of the said ‘liberators’ that they find a reason to fight for liberation everywhere: in love, in the bedroom, in the naming of their offspring. These people are seduced by the idea of a struggle, a struggle against an enemy that lives in their minds whispering, “fight, fight, fight, fight…”.
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery….
“We hates us some poor people. First, they insist on being poor when it is so easy to not be poor. They do things like buy expensive designer belts and $2500 luxury handbags”. I read this line and agreed with it fully before understanding where the writer was going. If there’s one thing you do today, make your way here to read the whole blog, it’s most enlightening.
It’s not just poor people we pass judgement on, we also do it on friends who are going through tough times, we expect them to live by “our logic”. ” I would have sold that car and tablet by now if I was in their situation”. Really?
It’s very difficult to be a poor person. There is an invisible social code that one must learn, know by heart and live by. Don’t believe me? Listen to everyone around you and you’ll hear it: “if only they would stop wasting their money on liquor and clothes they wouldn’t be so poor”. Every Poor Person’s Guide to Living and Looking Poor, henceforth referred to as “The Poverty Handbook”.
Rule number one in the Poverty handbook: don’t do anything that makes you appear like you are having a good time. Dressing well is a no-no, I mean, you are poor for heaven’s sake!
Growing up I didn’t know what poverty was, we had what we had and what we didn’t have we didn’t know. So all was good. Imagine my shock when I was told I grew up in a poor village? What? So wearing shorts in freezing winter was poverty, I just thought legs were meant to freeze in winter, everyone around me thought the same. What, socks? No, those were a luxury item and only a few kids could afford luxuries like that.
“Poor But Clean” is a T-shirt slogan I grew up around, I didn’t own one, and I’m glad I didn’t but I quickly learnt that poor folk were generally regarded as “unclean”, hence the need to make the declaration. I guess the poor folk from my village chose to ignore this rule from the Poverty Handbook because bathing was a ritual there. Ok, so maybe I reluctantly partook of this ritual in my formative years but I knew my grandmother loved me to a point, she loathed a filthy grandchild. Left to my own devices I would have cheated my way around taking this expected daily bath.
Mind you, playing out in the fields didn’t excuse you from a full body scrub, the local river served as an alternative bath place. Peer pressure made sure you too wanted to show off your high regard for bodily hygiene. So weekends and school holidays found us bathing by the river.
The Poverty Handbook must also have some rule about how poor folk must avoid saving money to treat themselves to “expensive” items(read “items that are regarded as a sure sign of upward social mobility into a not-so-poor social class”). Those poor people who defy this rule and save a few bob to treat themselves to these “luxury” items are clearly frowned upon: “I mean really, what’s the logic of installing satellite television whilst living such abject poverty?” Now, hold on, why do we expect logic from poor folk when the authors of the Poverty Handbook themselves are not best friends with logic?
I fraternize with plenty of middle class folk who are barely holding it together but are sporting the latest iPhone and thinnest tablet. Such folk would use the latest iPad to confirm that their bank balance is still at zero, the miracle didn’t happen, but frown upon “poor” Jerry spending his last cents to acquire a “dish”, township slang for satellite TV (to the uninitiated). The authors of the Poverty Handbook also forgot to include some well-known celebrities who think it’s logical to buy a R4m car on installment. I mean really now, give poor people a break. They too deserve their own illogical choices.
Not that I’m one to support the idea of a BMW 7-series parked outside a shack, hell No. That person has no claim to being poor, they are just a middle-class slob going through an identity crisis.
I have seen people frown on “poor” Zandi dressing her two-year-old in Nike sneakers “knowing fully well that she is on the government grant”. Surely she should leave these sort of “illogical” choices to broke middle-class and rich parents, only they deserve to spend money they do not have. The irony of it all is Zandi probably never swiped a credit card to buy the sneakers.
The most demeaning page of the Poverty Handbook has to be the one titled “If you can’t feed them don’t breed them!”, mostly seen on SUV-type vehicles headed towards middle-class and rich suburbs. This is one bumper sticker that always single-handedly manages to up my blood pressure considerably any time of the day. I’ve had visions of myself driving a monster truck that would ride roughshod over any SUV bearing the said sticker, because I’ve concluded such people are not too bright(read stupid) and medication to cure their sickness is proving very elusive to discover.
The supposed logic of this part of the Poverty Handbook is that to get rid of poverty the poor should refrain from procreating, I mean, after all, only food provision qualifies one to be a good parent, right? Let’s see, if poor people stopped having children that would wipe out two thirds of the world and we would have plenty of space to drive our SUVs, right?
The scary part of this logic is that children who struggle to adjust to the rigors of life are mostly from these “let’s breed because we can feed them families”. Poor folk somehow learn to go by without and adjust to their circumstances. The people consuming most of the designer mental health drugs like Prozac are not the poor folk, it’s the folk bearing those “don’t breed if you are” stickers.
Besides, it is the height of hypocrisy to suggest that the act of procreation be there for the sole enjoyment of the upper classes of society, I mean really now, a monopoly on sex?
In my next life, I will come back a Dictator-President-of-the -World-for-Life, “Your Highness” will do thank-you. And I will introduce a Handbook for the rich(and famous): first rule in the book: Money and Fame do not equip your to perform social analysis, keep your Guide To Living In Poverty to yourselves, after all you need more common sense than poor folk.
The authors of the Poverty Handbook are the first to scream that “we are all different you know, we don’t want the same out of life”. Yet, the poor and financially unfortunate are very uniform because frankly “I don’t see why you need satellite television if you are poor”. How about entertainment? Are poor folk not entitled to entertainment? Granted, having a top of the range full bouquet of channels might be pushing the limits of acceptability into the struggling classes but poor people need their daily dosage of entertainment just like the rich bigots.
I’m one those poor souls who was endowed with the special gift of losing important pieces of paper and books all the time. Steve Jobs and the rest of the geniuses at Apple became demigods for me when they invented the iPad. Everything that needs recording is in the tablet. Whilst the super rich see it as an unnecessary luxury(in the hands of the poor), it is a life saver for me. My morning prayers are followed by a very discernible nod in the direction of the Apple Company in California. I guess if it came to sacrificing this gadget in the face of dire financial straits, I would have to sell the clothes off my back before parting with it.
I guess the Poverty Guide to looking poor and financially struggling has not really sank in my head yet. Tasked with designing a replacement for “Poor But Clean” T-shirt I would be very comfortable with one that said “Financially stressed but still with my iPad”.
Vanity is also a chapter in the Guide to living with Poverty(and looking poor). Most people dress really well irrespective of where they come from, and when things really become tough, this is the one area they will not allow to give them away. Sort of like the rich sticking to the sports cars to keep up appearances of all being well when they hit the hard times. Who gave the rich monopoly over vanity?
What it comes down to my friend(thanks Alanis Morissete), is to each according to his own devices, rich or poor. Otherwise we become hypocrites like this lady here:
“There was a woman who looked out of the window, and complained to her husband about how dirty the new neighbours washing was and made fun of her neighbour for not knowing how to do laundry properly. She complained about her neighbour to her husband every day until one day, she looked out the window and to her surprise, the neighbor had beautifully clean laundry hanging on the line.Â The woman expressed her surprise to her husband that the neighbour had finally learned to do laundry decently. The husband said he knew why. He said he had gotten tired of his wife’s complaining and gotten up very early that morning and washed their windows!”(source unknown).
“That’s his problem, he thinks he’s white”, says the immaculately dressed gentleman to his friend as we shuffle along in the typical month-end slow-moving bank queue. “But all Coloured and Indian people are like that, they think they are white. I dare him to try that sh*t with me and I’ll tell him where to get off,” his friend responds, with a facial expression that leaves no doubt in my mind that he would do more than “tell him where to get off”. The two gentlemen behind me in the queue obviously don’t care who overhears them, in fact they probably think they are entertainment, and who am I to argue with such deep social analysis in the face of bank queue boredom?
I had read the bank’s computer monitors “Safe Banking Tips” over a hundred times and was learning to do it backwards when these two gentlemen joined me in the queue. With the over-zealous bank security personnel having ensured I can’t continue sharpening my “Candy Crush” skills because of the “No Cellphone” rule in banks, I was staring at despair in the face when salvation came in the form of these two gentlemen.
Their conversation reminded me of a blog post I had read about two weeks ago. A Kenyan of Asian origin wrote the piece lamenting her place or lack place in today’s Kenya. A touching and very open look at an Asian in Africa, with harrowing details of the ills that sowed the distrust between Black Kenyans and Kenyans of Asian ancestory. This is not unlike today’s refrain by South Africa’s Coloured (and Indian) folk that “during apartheid we were not white enough and today we are not black enough” to benefit from the ruling class. Unlike Kenya’s Asian minority, Coloured people have no other country or continent that can be referred to as their “original” home. This is it.
Originally the products of the union between Africans(Blacks) and Europeans(whites), they are now constitute a sizeable and thriving community on their own and do not need either of the two original races to continue their existence.
The two gentlemen in the bank queue sum up the views of quite a lot of black people who interact with Coloured and Indian people at a professional level. That the said colleague thinks he’s white is not an indication that whiteness is to be envied but more a measure of the said colleague’s delusion that he places himself on par with “former slave masters”. What those two gentlemen meant is that there are Coloured and Indian people who think that they are superior to black people simply because they are Coloured/Indian.
Now, apartheid as a social system was a failure in many respects. But a casual observation of the interactions between South Africa’s melanin-gifted groups, Coloureds, Blacks and Indians is enough to persuade one that apartheid was not the dismal failure we all wish it had been. Apartheid’s architects “got something right”. See, they devised a system so devious that to refer to it as simply “divide and rule” undermines their twisted brilliance. Apartheid managed to divide by ensuring that even the oppressed were subdivided into further warring subclasses. Categorizing each other on the size of crumbs they received from the master’s table.
Amongst the groups that were to receive crumbs from the master’s table, Coloureds and Indians were hand-picked to receive slightly bigger crumbs than Black people. The success of the system lay in convincing some of the recipients of those crumbs that they got bigger crumbs because they were better people than black Africans. And sure enough, some Coloured and Indian folk bought into that racist lie, leading them to treat their African brothers and sisters with disdain, such as white people would. Leading to the refrain, “some Coloured people think they are white.”
Talk to black people from Durban about Indian South Africans and the story is not much different. In fact some black people would tell you that it’s actually better to have a racist white employer because the attitudes of some Indian South Africans is much worse than that of racist white people”, fighting over crumbs again. One need only think back to the super-rich Gupta wedding guests’ alleged treatment of their black hospitality staff to be reminded of how tenuous the Indo-African relations can be.
“…Through the years, we have tried to become interwoven into the fabric of this society, yet I can’t help but feel that if this country were a jersey, we’d be that irritating strand of cotton that, try as you may, you just can’t cut off. Which is a shame, seeing as how much most of us love this country, and that our ancestors were forced to move here…” , part of a response to a fellow blogger’s take on the ‘place of Indians’ in South African Society today. Not unlike the Kenyan Asian experience.
This is where my assertion that Apartheid had some spectacular successes comes from. If the system could get the recipients of crumbs to not only squabble over the size of the crumbs but to actually internalize an artificial feeling of superiority over a fellow oppressed then the system achieved its objectives.
If the above gives you the sense that South Africa’s ‘people of colour’ don’t get along, that’s far from it. South Africa’s struggle for democracy possesses a rich history of harmony between the oppressed races. The Black Consciousness Movement that filled the void of the banned mass organisations in the 70s did a wonderful job of uniting all the oppressed groupings under one banner, and redirecting the focus of Coloureds, Indians and Black people at the master.
The result of that movement was that all the oppressed people could identify as one. No Indian, No Coloured and no Blacks. Just the oppressed who recognized that they had certain thing in common: more melanin than the rulers and right on their side.
It is the nature of prejudice that it takes a very short time to foster hatred and ill-feelings amongst the races but an inordinate amount of work to rebuild that trust. Just as the system that caused the divisions was the result of a carefully thought out system, building trust between the former oppressed people of this country will require carefully crafted systems to get people working together again.
Whilst a lot of people frown at Professor Johnathan Jansen’s ‘artificial’ methods of bringing racial harmony to a formerly racially divided University Of The Free State Campus, I’m one of those who see his methods as being very practical. Transformation should be more than just about numbers. The cohesion that results from transformation should lead to a more richer, fulfilling, colourful society.
It’s very easy to want to stick to ‘your own kind’, and indeed that’s what democracy seems to suggest, having the right to choose whom you want around you. But with each sticking to their own then we must not be surprised that we are unable overcome “not black enough or white enough” thinking.
Until another ‘great liberator’ like Gandhi, King or Mandela comes along, this work falls to all of us. Do your bit to ensure that nobody assumes an air of superiority amongst the races.
Besides, there must have been something naturally distasteful about being ‘chief’ of the crumb recipients. It must be a lot like being a prison gang boss, you have certain benefits but you are still a prisoner.