THE BLOG

We Need New Names

In South Africa, aspiration to whiteness lives in most of the words, terms and phrases we use to describe someone or something we view far senior to us.

06/03/2017 05:04 SAST | Updated 06/03/2017 06:15 SAST
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Call me pedantic, but I have a very specific hatred for certain references that come commonly at most of our service spaces in South Africa, let me paint this picture for you:

You stop at a service station to pour petrol and the attendant comes to the window and greets with "Sho Mlungu wam" - literal translation: Hi, my white person. You chat to your family friends and they ask where your new place is, you answer Sandton, their response to this: "uhlala eslungwini..." – the motive and implicit meaning is that you are better off because you live among white people.

You give a great presentation and to acknowledge you, this is what is said "le outie ishaya is'Ngamla blind!" – Which translates to this guy speaks great English... The implicit meaning here is problematic because it places speaking great English as some form of achievement.

There are plenty more I could give but you get the crux.

My issue is a simple one: all stereotypes are enforced through repetition. If the repetition is not only allowed, but is enabled into common language, it starts going under the raider until it reaches a sense of normalcy that we all seem to understand and accept. The problem with this is with power relations in a country that has not even had a proper conversation around gender and race relations.

To put my irritation blatantly, in South Africa, aspiration to whiteness lives in most of the words, terms and phrases that we use to describe someone or something we view far senior to us. We reinforce, in a very subliminal sense, the idea of racial insubordination, by extension gender oppression is fuelled, and ultimately, the us and them mentality that in some sense has fed into these senseless ongoing xenophobic attacks; it is all an extension of power relations in a place where social cohesion is at a great imbalance.

The secondary wave of this is the use of type of language to bring each other down. Terms such as impimpi, tea-girl, clever-blacks, sell-out... It's all two sides of the same coin. It all enforces our differences by highlighting power relations, often to drive an agenda that bases human thinking outside of singular but rather as mobs. Not every black person votes ANC, not all Nigerians sell drugs, we do not all enjoy Generations or know how to dance, not all those who speak great English carry substance in their content, living in "white spaces" doesn't make me better... And above all this, whiteness and blackness should not be the bases from which we are differentiated, in 2017 nogal.

Yes, there is an ongoing need for social cohesion, but we cannot live as though this is an event. Every interaction affords each of us the opportunity to decide how we are called, what we respond to, and why we accept what others call us, perhaps we need new names by which we refer to each other, ones that are not infused by a history that celebrates everything that is broken about us.