It has been said that THE most beautiful thing a person can hear is the sound of their own name.
In fact, in some cultures, the first time a baby’s name is said, is when it is softly whispered into the newborn’s ear.
In other cultures, naming a child is an ancestral rite of passage, while the monotheistic religions have age-old customs around the christening tradition.
It is such a fundamental part of who we are, that academic studies have looked into the significance of names.
For example, in the book Freakonomics, a whole chapter is dedicated to the prevalence of the unique and often strange naming convention of black American children.
Your name is the one thing you truly own.
It is more than just a form of identification. It is intertwined with the sense of self, which means that there’s something sacred about a person’s name.
Taking away someone’s name is therefore tantamount to stripping them of their identity.
And that is part of the reason why it bothered me so much that one of our City leaders did exactly that.
The other more pertinent reason is that it is a reminder of our racist history, where names were changed for the convenience of lazy English tongues.
While Rolihlahla had more meaning to the bearer, it was too hard to pronounce, so the less meaningful Nelson had to be included.
And while the City’s Mayco Member for Safety and Security JP Smith may not have intentionally meant to offend Abongile Nzelenzele at an event last week, he did in fact offend an entire nation of black people trying to come to grips with daily forms of subtle, unconscious racism and microaggression of this very nature.
Apparently Abongile himself didn’t take any offence, but that didn’t stop social media from unloading its disgust on Smith, after he commented that Abongile’s surname had too many vowels and was therefore too difficult to pronounce, compared to his own surname.
Unconscious racism of this nature is almost worse than the overt kind, because it implies that it is ingrained into our being and therefore impossible to change.
What adds insult to the injury is the fact that we know there are dictionaries of European words that are equally, if not more impossible to pronounce, but which the Smiths of the world have no problem with.
In fact, many take pride in their ability to pronounce Champs-Élysées, while struggling with everyday vernacular.
It is inexcusably insulting this deep into our democracy that so many of us still refuse to learn even the most basics of an indigenous language of the country we claim to love.
Doubly so with names that most often require a mere elementary application of phonetics. This was an opportunity for someone in a position of power to set an example, but instead became an example of a poor and insensitive attempt at humour in our highly racialised society.
It would’ve been admirably funnier if he decided to be self-deprecating with a sincere attempt that failed.
In that way, the joke would have been on him, and not on the collective pain of our past.