Don’t call me by my slave name.

By Sabelo Kotswana:

I recently visited a doctor in Milnerton. The purpose of my visit was largely to establish contact with a doctor in Cape Town, having recently moved from Johannesburg. I knew replacing my Doctor from Johannesburg would not be easy, after 13 years of what eventually became a great friendship. I was, however, aware that this relationship was unique and was born out of respect, honesty and genuine love for each other as human beings, friends and customer/provider relationship. It was not always like that but it took willingness to accept criticism on his part, my willingness to express myself when I felt I was not being treated fairly. However, what was unique is the unquestionable trust I placed on him. I was under no illusion that this relationship was unique, but it was because both parties played a major role in making it work. So my visit to this “new” doctor felt like betrayal of some sort. However, I knew in order to make it work, I will have to put in the work. 

As a new patient, I had to complete a form identifying who I was, my address and my medical aid details. The form asked for “names as they appear in your ID,” which I often take literally. So, I put my names down, as reflected in my ID, with my first name prominently placed FIRST (as all first names often are). I often avoid stating my middle name when not required, but this was clearly required by the form. So, in goes my middle name and surname last (Americans call it a “last name” for a reason). I completed the rest of the form and handed it to the Sister (not Sista, if you get my drift).

An elderly man popped out of an office (I assumed he was the Doctor, based on the name I was given when I booked.) He asked me to come into his office. He was friendly enough and shook my hand to greet me, and I enthusiastically reciprocated. I am thinking to myself, “not bad, he seems friendly enough.” He opened his mouth, which I fear was the end of our budding relationship. He referred to me by my middle name. What!!! In the form I stated my first name and generally most white people, I encounter, are far more fascinated by my surname and spend a lot of time trying to pronounce it (at least in Johannesburg). My first name is not the most difficult in the world and, I admit, my surname is not the easiest. So, I have no problem when people call me by my first name. In fact, I insist upon it. This guy was taking liberties without my permission. He had determined that my first and last name were not adequate for him, he will pick the name “designed” for his “Western” language preference.  

I have to admit, my immediate reaction even took me by surprise.  I immediately told him that I preferred to be addressed as Sabelo. He immediately apologised, but the damage had been done. I asked myself as to it was even necessary for me to correct him. Indeed, my middle name was my first name in my birth certificate and only an act of unslaving myself, when I turned 18, restored my proper names to the order it should have been. As a youngster, we often joked about our middle names as slave names, becausethese were the names white people would refer you by. It was your name, but they determined what was acceptable due to their own ignorance or perhaps lack of interest in the people they shared a country with.

I believe as a 44 year old I am less radical than I used to be and sometimes I ignore things. My reaction to things is often informed by how I wanted to keep the peace, not always, but sometimes. However, my reaction this time was immediate and more forceful. I needed to understand where it came from. It may have been the appearance of the office, the lack of black staff or even the appearance of the doctor (brash and arrogant looking). An article posted on Facebook was the catalyst in helping me understand my reaction. The article is entitled “Practical Ways We Can Stop Centering Everything Around White People’s Feelings” by Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre. A Eureka moment!!! Yes, there have been several articles by white authors which captured the essence of Guante’s article, but it is the irreverent and satirical way it is presented that struck a chord. My reaction to this man was hardly about what he had done wrong. It was about years of encountering this sort of bullshit that it eventually manifested in some pent up anger at being viewed in terms of what was comfortable to him. He represented everything I hated with my middle name. He found the trigger, but Guante helped me find the gun, in retrospect. I was being looked at, not as me, but through the feelings and comforts of the white man, represented by this doctor. How many other black patients or staff did he address, not by what they were comfortable with, but by how comfortable he was.   

Upon reflection, it has become the norm for everything to be defined according to the white man. I can think of several events prior to 1994 which, while seemingly for the better good, made me uncomfortable i.e. whites only referendum, Black Sash Protests, Helen Suzman’s lone fight in the apartheid parliament. I am supposed to be grateful to white people for voting 2/3 for “change” a concept so ill-defined that I doubt if people knew what they were voting for. I get the feeling that some white people want me to be grateful that 66% of those whites (only) who voted chose “change.” The fact that the country was practically bankrupt and was a pariah is now forgotten. The fact that it is a racist referendum which only whites could vote in is what makes me discount it as an event. Who gave them the bloody right to be the only ones to decide the future and direction of my country. What if they had said “No” would it make their concerns more valid than mine? And then the PFP and Black Sash whose membership was exclusively white. This was like fighting obesity by indulging in all the wrong foods. Even after 1994, our democracy was not defined by how it met the expectations of a democracy-starved society like ours; it was defined by how the white fears would be accommodated. Nelson Mandela would become the yardstick of this “White People’s Feelings”.

As a  President of the country, Nelson Mandela was often criticized for the company he kept. He was loyal tot hose who fought apartheid, but were defined as an enemy because they were not friendly with the West (Gadhafi, Castro & Arafat). His popularity in South Africa was in the region of 60%, largely due to low approval ratings from white people (at around 39-45% at its peak) and an extremely high popularity rating from Africans (black Africans is another term that defines Africans in white concept) at close to 80%.Today, his legacy is being defined not by those that supported him all these years and fought for his freedom, but the Johnny Come Lately who once again define the narrative on his life, what he has done and who should safeguard his legacy.

They cannot understand why the ANC wants to own him or why the Mandela family want to cash in on their name. They know what is best for him. They often define him in terms that is comfortable to them, like a teddy bear, while failing toacknowledge his pre-1994 persona as part of the overall Nelson Mandela. One photo that made the rounds was one of a distraught African lady in the arms of a young white man. This was distributed once again to portray the outpouring of emotions in white terms. While the photo was touching whether the individuals were of the same race, the fact that it featured a white person is what made it attractive to the white narrative. A photo of two white people or two black people would have done very little to help the narrative. Even with the upcoming elections, the stake has been put on the ground. “Experts” are already defining what will matter most in the elections. White expert after white expert is paraded to once again definethe narrative in the similar vein that the spokesperson of the poor tends to be anything but poor.

A family moved into a Pretoria township to experience how it was to live like the residents, after hearing of the tale of that life from their domestic servant. For a month, the Hewitts abandoned their home and comforts and moved into a shack in Mamelodi, living off R3000. This was not a bunch of people doing something for the first time, but people who are used to “roughing it.” Instead of believing the black narrative of how it is to live there, they had to make it about themselves in order to make it acceptable to other white people? After all, why would a white person believe a black person when they describe poverty? The fact that these people knew they would get out of the place and this was not their life forever seems to be lost in this narrative. It was typical “poverty tourism.” They are now in a better situation to understand poverty, never mind that they had a safety net, a medical insurance that would cover them should they fall ill, a backup bank balance should things go horribly wrong. To them, poverty was defined as one month’s experience with all the hope and aspirations of a career and a wonderful home awaiting them.

Even Hollywood stands guilty of changing every narrative to put a white man central to the story, in order to make it more marketable. While at high school, I remember feeling so proud for having been smuggled to see the movie Biko, only to leave disappointed. The movie had Biko as a sideshow but it was entirely about the experiences of Donald Woods. At the time, even as a teenager, I could not put a finger in it, but I knew the movie was missing the “entire”story. Biko was a part player even in his own  movie. District 9, Avatar and even the classic Tarzan were other Hollywood blockbusters guilty of the same sin.

How do we move away from this? How do we change the narrative such that it is about humanity instead of a few individuals? Education, confrontation, honesty? I really don’t know. One gets tired of endlessly correcting individuals who are so well set in their own way. People repeat urban legends so often that they start quoting these as facts. We are simply too lazy to research what people say as fact, hence we are easily swayed at braai’s because that is what we want to hear. Overtime, the tellers of the story start believing that is what matters to everyone in the country. Predictions about elections are once again based on the white feeling, rather than an effort on their part to understand what matters to the majority. So, you hear Nkandla and Gupta as defining moments of the 2014 elections, but none of these people ever wonder how many elections are decided on two issues, and whether these issues are as important to the majority of voters as they believe they are. Then, there is the insult that black voters can only vote for the ANC because of the race of those in the ANC, rather the issues that matter to them. Those making such accusations donot stop to think that they are actually implying they vote on the basis of colour.

Why should they, they believe it is OK for them to stack the race cards, because the narrative demands it. Why is the threat of leaving the country so powerful for those in the dominant narrative? When Africans threaten to leave the Western Cape due to the racism there, the defense mechanism kicks in and those having the temerity to suggest a racist province are instead attack. No attempt to understand what they maybe referring to. Even a powerful DA politician was made to eat humble pie when she dared redirect the narrative to what she had been made to believe it was all about i.e. DA’s support of affirmative action. Tony Leon, of the Fight Back (some thought it was actually meant to say Fight Black) could not believe that his party was succumbing to the black narrative and hence put pressure on Helen Zille to retake the narrative from the “Black Caucus” of the DA. I cannot wait to hear how they will justify this going forward. 

As an African, why do I feel guilty when white people talk of crime? Has it been ingrained in my psyche that crime is a black offence against white people (even though evidence points to the fact that the vast majority of violent crime is committed against poor black people in townships like Nyanga, Umlazi and Alexandra)? Is it the accusatory tone that often implies “it is your people that cause all these problems,” when these things come up or is it the nature of our hospitality that we do not dare speak out for fear of our “guests” no longer feeling welcome? How long will it last before enough is enough?