Sunday, May 27, 2012

My Name is a Huge Part of MY Identity - Learn it!

Siphumelele Zondi 

Last week while waiting for the bus just outside the University of Sussex campus a classmate from Newcastle in northern England said: “I am using Siphumelele’s voice for a documentary I am working on.” I smiled as she said this. No one knew the reason I was smiling, but it’s because she had said my name and pronounced it properly. This is a small gesture that told me that I have been accepted in her circle. I then paused a bit and thought about what had just happened and then realised that my friends from America, Zimbabwe, other parts of Europe and even China say my name with no problems here. This showed me that my friends in Europe think I matter and my identity and being also matter. The majority of white South Africans refuse to make this gesture which shows me that white people back home do not view me or my language as an equal.

Immediately after smiling sadness took over as I thought about how many times white South Africans have asked me to make Siphumelele easy for them. This is something that started in primary school when my dad introduced me to my school headmaster. As soon as my dad left, the headmaster then asked if I had another name, without thinking about it I then told him that my other name is Bhekani. This was still not good enough for him as he was looking for yet another name and my response was that I do not have another name. The headmaster was to introduce me to my class teacher and he told me he’d have to write the name down – this was a predominantly white school in post-apartheid South Africa and I was certainly not the first pupil with a Zulu name at the school. When he finally introduced me to the teacher, Siphumelele had been dropped and the name he had chosen was Be-Car-nee. I was no longer Siphumelele and I wasn’t even Bhekani anymore, my new identity was to be Be-car-nee. We had one other black kid in class and his name was Tebello, a Sotho name. He was called Tar-ber-low.

As a child I didn’t fight hard enough to keep my identity, but started fighting for it when I was 18 or 19 at university and needed to move out of the university-managed accommodation as certain members of the SRC didn’t like me much because of my probing campus publication stories. That story isn’t important right now.

I remember that I was enquiring about an apartment on the phone with a lady who couldn’t quite tell what my race was. She was definitely a white South African. She told me I could view the place and we made an appointment and then asked for my name. She asked me to repeat it three times before she said she’d call me back, she never did. When I called her the place had been given to someone else. I guess that person either had an easier name or didn’t insist on the proper pronunciation of their name.

When I was a journalism student I read the news on a commercial radio station, later also worked for e-TV as a reporter. eNews would write my name on screen and despite all of this a viewer who had liked a story I had done wrote in applauding Siphumzile Zondi. They mentioned how the Model C accent also impressed them, something else that also irritated me as that accent does not guarantee excellence which her email was implying.

I remember also almost not signing up with Planet Fitness as the lady that was in charge of my account kept on calling me Sipho. White South Africans almost always call me Sipho when I introduce myself as Siphumelele. I’d spend a good 5 minutes or so trying to teach them how to pronounce my name properly before meetings can start. My fuss with this is because Sipho means Gift and Siphumelele means ‘we have succeeded’. These are two different names with two different meanings and changing the name would mean changing the meaning and therefore changing my identity.

I was starting to believe that someone that speaks English, Afrikaans or perhaps a foreign European language as their mother tongue would never be able to pronounce my name. I didn’t understand why BaTswana, BaSotho and other Africans could pronounce Siphumelele without a problem.

Last week when my classmate from Newcastle in England who speaks English as a first language said it without a problem I then realised that it’s the many white South Africans I come across that have a problem. The mere refusal to learn my Zulu name and choosing to either butcher it or immediately select their preferred shortened version means they disregard me as a black South African, they disregard the Zulu language and still see English or Afrikaans names (and perhaps languages) better and thus the English and Afrikaans cultures more superior too. 

There are young, white South Africans that do pronounce my name properly and that’s why some of them are my friends. I do have a shortened version of the name, it’s not Sipho and I only allow people to use it once I am satisfied that they’ve made an effort and succeeded with Siphumelele. It’s small gestures like learning African names that say to some of us change will eventually come and the white people we are chatting to see us as equals.


  1. I like your name, Siphumelele. I can feel it rolling off my tongue. I have long acknowledged that my name is a big part of me and when people don't say the whole thing it tends to irk me too. Spelling it badly, worse! I enjoyed reading. Very good that you can express such deep feelings on a very personal matter.

  2. Siphumelele MthombeniJuly 30, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    My name is also Siphumelele and have a problem with the way people pronouns my name . In primary my teacher called me Siphu , didnt lyk dat and now they call me Phumi . It was very dificult for my teachers coz Im in a Afrikaans school , so ya u aint alne , feel your pain .

  3. Well done Siphumelele. Very interesting piece.

  4. Well done Siphumelele. Very interesting piece.

  5. Well done Siphumelele. Very interesting piece.