Names are an important part of our identities. Our names often connect us directly to our family, our culture, and our histories. In 1652, when Europeans first settled in South Africa, the land was already peopled. Colonial rule had major impacts on the ways that Africans were allowed to express their identities, including the power of naming. Laws, backed up with brutal violence, limited freedom and opportunities for black South Africans and shaped even what they were able to call themselves and what other people called them, one of the most intimate of decisions that we make about our lives. Sometimes the motivation behind this use of power and control was as brutally simple as the inability of white South Africans to pronounce the names of black South Africans.

The South African poet Magoleng wa Selepe captures the power of colonialism to shape people’s identities in the poem “My Name.” In the poem, you will find words and phrases in English, Xhosa (a South African language), and Afrikaans (the main language of the Dutch-settler-descended population and of the apartheid government).

My Name
Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

Look what they have done to my name . . .
The wonderful name of my great-great-grandmothers
Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa
The burly bureaucrat was surprised.
What he heard was music to his ears
‘Wat is daai, sê nou weer?’1
‘I am from Chief Daluxolo Velayigodle of emaMpodweni
And my name is Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa.’

Messia, help me!2
My name is so simple,
And yet so meaningful,
But to this man it is trash . . .

He gives me a name
Convenient enough to answer his whim:
I end up being
Maria . . .
I . . .
Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa3

Citations

  • 1 : This Afrikaans sentence can be translated into English as a curt “What is that? Say it again.
  • 2 : Messia is short for Messiah.
  • 3 : Magoleng wa Selepe, “My Name,” in Explorings: A Collection of Poems for the Young People of Southern Africa, ed. Robin Malan (Cape Town, South Africa: Clyson Printers (Pty) Ltd., 1988, 5th impression, 2004).

Connection Questions

  1. Nomgqibelo resists taking the name Maria. Why? What emotions does she reveal? What does she say about her culture and heritage, and why? Under white rule, Africans were required to have European names at school, in church, at work, and in their formal identification documents, documents they would need to carry at all times. What was the impact of taking people’s names away?
  2. Three languages are used in this poem: the narrator’s Xhosa name, the government bureaucrat’s Afrikaans, and the narrator’s replies in English. The narrator chooses not to reply in Afrikaans, because Africans saw it as the language of the hated government. What do you learn about the bureaucrat’s power as he speaks these few words? What words best capture that power? How does the Xhosa woman assert her right to her name and to be who she is? Is there a part of your identity that people ignore?
  3. Think about US history or another history you know. Which groups have lost the right to name themselves? Are there other groups today whose members feel pressure to take on new names from outside their own culture so they can fit into the dominant society?

Related Content

Reading
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Selling Progress: A South African Filmstrip for American Students

Read the transcript of a video the South African government sent to American students as a way to convince the international community of the benefits of apartheid.

DVD
Genocide & Mass Violence

Amandla!

Black South African freedom music played a central role against apartheid. This film specifically considers the music that sustained and galvanized blacks for more than 40 years.

Reading
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Africans Resist White Control

Explore the responses by leaders of the African National Congress to the new Union of South Africa government’s racially motivated Native Lands Act of 1913.

Image
Democracy & Civic Engagement
South Africa

Apartheid Era Sign

The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (passed in 1953) led to signs such as the one shown above. The Act prohibited people of different races from using the same public amenities.

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.