Those of you who know this girl may have noted (or not) the name shift that has occurred from Elsa to Elsa Ruth. It is not really a name change per se, her legal first name is in fact Elsa Ruth; but we have committed to using both names since arriving here. It was her request, motivated by a desire to differentiate herself from a certain Disney princess. Though we all enjoyed the movie, the constant references “…like in Frozen!” had grown tiresome to be sure.
When meeting people for the first time you have a special opportunity to try out something new. Introduce yourself as “Elsa Ruth”, sign homework that way, have your family reinforce it– and low and behold, it mostly sticks! Plenty of people forget or shorten to Elsa on the quick, but for the most part the change has worked beautifully.
This experience has had me paying more attention to names and naming. We’ve landed in a good place for plenty to notice. There is the usual tapestry of colorful names you get in a language and ethnically diverse place. We bought a car from Handsome, learned from a guide named Knowledge, and were served meals by Pretty, Speedy, Princess, and Precious. There are the traditional names which often feel like tongue twisters to us at first but roll off the tongue beautifully by native speakers: Ndumasani, S’phelele, Mnyamezeli, Kgosientso. There are plenty of names that nod toward a religious heritage too: Faith, Osman, Shiva, Peter, Witness, Mariam, Ganesh.
Changing names is a charged topic here. Over the past twenty years, the democratically elected leaders have used renaming as an important element in crafting a new and free South Africa. Several holidays have undergone an identity shift. September 24th was previously “King Shaka Day” for the Zulu people in our province but is now “Heritage Day” celebrating the diversity of cultures across the nation. December 16th is no longer “Day of the Vow” (celebrating the Voortrekkers victory over Zulu warriors in the Battle of Blood River). It is now the “Day of Reconciliation” with the aim of nurturing unity among people with a divided history.
Cities have been renamed with varying success. Lyndenburg is now Mashishing, Stanger now KwaDukuza. Nelspruit changed to Mbombela. In some areas people have yet to fully shift to municipality names– Tshwane for Pretoria or our own city Pietermaritzburg to Msunduzi. However, you will regularly encounter all these names on maps, signs, and in conversations.
The changes that affect people the most in their everyday lives are probably the numerous street names. Since it is “a vehicle for commemoration” it seems a reasonable step that post-apartheid leaders want names that reflect a broader history.
Ask an older generation, white South African for directions anywhere and you are likely to get sighs and eye rolls as they try to remember the new name for an old street. I suspect this has more to do with feeling worn down by the sheer number of changes their country has weathered rather than any strong allegiance to Chapel Street, Brickfield Road, or Warwick Avenue. It’s an understandable response I think. Nearby in the city of Durban, over 100 streets have been renamed causing headaches for city traffic engineers, tourists, drivers, map-makers, and well…just about everybody at one time or another.
But as an outsider I find I am curious about the names I encounter on roads and highways: Chief Albert Luthuli, Dr. Chota Motala, Gladys Manzi, Moses Mabhida. Who were these people? How did they influence history? We can’t possibly learn them all, but we have uncovered some. For us, these name changes offer an opportunity we wouldn’t have otherwise had to learn about these courageous and inspiring people – one for which we are grateful.
I think of my students back home who often take new names once they become naturalized American citizens. Or our friend Doan, previously Brian, whose name change marks a milestone after years of study and practice in Buddhism. Inconvenient at times, perhaps yes. But every name change has a story. Do we care to hear it?