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What's in a name? From Gukurahundi to Murambatsvina, Mugabe to Mnangagwa

14 Aug 2020 at 10:00hrs | Views
THERE'S something strangely fascinating about the Venda culture in relation to the names given to people. It all sounds so idiosyncratic that I recently found myself reflecting on it during a discussion of the book We Need New Names, by the Zimbabwean author Elizabeth Zandile Tshele, who goes by the pen name NoViolet Bulawayo.

I thought of my village chief, who goes by the name Mmbengeni, which means, "hate me". I thought of his eldest son Ntshengedzeni, which means "torture me". And then there is my father, whose name is Shavhani, which means "you must run away" and his sister and my aunt Ndidzulafhi, meaning "where do I stay?" And my uncle Nthatheni, which means "you must chase me", and my high school friend Mphedziseni, which means "you must finish or kill me". Or our very own athlete Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, whose first name also means "you must kill me".

I could not help but think that there is a case for new names in our culture. It is something that should not be deferred because the saying that "what's in a name" finds no greater resonance than in my Venda culture.

The book, "We Need New Names", is about four girls, Darling, Stina, Chipo, Bastard and Godknows, growing up in a crumbling Zimbabwe.

Here in South Africa, recently, there has been a movement trending under the hashtag #SaveZimbabwe, that is rightly directed at the excesses of the Zimbabwean government. Killings, beatings, detentions and instances of wanton human rights abuse by state forces have focused the attention of the world on this troubled southern African state.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has even sent two envoys, Sydney Mufamadi and Baleka Mbete, in an attempt to intervene in the unfolding crisis.

That the Zimbabwean situation is not a new phenomenon is known the world over; the only thing new about it this time is that it is happening under new leadership. It may be a 30-year-old problem, but it all seems like a century-old crisis. Of course, the South African collective wisdom requires unbiased telescoping glasses to see the obvious.

Where were we during the excesses of Operation Gukurahundi, when 30,000 people died at the hands of the government? Maybe we were absent because South Africa was not free yet. Where were we when people died in Operation Murambatsvina when neighbourhoods were torn down, when 700,000 people lost their homes and livelihoods and when 2.4 million people felt the brunt?

"We Need New Names" is set in Zimbabwe during the time of Operation Murambatsvina. There is a scene in a book when the girls discover the body of an unknown woman hanging from a tree. Though this instance was probably because of romantic failure, it could equally have been because of the failure of the Zimbabwean society to build a successful society that led her to hang herself.

The name of the shantytown where these five girls lived was ironically called "Paradise". It was not a paradise but a hell characterised by poverty, disease, death and unemployment. Yet, these girls had dreams. There was talk of democracy and the dividends that it would bring. I am reminded of the statement I heard from a Chinese friend who once said: "People do not eat democracy."

In Zimbabwe, there was once, not long ago, a democratic change that led to the formation of the Government of National Unity. Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai and my good friend Arthur Mutambara shared political power. But, it was all smoke and mirrors, and soon, it all fell apart. With that, the emigration of skills continued unabated, and the country descended further into the abyss. Democracy, I believe, is the best political system that humans have invented, but it requires hard work, incisive and informed voters as well as patriotic politicians to work.

As the famed economist Thomas Sowell said: "Politics is the art of making your selfish desires seem like the national interest."

The Zimbabwean voters could never discern the "selfish desires" of their politicians from "national interests." So, the dreams of leaving Zimbabwe for prosperous Western countries continued for Darling, Stina, Chipo, Bastard and Godknows. Many die in makeshift boats trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea en route to Europe. And when, on the other side, African migrants do not want to come back to Africa.

When I was a freshly minted PhD working at Imperial College in London, I was asked, "Why do you want to go back to Africa?", by one Dr Emmanuel Manyonganise, another Zimbabwean. We need to change our attitude, our patriotism and build an Africa that works for all our people.

Darling, Stina, Chipo, Bastard and Godknows would go and steal guavas at a wealthy suburb called "Budapest" in Zimbabwe. But then there was the land invasion. The girls were caught in the crossfire but survived. The land invasion was supposed to solve Zimbabwe's economic woes, but it was so throttled by the international forces that the current government under Emmerson Mnangagwa is now paying $3.5-billion in compensation.

"Why is Mnangagwa paying for the stolen land?" asks Twitter user Sipho. I would tell him, Sipho, he is paying so that Zimbabwe survives. When the land invasion was plotted, all possible eventualities were supposedly not considered, including sanctions and their consequences. As the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put it, "[you must] cross the river by feeling the stones". Mugabe did not feel the stones, and today Zimbabwe is forced to still pay the costs. If one does not feel the stones to cross the river, the crocodiles will eat you like flies.

Darling finally goes to Detroit, Michigan, US, to join her aunt. She finds that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side. Very often, one has to get a new name when one crosses to the other side. Tshilidzi, for instance, becomes Mr T because the Americans cannot and do not have the patience to pronounce Tshilidzi. Many immigrants live in constant fear of deportation because their immigration papers are not valid. In a way, no matter how advanced this new Western society looks, it is still not home for these immigrants. This, in a way, serves as a clarion call that we have to make our countries the dream, and not the nightmare.

Given these severe and seemingly unsolvable problems, what do we do? In evolutionary biology, there is a concept of flight or fight, which has been used by species to survive. In our case, do we flee to the "greener pastures" and leave behind collapsing nations that will in time be used as dumping grounds for dangerous wastes such as nuclear wastes? Alternatively, do we fight to make our countries prosperous?

This fight will entail educating our nation, by building schools and forming learning communes in our townships and villages. This fight will require absorbing knowledge about science and technology from the best centres around the world and using it to advance our people.

This fight will entail moving our people from superstitious thinking to scientific thinking, thereby making them patriotic, hardworking and unselfish in pursuit of the national and continental agenda. We need to hold people, whether friends, foe or family accountable for their evil deeds.

Going back to NoViolet's book, yes, we might need new names, but most importantly, we need new countries that serve the overwhelming majority of people rather than the narrow elite. DM

Professor Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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