During the colonial era, white people refused to call Africans by their birth names. So African parents gave their children two names – an African name and a western name to better help their kids navigate the white man’s world. For example Mandela was given the Xhosa name Rolihlahla but was forced, at primary school, to take the name Nelson.

There is a man I know who was given the Zulu name Sandile and a Western name Cassius. One or both of his parents was a fan of Muhammad Ali, formally known as, Cassius Clay. I guess that his parents, like most Zulus, are attracted to power, strength, and virility.

However the results were unexpected. When Sandile Cassius found work as a construction worker, his colleagues were Zulus and were surprised to see the Western name Cassius on his papers. As part of Zulu culture of affirming one’s virility by trash-talking another, Cassius’ name was deliberately mispronounced by the construction workers as ‘Precious’. The name was further modified as ‘Sweet Precious’ and ‘Oh my Precious’. Songs were sung and on Valentine’s Day the parade of jokes were directed Sandile’s way. It’s been years and the jokes have since lost their effect.

Discussing this matter to me, Cassius Sandile once said that it is a good thing that the Apartheid era has passed because his children won’t have to carry a western name. He gave his child the most Zulu name in response – Vus’amazul (the one who wakes up the Zulus). In fact, you may find many well known young South African politicians bearing such vindictive names. For example:

Mbuyiseni  – the one who returns lost land

Mmusi  the returner of lost land

Even Malema’s western name of Julius was coupled with the name,  Sello meaning ‘Cry’.

It is clear that one could assess a generational temper by how the successive generation is named.

Our names carry our parents’ wishes, hopes and fears. And these names can, to some degree, shape one’s path. Just look at the names of South Africa’s former presidents:

Nelson Rolihlahla (the troublemaker) Mandela,

Thabo (Joy) Mbeki,

Kgalema (the one who admonishes) Motlante, 

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa (the one who makes you laugh then stabs you) Zuma.

All these names have profoundly shaped the careers of these men.

Reflecting on this, blessed be the woman who gave me the name Koketso ya lesedi which means ‘the one who increases light’. And blessed be the man who gave me the name Omar –  a name that made the devil tremble.

Isibongo is a Nguni word which is often translated as surname. However it is proper to translate the word to mean ‘the appropriate manner to give thanks.’ In practice, isbongo is a litany of praises given to the clans from which his forefathers emerged. It is passed from one generation to the other. This is a tradition of sons praising their grandparents. If you go back, if you follow the transmission from son to father to grandfather and so forth, you will eventually find Adam, peace be upon him, praising his Creator.

In rearing sons of good standing with good names, the tradition of giving thanks will continue.