There’s a distinctive sound that Shangaan men make as an exclamation of surprise. It’s a multi-voiced explosion, equal parts a man’s gut-punched grunt and a woman’s cry of pleasure. I’ve tried imitating it, but so far I’ve only succeeded in sounding like a woman faking an orgasm for the first time.
In Xitsonga, “Wa hemba!” literally translates as “You lie!” In practice, however, “wa hemba” covers “you’re kidding,” and “get out of here!” Little kids yell it as often as they cry “Wa penga!” [You’re crazy!].
Generally, I hear laughter, “wa hemba” and the Shangaan cry/grunt, all for doing nothing more than introducing myself.
Nearly every Peace Corps volunteer takes a local name when they reach their village. Casey becomes “Refilwe,” “Jillian” becomes “Xongile,” “Meghan” becomes “Nyeleti.” In the unlikeliest transformation, I go from “Mordchai” to “Hlulani.”
Taking on the name isn’t an attempt at assimilation. As I walk through my village, the child who starts hopping from foot to foot, screaming “Mulungu! Mulungu!” [“Whitey! Cracker!”] is a solid reminder that I’ll never shed my capital-O Outsider status.
So why take the name? There’s the practical benefit of going by “Hlulani;” I spare myself hours of watching my neighbors struggling to wrap their tongues around the phonemes of “Mordchai.” If it was simply a matter of expedience, however, I could just as easily switch to “Bob.” It’d be glib to dismiss the new moniker as a heavy-handed attempt at integration. Taking a local name is a deeply transformative action.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet opines to Romeo. “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.” Whether I introduce myself as Mordchai, Hlulani or Mr. Montague, Juliet tells me, I’ll be just as white, just as American, with a nose that is longer and thinner than the noses of my neighbors (people are consistently and persistently excited to tell me this).
Juliet’s not wrong, but she’s right in a narrow way. Study after self-satisfied study has shown that when people are given piss-poor wine in fancy bottles, they rate the wine more highly. We are creatures of language, and our experience is mediated by the names we use for things. If I hand you a rose and tell you it’s a special strain, genetically modified to smell less sweet, Juliet is correct in objective terms. No matter what I say, the same particles are striking your olfactory receptor neurons. You would never know it though — the name transforms your perception.
In his seminal paper On Sinn and Bedeutung, the late-nineteenth-century linguist and philosopher Gottleb Frege wrestles with the question of how proper names are used meaningfully.
Ancient civilizations made many remarkably accurate observations about celestial bodies. One particularly bright body can be seen most clearly shortly before sunrise; it was, reasonably enough, dubbed the “Morning Star.” Another can be seen shortly after sunset – the “Evening Star.” And then, at various times, astronomers in various civilizations recognized that the Morning Star and Evening Star were in fact one and the same – what we now refer to as Venus.
Frege notes that if we were only interested in the objects that words refer to, saying “The Morning Star and the Evening Star are both Venus” would be no different than saying “Venus is Venus is Venus.” And yet when Pythagoras pointed out that the two stars are single body, he was presenting a radical observation. In everyday exchanges, we treat proper nouns as simple signposts; they are tags, and casually used to discuss the objects with which those tags are associated. The signposts themselves, however, are significant.
And so when I choose a name, I’m giving more than a tag, more than a sound to which I’ll turn my head, canine-like.
My name, “Mordchai,” is historically derived from Marduk, a supreme Babylonian god who came to power through the murder of another god. The name “Mordchai” is taken from the tale of a Jewish man working in the royal Persian court. He refused to bow to one of the king’s advisors, prompting the advisor’s wrathful plot to murder all of the Jews within the empire; through political machinations, Mordchai succeeds in averting this disaster. I am named after my grandfather. It was his name, and the affiliated identity, that redefined the trajectory of his life. Mordchai was once again marked for destruction, not by the Persians but by the Nazis. Once again, Mordchai triumphed by surviving.
When people here in my village learn that my name is Mordchai, all of this encoded information is generally missed. People learn, however, that I’m not local, not Afrikaaner. Occasionally someone will recognize the name as being Hebrew, but with the absence of Judaism in the region, that usually leads to me explaining that I’m not a descendent of Jesus (unfortunately, perhaps, since that could make me some sort of great-grandson of God).
When I introduce myself as Hlulani, however, I’m making a statement and beginning an argument. It’s understood that I was not given the named Hlulani at birth.
When I introduce myself by a local name, I make a declaration of investment. If I were passing through the district to make a survey of mango production, I probably wouldn’t bother with a local name. That I am a white man taking on an African name has additional significance in South Africa. In his hefty memoir, Nelson Mandela writes the following,
On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name and said that from thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture. Africans of my generation — and even today — generally have both an English and an African name. Whites were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name, and considered it uncivilized to have one. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea captain Lord Nelson, but that would be only a guess.
To say that many South Africans remain sensitive to race is like saying that a rabbi might notice if you run into a synagogue dressed as a ham sandwich. When I introduce myself as Hlulani, I’m not breaking from the past – an impossible task, no matter how common the phrase – but I am rejecting the previously dominant structures, and the beliefs upon which they were founded.
The moment of introduction by local name is a jump, a jitter, a shaky blast of static. In South Africa, all relations are race relations, in a way more fundamental and immediate than anything I’ve ever experienced in America. Claiming an African name doesn’t magically wash away that lens. It creates a moment of confusion however, an opening in the doors of perception just wide enough to jam your foot into before they slam shut.
Ultimately, the name change affects me more than anyone else. When I first began introducing myself by a local name, it was with a wink and a nod. I’m not from here, most would say I don’t belong here, give a guy a break.
Every time that I use the name Hlulani, or respond to it, I am reasserting that I have come for more than consulting work, for more than a job in any conventional sense. No native son, but more than a long-term visitor.
When I introduce myself as Hlulani, I continue to get a laugh, a cry/grunt and a “wa hemba!” Six months later, however, my response has changed.
“I’m not lying,” I respond in Xitsonga – “a ni hembi.”
It is often noted that despite its great (and growing) wealth, South Africa is also marked by some of the most severe inequality of any country. A lot of numbers get thrown around, but without some explanation and context, they don’t mean much.
The most basic and most frequently cited economic indicator is a country’s gross domestic product (GDP). A country’s GDP is calculated by adding up every resident’s income for a given year: all wages, all profits, etc.
According to data from the World Bank, in 2009 South Africa had a GDP of about $285 billion. This is among the highest GDPs in the world — out of the 185 countries for which data is provided, South Africa ranks 31st, between Argentina and Thailand. (At the number one spot, the U.S. had a GDP of nearly $14,119 billion.)
GDP per capita is just measured by dividing the GDP by the population. With a population of about 50 million, South Africa has a GDP per capita of about $5,786. The U.S., by comparison, has a GDP per capita of about $46,000.
Of course, as every traveler knows, a U.S. dollar tends to buy more stuff in Mexico than it does at home, and tends to buy less in Germany or Japan. One way to make cross-country comparisons more meaningful is by using the measure of purchasing power parity (PPP). By comparing the costs of hundreds of goods and services in countries around the world, economists come up with a number indicating just how far a dollar goes in a given country. So, for example, according to the most recent data (calculated in 2005), the price level in Romania is 49 percent of the price level in the U.S. In other words, a dollar will get you twice as much stuff in Romania as it will in Maryland. If $4 gets you a loaf of bread in Baltimore, it will get you two loaves in Bucharest.
According to the 2005 data, the price level in South Africa is 61 percent of that in the U.S.; the same loaf of bread that goes for $4 in Baltimore will only cost $2.40 in Kimberley. Since PPP is calculated relative to the U.S. dollar, the U.S. GDP (PPP) per capita remains at about $46,000, but the South African GDP (PPP) per capita nearly doubles, from $5,786 to $9,315. If you go by those numbers alone, someone in the United States can buy about five times more stuff than a South African.
Even if you tweak income by adjusting for PPP, however, GDP per capita tells us almost nothing about how much people are actually earning. As the old statistical joke goes, if you put your head in the oven and your feet in the freezer, on average you’re pretty comfortable. As an indicator of an average, GDP per capita doesn’t acknowledge the fact that some people are extremely rich while many, many others are poor.
One way to measure inequality in the distribution of income is the Gini coefficient. In his entertaining book The Haves and the Have-Nots, Branko Milanovic gives a concise explanation of how the coefficient works:
The Gini coefficient compares the income of each person with the incomes of all other people individually, and the sum of all such bilateral income differences is divided in turn by the number of people who are included in this calculation and the average income of the group. The ultimate result is such that the Gini coefficient ranges from 0 (where all individuals have the same income and there is no inequality) to 1 (where the entire income of a community is received by one individual).
According to the CIA World Factbook, of the 136 countries analyzed, Sweden has the most equal distribution of income (with a Gini coefficient of 23.0), followed by Hungary (24.7) and Norway (25.0). The United States has one of the more unequal distributions of income in the world; 97 spots down from Sweden, the U.S. has a Gini coefficient of 45.0.
And South Africa? With a Gini coefficient of 65.0, it is 135th in the list of 136 countries; only Namibia has a less equal distribution of income.
A more tangible way of measuring income inequality is by analyzing income distribution by decile. This means arranging the population according to their income and examining what share of the total income the wealthiest 10 percent of the population receives, how much the next wealthiest tenth of the population earns, and so on through the bottom 10 percent.
According to a paper published by the OECD, in 2008 the richest 10 percent of the population in South Africa earned 58.07 percent of the total national income. The total combined income of the bottom eight deciles — 80 percent of the population — came out to be 25.35 percent of the national income. That means that the wealthiest 5 million South African earned more than double the combined earnings of 40 million of their fellow countrymen and –women.
Assuming that the distribution didn’t change from 2008 to 2009, the top ten percent earned $165.5 billion from the country’s total GDP of $285 billion. The ten percent of South Africans with the lowest incomes, on the other hand, earned .40 percent of the country’s GDP, for a grand total of $11.4 billion. Someone in the bottom decile would have to work for about 14 and a half years to earn what someone in the top decile earned in one.
Milanovic gives the important reminder that inequality is not necessarily an injustice:
There is “good” and “bad” inequality, just as there is good and bad cholesterol. “Good” inequality is needed to create incentives for people to study, work hard, or start risky entrepreneurial projects…. But “bad” inequality starts at a point—one not easy to define—where, rather than providing the motivation to excel, inequality provides the means to preserve acquired positions.
The above numbers only consider income, not wealth or capital. They don’t consider political context, and they certainly don’t reveal peoples’ lived experiences. In South Africa’s case, though, the crazy tilt of the numbers reveal radical inequalities.
If you’re interested in the math used to calculate Gini coefficients, check out the Wikipedia entry.
Today, ladies and gentleman, I am very pleased to present some original video content. This past week I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle Bond, a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in South Africa from 1999 – 2001 (full bio). During the interview, Michelle provided a lot of insight into her time as a volunteer. We spoke for about an hour, and I’m planning on posting more video from the interview in the future. For now, however, here is a short clip of her relating one of her many memorable experiences:
From Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa, a great quote on the country. Thompson discusses the chiefdoms that began in the third or fourth century A.D., spurred by the arrival of mixed farmers. Chiefdoms were generally cohesive groups, and chiefs had sweeping authority, but as Thompson notes, “A chief’s powers were limited by necessity as well as by custom. He had no standing army, no police force, no jail.”
He goes on to write:
The Basotho had two saying that summed up the underlying tension: “Morena ha a fose” (The chief can do no wrong) and “Morena ke batho” (No people, no chief).