Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Surname saga: final edition (hopefully)

A few months ago I wrote a piece about discovering my surname had been changed without my permission at the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) with the title "What's in a woman's [sur]name?". The issue of women's surnames being changed after they got married, even though they had stipulated they wanted to keep their surnames, caused a bit of a stir a few days after the local elections. Many of us had dared to lean over and check our details on the voter's roll only to discover the surname was different.

A few weeks after I wrote the article I had an email conversation with someone who made me think more about the issue and the piece I wrote. It feels relevant posting this exchange because today I was at Home Affairs. I'm in the process of getting a new passport (and I decided to throw in a smart ID in there as well). If you haven't got your smart ID yet, do it. It's easy and efficient assuming you have good wifi and internet banking and a bank nearby that's working together with the DHA about processing passports and IDs within "five to ten working days".

Today I went to the bank to complete the process and was helped by a very friendly guy, Tlou. Everything was fine until I leaned over to check Tlou's computer screen hoping that I'd filled in the online form correctly. My suspicion was confirmed: I still had the surname that isn't mine as my surname and my surname as maiden surname. Of course I was ready for this given my previous encounters with my surname issue. I dramatically whipped out my marriage certificate and explained to Tlou that I wanted to keep my surname and the certificate was the proof. He was dumbfounded "Why would you want to keep your surname?". In fact he was even suspicious of whether or not I am in fact married (who would marry someone who wanted to keep their surname right?). And so began the usual conversation where a stranger quizzes me about my choices and I give the same answers I always give. Tlou was a nice guy so I was very nice to him in spite of how bizarre the conversation sounded to me: I still don't get why I have to explain this simple choice. My favourite part of the conversation was when my partner was invoked: how did he feel about me not changing my surname? My response: it wasn't an issue (true story). His response:


Eventually I was asked to fill in a form with the heading REQUEST TO USE MAIDEN NAME/PREVIOUS SURNAME (I took a picture of it as evidence). The form is like an affidavit including a section "My reason being" and a section for an explanation. There was something humiliating in this process. How it is okay for me to explain why I want to keep my surname? Surely there should be a form for people who take on other people's surname. They should be explaining why they want to take someone else's surname. I asked Tlou what I should say (he was still making calls to someone who had the power to give me back my surname). And he said this was to safe-guard DHA from an angry husband who discovered his wife had changed her surname. My response: 



He explained that my reason (I want to keep my surname) wasn't good enough. Maybe if I had a business (or something to that effect) he would understand if I wanted to keep my surname (I explained I'm a teacher). I guess he was making the argument others make about the professional brand that women want to keep and therefore decide they do not want to change their surname. We continued to have a lively conversation and he finally processed my form and my surname was returned to me. 

I left the interaction with Tlou feeling very conflicted: should I have fought against the form? I can't think of other words to describe the feeling of filling in a form explaining why I want to keep my surname. There's something bizarre about that in ways that bizarre can't fully express. Absurd perhaps. I think I may have dashed Tlou's romanticism about marriage. At some point I noticed a tinge of irritation "That means marriage is just paper work mos!". Well yes, I also signed a pre-nup. But there's more to the paperwork surely.

I'm waiting with bated breath for the arrival of my new passport and ID. Hopefully this will be the end of the surname saga. 

Below is the email exchange in response to the previous article:


DM: I am a little concerned about this name change thing being made into a ‘middle class’ concern although I see that what you were trying to do is to suggest that ‘there are bigger issues out there’.  I think that it is precisely BECAUSE your middle class positionality gives you the resources and social capital to fight this issue of people’s names being changed that your struggle is actually one of human rights: the right to retain one’s birth name even in marriage.  Although Nguni women may have a back-up in the sense that you become ‘Ma(your surname)’ it is the case especially with Basotho that your in-laws in, fact, GIVE you a new name in their family and you become incorporated into the family in that way.  It is for these reasons that I find the issue that you have raised to be a deeply important human rights complaint.

 AM: I didn't see it that way because there's no record of women complaining about the issue. I wish there were more voices. Even Home Affairs made it sound like we're in the minority and they are making it easier for the majority of women who want to change their surnames. 
DM: Well it is precisely because it is seen as a minority issue that it must be discussed. When you write "I also feel like this is an issue amongst an educated and mostly privileged group of women", This doesn’t make the problem any less significant but it feels like a middle-class concern.’ I think that what you are pointing to is that the mass of people who undergo this either never realise that they have a different choice OR they are inundated by other more urgent and life threatening issues . They do not have the socio-economic capital  (or leisure) to do something about the fact that they are being infantilised by the state in this particular way.  Precisely because they are infantilised in other, pressing ways such as social grants (basically an allowance for being poor), RDP housing etc.
It is no surprise, given the state of most women in South Africa’s lives, that this issue is under-reported.  They are too busy reporting more pressing issues.

 This, however, does not mean that this issue is not important.  As you rightly point out "The change of the surname is both a public and private symbolism that matters greatly in our society. Whether we like it or not, the expectation that a woman should take her husband’s surname stems from a sexist belief that I aver is also a result of colonialism". This means that in a society that is constantly talking about de-colonisation and ‘freedom’, there is an underlying level on which colonialism is still creeping up on us and  positioning itself as a base line to our feelings about right and wrong, how society works and how marriage is constructed.
 It is entirely likely that there are hundreds of thousands of women right now in dire socio-economic-political situations who, in their quiet moments, would like to have kept their birth names.  It is precisely the use of ‘maiden-name’ as a descriptor that makes this colonial logic so pervasive. What is a maiden?  In isiXhosa or isiZulu one would have had umemulo already to strip one of the ‘maiden’ part of one’s identity – one becomes a woman.  So…why can’t you choose your own surname? Because of this infantilising logic of the state as daddy who is an extension of daddy at home and daddy at work…
It is this level of structurally oppressive logic that requires that we dismantle it all at once.  No oppression is too small but some are more urgent, more life threatening than others.  So…if we use the rules of triage then of course we must tackle economic issues first but oppression is overlapping (intersectional) and so we cannot use triage. We cannot deal with single strands of oppression one at a time.
It is very important for us to note that even the poorest woman in the most dire conditions has the richness of internal world to also feel as you feel: humiliated, stripped, unfree. Even if she has more pressing oppressions to contend and deal with.

AM: Would you mind if I copied and pasted some of this email discussion as a follow up blog post on the issue? I know it's weird and I'll understand if you say no. It's the most valuable feedback and discussion I've received on the issue.
DM:It's not weird at all and I would be honoured. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Asinakuthula umhlab’ubolile: the poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho


Kaulirol’iqinga

Siwavun’amazimba
Hoha Mrs M. Maxeke
Mti omde orara wakulo
Deborah
Bhikica emva kwabavumi
Mrs M. Maxeke
Ze nengcwaba lamagqwira
Libe ndaweninye
(Ho, Mrs M. Maxeke,
Tall, bitter tree,
Deborah’s sister,
Give us advice
On harvesting crops
Glean in the wake of the reapers
Mrs M. Maxeke
So every witch
Drops down dead)
These are the words of Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s poetry. This is an extract from her poem Iziko le nyembezi (The vale of tears) written in 1921. My previous post was about Charlotte Mannye Maxeke. It therefore seems fitting that I should write about Nontsizi Mgqwetho as the reference in the poem makes me suspect that these two women lived and read about each other’s work in the 1920s. Mgqwetho’s poetry gives us the voice of another Black woman who reveals so much more about Black life in 19th century South Africa.
Nontsizi Mgqwetho wrote poetry for the newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu (The People’s Advocate or The People’s Mouthpiece) in the 1920s: a multilingual newspaper edited by Marshall Maxeke (Charlotte Maxeke’s husband). Mgqwetho’s work explores the complexities of identity and experience in an urban space which provides us with many answers to similar questions we’re still asking today.
Jeff Opland collected her poetry from the newspapers into a more accessible poetry anthology The nation’s bounty: The Xhosa poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. When I came across her work in 2009 I knew very little about Black life in 19th century South Africa. Reading Mgqwetho’s poetry made me question even more the perception I had about Black people’s lives while confronting early settlers and urbanisation. In primary school I was taught about the 1820 settlers in the Eastern Cape and the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley as though the white people arriving in Africa were arriving on unchartered territory. The absence of Black and Khoi San people’s experiences in the early history I was taught meant that my young mind believed that Black people as agents simply didn’t exist until the missionaries and the mining magnets came along and colonised the land and the people already occupying the land. The idea that Black people could have engaged the missionaries as equals and in fact resisted colonial imperialism is a narrative I am still discovering and grappling with.
The idea that a Black woman could have been writing poetry in a newspaper edited and read by Black people is an important consideration; especially when one looks at the content in Mgqwetho’s poetry. One of her her most significant poems is a poem that addresses the spilt of the South African Native Congress (SANNC) as a result of people like Maxeke who had become disillusioned by the work of the congress. Read with modern sensibilities, the thought that the early SANNC could have been fraught with tensions does not sit comfortably with the imagined past of African resistance and Mgqwetho’s poetry allows us to interrogate this imagination as her poetry is evidence of the tensions within early political movements.
The role of women in politics is one that is contested in 2016 as we can see even in a country like the United States of America (with Hillary Clinton contesting the presidency) and even closer to home when the Nigerian president, Buhari, stated that a woman’s place is in the kitchen after his wife made comments about the ruling party in Nigeria however, it seems clear that Mgqwetho’s position as a poet allowed her to make commentary about the politics of the 1920s. The poem below illustrates the contestation about a woman seeing herself as imbongi (a poet) because poets were assumed to be men who could use their poetry to confront their leaders.
Kuba tina simadoda nje asizange
Siyibone kowetu imbongokazi
Yenkazana kuba imbongi inyuka
Nenkundla ituke inkosi
(We as men have never encountered
these female poets in our our homes
Because a poet—a male— rouses the court and censures the king)
Mgqwetho’s poetry can be seen as the earliest form of protest poetry as she wrote many poems addressing the experiences of confronting African modernity in the midst of Black people trying to build resistance movements. Her poetry openly lambastes leaders at the time as well as the complacency amongst privileged Black people who were not willing to confront the complexities of their time. He greatest concern was about speaking up against the injustice she was seeing around her:
Asinakutula umhlab’ubolile
Xa ndikubonisa ubume bomhlaba
Angabhekabheka onk’amagqoboka.
Ukutula Ikwakuvuma
(We can’t sit silent, the country’s rotten
If I exposed the state of the country
the Christians’ jaws would drop
Silence implies consent!)
Her poetry reveals that she had converted to Christianity which allowed her to be critical of those in the church preaching the gospel as well as those she felt were resisting the gospel to their own detriment. Her allusion to Christianity also reveals an ambivalence where she implores Black people not to forget the ancestoral African traditionalism which was getting lost amongst Black people who were embracing Christianity and modernity. This ambivalence is familiar even in 2016 where religious beliefs are constantly being questioned as a legitimate lens for understanding our world.
One of Mgqwetho’s poems Ingwe idla ngamabala (Spots feed the leopard) questions the political economy of the 1920s. The poem begins with a warning to Black people thatSatshabalala tina ngokuswela ukwazi (Our ignorance will destroy us) as Black people were fast becoming landless and moving to the cities and thus being at the mercy of the city economy. Instead of cultivating the land (which was slowly being taken away from Black people since the 1913 Land Act) Black people were selling their maize only to buy it back at a higher price from the shops established by white traders. In the same poem she asks the question Zipina izityebi zelixesha letu (Where are the wealthy today) which speaks to a question of Black ownership and wealth which is yet to be actualised for many black people even in a democratic South Africa. Black people still do not own much of the land in South Africa and with the exception of a few industrialists and entrepreneurs (which we can count by name) much of the wealth in South Africa is in the hands of a few, mostly white people. We are yet to answer the questions posed by Mgqwetho in her poetry about the importance of self-actualisation of black people through economic means. This is further illustrated in a poem directed at workers to unite in the wake of oppressive laws that were being established at the time: Izizwe ezintsundu mazidibane/Livakale ilizwi labasebenzi…Livakale ilizwi labasebenzi/Bawafumane amalungelo abo (Black nations must come together/Let the voice of the workers be heard…Let the voice of the workers be heard/let them reclaim their rights).
I am constantly returning to the words Asinakuthula umhlab’ubolile as though they were a mantra because they are very apt to all South Africans almost a century after Mgqwetho was witnessing an equally fraught South Africa in transition. Reading Mgqwetho’s poetry helps me find a language of resistance and the courage to speak about injustice even when choosing silence seems easier. Mgqwetho’s poetry is a gift to South Africans who are doing the work against injustice we still see so prevalent in South Africa today.