Many people get my name wrong. Especially people that are Afrikaans or English speakers. My name is not Sikelo or Sitshelo, it’s Sicelo. Please get my name right.

I’ve been becoming more annoyed lately when people get my name wrong even when I’ve taught them how to pronounce it. I try to not get angry. I still try to remain patient, to be understanding. These people didn’t grow up speaking isiXhosa (or isiZulu, which is the closest to isiXhosa), I tell myself. Afrikaans or English speakers aren’t the only ones who get names wrong, is another thing I also remind myself of.

But a number of people (such as colleagues and friends) have been telling me that I’m too nice. They tell me I shouldn’t let people get away with mispronouncing my name. But is it really that simple? Can I really just go around getting angry with people who mispronounce my name?

Let’s talk about it.

Before we get too deep into it, though, let me tell you why my name is important to me, why getting my name wrong may offend me.

My name connects me to my people – Xhosa people, South African, and even other African people. It’s another way of telling people who meet me that I’m Xhosa, that at my core, I not only have the skin colour, but I have the language as well. I’m proud of being umXhosa and sharing my name with people is how I tend to express that. I have other ways I could express my pride (such as educating them about my culture), but my name is the starting point.

My name was an expression of my mother’s pride. It was her way of recognising that even though I wasn’t planned, I arrived, and she accepted me with open arms. She was declaring to the whole world that she was willing and ready to love me and care for me. My name was originally Sicel’ubunye, which means “We ask for unity.” It’s only when the Sister that helped my mother deliver me commented that my mother changed my name to Sicelo. According to the Sister, the name was too long and other kids would’ve teased me about it somehow. And I actually believe the Sister. So my name changed to Sicelo. Sicelo Kula. No middle name. No English name. Just Sicelo.

So why is it problematic that Afrikaans or English speakers tend to get my name wrong?

There are a few good reasons. The first is that I always help people pronounce my name. It doesn’t matter where I am, and what I may be busy with at the time, when I meet people, I teach them how to pronounce it. I say it slowly: “Si-ce-lo.” I explain that to get the “ce” part right, they must gently push their tongues against the roofs of their mouths when saying it – tongue against palette, I say. My success rate is about 50 to 60%, meaning that just over half of them usually get it right. The rest either don’t want to or it’s too difficult. Maybe getting my name right is rocket science to them.

And so, we get to the second reason why them getting my name wrong is problematic.

It’s racially insensitive. Maybe not necessarily racist, but definitely insensitive. My people, like other black South Africans out there, have fought to keep their identity, language, and culture alive. We live in a country where the ruling white minority, at the time, forced them to learn to speak Afrikaans. Their white employers and oppressors forced them to adopt names such as Kleinbooi, Kleinboy and Smallboy to fit in, to make it easier to identify them. I know this because my grandfather’s second name was Kleinbooi. He used it in all his dealings with the Apartheid government. Every black person he knew called him Sakathu Kula. But all the Afrikaans or English speakers he knew called him Kleinbooi Kula.

Because of all this, it’s hard to deny that getting names wrong has racial implications. It’s an example of white privilege on some level. A white person who gets a black person’s name wrong and refuses to learn the pronunciation is enjoying a privilege that black people don’t get to enjoy. Black people need to learn to speak Afrikaans or English (and, therefore, the correct pronunciation of Afrikaans or English names) if they hope to fit in, to meaningfully participate in the economy, to know what’s going on. People often even measure a black person’s intelligence based on how well that person speaks English or Afrikaans, not even considering that it’s likely not that person’s first language. And even the black people that don’t speak Afrikaans or English usually rely on the other black people that do to translate. So, there’s no escape. That’s the reality of this country.

In contrast, white people almost never have to learn isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Setswana, Sesotho, Xitsonga, Siswati, Tshivenda, or isiNdebele. It tends to be a choice they make. And their intelligence is likely never measured by how well they speak any of the other official languages in this country.

As I get older, though, I realise that things are not always black or white.

Sometimes there’s another answer to something. We may just not have thought about it yet. And so, I think there’s a third reason why getting people names wrong is offensive. This reason actually applies to all people, not just Afrikaans or English speakers. Humans are lazy. We’re lazy even when we think we’re the furthest from it.

Here’s why I think when people get my name wrong sometimes it’s also an example of human laziness: People of the same race also get each other’s names wrong. Look at how many Xhosa people get Sepedi, Setswana, Sesotho, Xitsonga or Tshivenda names wrong. Even when these Xhosa people find out what the correct pronunciation is, they get it wrong.

How else do we explain that? How do we explain it, considering that a Xhosa person grows up speaking such a complex language with many clicks? Do we say it’s racial or cultural insensitivity or just laziness?

My own take on it is that it’s an example of human laziness combined with cultural insensitivity. It’s an example of a Xhosa person being lazy and ignoring another black person’s culture instead of embracing it and learning about it.

So, to everyone out there, I challenge you to get other people’s names right. As far as my own name is concerned, I just know that I’ll keep trying. Si-ce-lo. Tongue against palette. Fingers crossed they get it right.


Tell us: what do you feel about people mispronouncing names?

This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.