Anatomy of a name

Botha’s government lost no time in putting its stamp on race relations.  Within a year of the formation of Union preliminary drafts of the Natives’ Land Act, whose most grievous provision was to define less than 10% of the country where black people could buy or hire land, were being debated in the parliament.  In the same year – 1911 – the Mine Works Act was passed, which reserved certain jobs for white workers in mining and on the railways.

These laws, coming on the back of Union and numerous protocols that already restricted their movements and labour rights, were a further affront to black South Africans.  They did not go unnoticed.  On 8 January 1912, the South African Native National Congress[1] was formed in Bloemfontein, its charter to end apartheid and restore the franchise to black and mixed-race South Africans.  Among its leadership were Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a Columbia and Oxford-educated lawyer who had been called to the bar at Middle Temple in London before returning to South Africa on the eve of Union; and the author, Solomon Plaatje, whose observation of the siege of Mafeking was immortalised in The Boer War diary of Sol T Plaatje.

1912 was marked by significant improvements to railway infrastructure across South Africa, the naming of a small Free State farming town in honour of Emily Hobhouse – the welfare campaigner who had brought the plight of concentration camp internees to the British public – and the birth on 18 May of Walter Sisulu, a future founding member of the ANC Youth League and Secretary-General of the ANC, who would serve 26 years for treason on Robben Island.

On 4 November, Harry and Rose became parents to a boy, Philip Bernard Leopold.  My father used to make much of the fact that his first name meant ‘lover of horses’ – the stems of the Greek Philippos are philos (lover) and hippos (horse) – and, while he loved all forms of gambling, it was his patronage of two Cape Town turf clubs that I associate most with his betting on anything that moved.  If Dad’s first name was something of a departure from tradition – I am not aware of an ancestor named for the father of Alexander the Great or one of Christ’s apostles – his second name was more conventional.  Bernard, or Baruch in Hebrew, means ‘blessed’; the hoped-for son and heir, I daresay.  Leopold’s roots are Germanic, from the old German liut, meaning people, and bald, meaning brave: thus ‘bold among the people.’  In folklore, the first stem is attributed to the Latin, leo, or lion; this is an unlikely explanation as the Germanic people had no word for the king of the jungle.  The way I see it, my father was either named for a blessed horse-loving bold leader, or one who would be brave as a lion.  In defence of the latter, he did have a soft spot for cats.

The etymology of names aside, Dad’s birth – or more precisely, his birth certificate – gave me something I had hitherto not had: a street address for Harry.

[1]              In 1923 it would be rebranded as the African National Congress.


2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a name

  1. I’m enjoying this real life history lesson. As a Young “Rhodesian growing up in the neighbouring country I was totally ignorant of ALL South African politics. I look forward to each new instalment

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