/ 28 November 2008

Motlanthe calls for change in approach to name changes

President Kgalema Motlanthe has proposed a new approach to place name changes, saying that since the advent of democracy in 1994, few things have been as divisive as the process of changing apartheid and colonial names.

”This does not need to be the case. Instead, handled properly, the re-examination of place names could be used as a vehicle for nation-building,” he wrote on the ANC’s website on Friday.

”Just as the cities, towns, streets, rivers and mountains of this country belong to all its people, we should ensure that all South Africans can embrace the names we use to identify these features,” he said.

”Subliminally, these old street signs said to the country’s majority that this is not your street, this is not your town, this is not your park.

”The desire to change the names of these places is therefore understandable.

”More than that, it is necessary to ensure that the languages, culture, history, aspirations and heritage of all South Africans are reflected in the names that are given to the world they inhabit,” Motlanthe said.

If South Africa was to shake off the colonial yoke, it would need, among other things, to change many of its place names.

However, as this process unfolded, it had been met with much resistance, and had exacerbated old divisions within communities.

This did not need to be the case. By approaching name changes differently, the process could serve to unite rather than divide, and build a sense of common purpose and common destiny.

The law was clear on the requirements for changing place names, but if the review of place names was going to play a constructive role in society, it might be necessary to develop an approach that extended beyond the formal and legal elements, he said.

As an example, he cited a town that was officially known by a name given to it during colonial times, or the apartheid era.

To continue to use this particular name would be to ignore the diversity of residents of this town, and exclude the language, culture and history of the majority of its people, Motlanthe said.

Recognising this problem, the town should mobilise its residents to submit all the names by which this place was known or had been known, even in the distant past.

The town should then commission research into each of these names, to uncover their roots, historical significance, cultural importance and contemporary meaning.

They could do research on the history of those individuals who were closely associated with the place, extracting historical material about their lives and times.

”In this process, not only will the town and its residents be in a position to make a more informed decision about what the town should be known as, it will have uncovered important material about the history of the town, its most significant features, outstanding individuals who have lived there, and its residents.”

This material should be collated and published in book and other forms, a popular history of the place that incorporated the experiences of all sections of the community.

The value of this was that in searching for a name, the town would have been able to construct a common history shared by all residents, and hence a common heritage.

”It will also contribute to the forging of a common destiny.

”Empowered with this information, and a sense of a common history, the town’s residents are then better able to settle on a single name for the place that reflects this common past and common aspirations.

”Such an approach reduces the scope for conflict, builds understanding between different sections of the community, and encourages a sense of common ownership.

”It also mitigates against names that may be arbitrary, partisan, offensive or that bear little relation to the town’s history and situation,” Motlanthe said. — Sapa