Change the names to rid SA of its colonial, apartheid past


The announcement in June that the minister of arts and culture, Nathi Mthethwa, had approved the belated name change of Grahamstown to Makhanda was greeted with the usual social media storm of outrage. Equally predictable, the reaction reflected the polarisation of South African society along racial and privilege lines.

At the beginning of August, the minister reported that more than 300 letters of objection had been submitted and were receiving attention. Given the nature of the objections and the relatively small number out of a population of some 6 000 in the Makana municipality, it can be assumed the name change will stay.

Now it is time to deal with other geographical names that should have been changed in the transition to democracy. The slow pace of transformation of place names and the routine objections from minority groups is a constant reminder that ours was a negotiated settlement in 1994 and not a revolutionary takeover.

There were no scenes on television of triumphant tanks rolling through the streets of Pretoria. Nor were there dramatic scenes of apartheid-era statues being yanked from their pedestals by cranes. This absence appears to have encouraged those seeking to preserve the status quo.

After nearly a quarter of a century, the continued existence of colonial and apartheid place names is a daily reminder of the slow pace of transformation. It speaks to the persistence of unequal power relations in society. It is evidence of a misunderstanding of the concept of reconciliation upon which arts and culture policy during the Mandela presidency was based — essentially a one-sided view of reconciliation in which black people were expected to forgive white people for apartheid while allowing them to hang on to the privileges they accumulated. Nation building was (mis)interpreted as not tampering with the history and culture of the minority.

The initial attempts at transformation of place names were based on three main policy pillars: changing offensive place names,restoring the correct spelling of African place names that had become Anglicised or Afrikaanised and changing place names that represented the history and values of colonialism and apartheid to reflect the democratic dispensation.

The pace of change in the provinces was uneven. The former Northern Province succeeded in short order in changing its name and that of a large number of towns and cities. The Eastern Cape, in contrast, failed to change its name, despite the best efforts of the then premier, Makhenkesi Stofile. Changing the corrupted spellings of indigenous place names was more successful — as in Bhisho, Mthatha, Dutywa, Qumra and Centane. The Western Cape appears to have not even made a serious attempt.

The implementation of the third policy pillar, despite some lengthy consultations, petered out because of a combination of resistance, vested interest and official indifference. Part of the problem is that provincial structures intended to guide renaming processes, undertake consultations and make recommendations to the minister of arts and culture did not have the necessary capacity.

The nature of the various consultations also led to dead ends because they became subsumed in a welter of service delivery and other complaints, allowing those opposing name changes to successfully stall proceedings. The absence of clear criteria and principles upon which name changes could be based further hampered consensus.

Changing place names is guided by the South African Geographical Names Act of 1998. But the legal framework, important as it is, is only one aspect. It requires political will to intervene to redress imbalances in society and a willingness of citizens to embrace a different future.

Now that the prickly issue of Grahamstown has been firmly grasped, let us renew efforts to change other names too. Let the national department of arts and culture work with its provincial counterparts to develop a set of principles and criteria to guide a renewed consultative process and get on with it.

Those objecting to name changes appear to have failed to grasp that changing geographical names was an integral part of establishing colonial hegemony. Transforming place names should, therefore, form part of decolonising society. There is nothing sacrosanct about colonial and apartheid place names. Indeed, some colonial commentators were themselves critical of the process of wholesale replacement of indigenous place names.

In 1820, William Burchell wrote: “But the aboriginal [Khoikhoi] names ought, on no account, to be altered; they should, on the contrary, rather be sought for, and adopted, as being far more appropriate to Southern Africa, than a multitude of foolish names of modern imposition.”

In 1851 another European visitor reported: “Why not stick to the original designations of places, which have always some meaning, besides being more picturesque, instead of planting the whole earth with new Londons, and Yorks, and Canterburys, which have no reference whatsoever to the scenery or other conditions of the place? Can anything be more incongruous than a Wapping on the banks of a river filled with hippopotamuses, or Vauxhall, Stepney, or Stoke Pogis, surrounded by tropical vegetation?”

But most settlers and colonial officials uncritically accepted the naming and renaming of towns, rivers, cities and farms, mountains and other geographical features as an essential step in the creation of the colonial order.

Critics also display amnesia in remembering that the apartheid government itself was active in renaming places to suit its own ends. Changing Roberts Heights to Voortrekkerhoogte and Sophiatown to Triomfare but two of the most well-known examples. PE Raper, one-time head of the Onomastic Research Centre at the Human Sciences Research Council, explained in his Dictionary of South African Place Names that, from 1939, a place names committee worked on standardising place names to the satisfaction of the government of the day. 

This included changing indigenous names to make them easier for white people to pronounce (like changing Qumra from Komgha to Komga) and creating Afrikaans equivalents for “foreign” names (such as East London to Oos-London).

The continued existence of so many untransformed place names is an affront to the dignity of the majority of the people of South Africa. It is visible and tangible evidence of the old power relations in our society. Although it is true that changing names will not create a more equal society, it will at least signal some visible change in society. If the outward manifestations of those old power relations change, then perhaps the transformation of the substance of those stubborn vestiges of those old power relations will not be far behind.

Let us therefore all embrace name changes and come together to arrive at a set of names that reflects our diversity and that supports our constitutional principles.

Denver Webb is an historian and heads the strategic resource mobilisation office at Nelson Mandela University. He also serves on a ministerial task team for the transformation of the heritage landscape in South Africa

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The art of the virtual experience

The live magic may be gone, but the National Arts Festival showcases some exhilarating work

It’s just not cricket

Near Makhanda in the Eastern Cape in the village of Salem is a cricket pitch that is said to be the oldest in the country. Watered by blood and trauma, rolled with frontier nostalgia and contemporary paranoia, how does it play?

Busi Mhlongo, Goddam!

It’s been a decade since Busi Mhlongo succumbed to cancer. Niren Tolsi reflects on her life and the singular connection she formed with her audiences

Build infrastructure to support the fourth industrial revolution

Technology has the potential to solve many of the country’s social problems such as electricity production and the eradication of pit latrines

Pensioner goes back to class

Fifty years after matriculating, a 67-year-old has become the oldest-ever first-year student to study at Rhodes University

JM Coetzee: A fine mind, a formidable intellect

Behind JM Coetzee, the writer lauded for his ‘wonderfully brave, bold mind’ , is John Coetzee, the quiet man

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Catholic NGO boss accused of racism and abuse in Sudan

The aid worker allegedly called his security guard a ‘slave’

Agrizzi too ill to be treated at Bara?

The alleged crook’s “health emergency” — if that is what it is — shows up the flaws, either in our health system or in our leadership as a whole

SANDF hid R200m expenditure on ‘Covid’ drug it can’t use

Military health officials are puzzled by the defence department importing a drug that has not been approved for treating coronavirus symptoms from Cuba

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday