Editorial: Are South Africa’s new names more than a mouthful?

The new name for Port Elizabeth is now Gqeberha. Say it like this: “click-e-b-e-ghaa”. If you have a doctor’s certificate excusing you from the click, an easier pronunciation might be, “K-e-b-e-g-a”, conveniently similar to the city’s long-established suburb, Kabega Park. Which is no coincidence: Gqeberha is the isiXhosa name for the Baakens River that runs through the city, and is also the name for the city’s Walmer Township. 

Residents are already accustomed to referring to their city as iBhayi or PE or eMambozana. Yet, despite not being a new name, per se, Gqeberha is proving to be tongue-twister for some, and a name with very little resonance for others. 

The change of the “Friendly City” name was approved on Tuesday, when it was gazetted by Sports, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, along with a new name for the city’s airport: Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport. 

Many others, however, have been vocal about how little they approve, or bemoaned a supposed lack of consultation.

Boy Lamani from kwaMagxaki was one of the people who made the original submission for the name Gqeberha. Whatever you think of his choice, there was in fact a consultation process, which Lamani participated in and which very few of those who are now seemingly distraught bothered to do. Nevertheless, people are taken aback. Even angry. 

One Twitter user said: “Tannie, why are you upset about the click? It’s the same sound you make before you chase your husband out of the kitchen. It’ll be okay.”

Other Twitter users said they do not have any desire to learn to pronounce the new name properly. “I’ll stick to PE,” some muttered darkly into the ether.

Such intractability recalls the response to any number of renaming exercises since 1994. Who could forget the boisterous debate when Pretoria was changed to Tshwane, never mind all the street name changes? Plenty of us, it turns out: outrage tends to fade into familiarity over time.

But until then, let the current brouhaha remind us that, as citizens we must take part in these consultations and processes before they’re finalised. And that means paying attention and engaging in our communities instead of sealing ourselves off in self-imposed societal quarantine. 

Those who complained they had no idea about Gqeberha’s consultation process should reflect on why that was. However much our political parties may want us to look away, democracy demands our active participation. This country belongs to all of us. 

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