Name change – or tenderpreneurship by another name?

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / Last Thursday, as South Africa commemorated the Sharpeville Massacre, residents of Robert Sobukwe’s old home town were up in arms over a seemingly trivial issue: the Pan-African Congress leader’s given name.

Born into a working-class family in Graaff-Reinet, Sobukwe’s early life was the standard township hardscrabble. Despite these travails, he completed school, ultimately enrolling at the South African Native College at Fort Hare in 1947. Two years later, he became the first president of its Student Representative Council before going on to become a teacher, lecturer, and a founding member of the PAC. It was in this capacity that he earned the sobriquet ‘The Prof,’ owing to his reputed oratorical and intellectual aptitude, and also on 21 March 1960 wound up as an active participant in the tragic Defiance Campaign.

Robert Sobukwe, founding member of the PAC. Image: Wikipedia.

Aimed at showing a finger at apartheid’s cumbersome pass laws, the campaign was planned as a peaceful revolt. Sobukwe figured it would be simple enough: protesters should leave their pass books at home, and present themselves at police stations to be arrested. What he had not foreseen was how hard the police would come down on this pacifist action. In the township of Sharpeville in the Vaal Triangle, police fired indiscriminately at a dispersing crowd, killing 69 people and wounding 180.

Sobukwe was arrested, handed a three-year prison sentence, and – under the so-called ‘Sobukwe Clause’ — sent to Robben Island for a further six years. Upon his release in 1969, he was banished to Kimberley, where he died nine years later due to complications from lung cancer. He was buried in Graaff-Reinet.

More than four decades later, his name has again been the talk of the town. This follows news that ‘the Gem of the Karoo’ might soon be undergoing a name change. The Eastern Cape Department of Sport Recreation Art and Culture has reportedly proposed that the names of four towns in the province be changed, as follows:

Graaff-Reinet to Robert Sobukwe or Fred Hufkie;
Adendorp to Kwa Mseki Bishop Limba;
Aberdeen to Camdeboo; and
Nieu-Bethesda to Kwa Noheleni.

When public hearings were held about this earlier this year, some people vehemently opposed the proposed name changes, but they also got some support.

The initiative has also left some unanswered questions – mainly how the province’s Provincial Geographical Names Committee (PGNC) goes about choosing the towns whose names they propose to change. After all, renaming a town is not a simple exercise, and it also doesn’t come cheap. In fact, from a purely monetary point of view, the people who stand to gain the most are those who would tender for changing the signage.

Many people argue that these funds should rather be used for worthier causes, such as supporting the milllions of people who are living below the poverty line.

This conjures up the ludicrous idea of the former minister of sports, arts and culture, Nathi Mthethwa, to erect a monumental South African flag at a cost of R22 million. Following a public outcry, the plan died. How about the government’s plans to sponsor Tottenham Hotspur to the tune of R900 million? That’s nearly a billion bokke. Makes one wonder if some of these guys aren’t living is some parallel Scandinavian universe, where the trains run, the people work, and there’s virtually zero inequality. But I digress….

Sleepy Nieu-Bethesda, also earmarked for a name change. Image: Wikipedia.

In 2021, Port Elizabeth’s name was changed to Gqeberha, despite an convincing argument in favour of eBhayi – a name used by both African and Afrikaans-speaking (die Baai) people throughout the country. Instead, the powers that be went for the hard-to-pronounce Gqeberha, the Xhosa name of the Baakens River that flows through the city. I doubt if any person outside of the place had ever even heard of it, and many of its residents still grimace when they have to nail down they have to nail down the first syllable, ‘gqe,’ leaving one to wonder how the poor Brit or Japanese tourist gets on with it.

Of course, this isn’t just about money or pronunciation — there’s the delicate matter of decolonisation and all that, which is a legitimate aspiration. Common logic dictates that these symbols of colonialism, apartheid and white supremacy should be removed. But is this only achievable by completely obliterating the history of others? Also, some of these proposed name changes have no reference to subjugation or to figures of oppression.

Nieu-Bethesda comes from a Biblical scripture, John 5:2-4. Kwa Mseki Bishop Limba (the proposed name for Adendorp) is the founding Bishop of the Bantu Church of Christ. But surely members of other religious denominations or sects may feel isolated or excluded. The first thing that came to this writer’s mind is whether the PGNC is largely populated by churchgoers.

This pales in comparison to the name Nieu-Bethesdians might soon be slapped with. Google doesn’t come up with anything, but it sounds like a common Xhosa word for ‘hell’ (kwahele). Perhaps that’s how local African folk define their material conditions in the town. Who knows?

The statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the UCT campus. Following the #RhodesMustFall movement, it was removed from public view. Image: Wikipedia.

You’d remember the 2017 #FeesMustFall movement at South African universities. While it started as a protest against proposed increases in tuition fees, it developed into a general demand for the ‘decolonisation’ of tertiary education, much of it aimed at the figure of the British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. At UCT, students demanded the removal of Rhodes’s statue in front of the Great Hall, and students at Rhodes University in Makhanda demanded a name change. Given Rhodes’s racially supremacist views, and his role in advancing British imperialism in southern  Africa, their gripe was more than fair. But what, we must ask, will come in its place? That ought to be the most important part of the debate.

You’d remember the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town which captured global attention and quickly spread to university campuses across the world. It was directed at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, who had donated the land (the Groote Schuur estate) on white the campus was built, and dominated the campus from a plinth in front of the Great Hall. Given Rhodes’s role in British imperialism, the students’ gripe is more than fair. But what, we must ask, will come in its place? That ought to be the most important part of the debate.

It would be counterintuitive to replace one divisive name with another. At the rate that our provincial name change committees are going, South Africa may look like a completely different country in a few decades’ time. The current modus operandi suggests that the entire Karoo, all our neighbouring towns,, and Colesberg itself will have disappeared. One can’t see places like Britstown, Hanover, Noupoort, Cradock and many others surviving the onslaught.

Despite the massive opposition to changing the names of both Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth, government still went ahead and did it anyway. This then raises the question: are these consultations and public hearings merely a formality, aimed at creating the impression that the government is listening to its people, but does what it wants in any case?

FEATURED IMAGE: Graaff-Reinet’s main street, dominated by its historic NG Kerk. Image: South African Tourism.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Phakamisa Mayaba’s website, eParkeni. Used with permission.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap