South Africa’s name changes: Triumphalism or pragmatic neutrality? – Ivo Vegter - Biznews

Renaming building, streets, towns and cities is little more than cheap triumphalism that continues to divide South Africa.

Renaming streets and landmarks in South Africa has become a divisive practice, often driven by triumphalism rather than thoughtful consideration. While some names, like President C.R. Swart, are offensive due to their association with apartheid-era figures, the replacement choices, such as Fidel Castro or Winnie Madikizela Mandela, can be equally controversial. A pragmatic and neutral approach to name changes, prioritizing public support, cost considerations, and simplicity, would contribute to a more reconciled and non-racial South Africa.

Ivo Vegter

Renaming building, streets, towns and cities is little more than cheap triumphalism that continues to divide South Africa.

There’s a street near where I live that is called President C.R. Swart Street.

I find that offensive. Charles Robberts Swart, nicknamed ‘Blackie’, was the last governor-general of the Union of South Africa.

Swart was a member of the Ossewabrandwag, an Afrikaner nationalist organisation that supported Nazi Germany during World War II. He had been the Minister of Justice when the National Party came to power in 1948, and was instrumental in establishing the repressive powers of the apartheid police state.

Although only a bare majority of white people (850 458 people out of South Africa’s total 15 841 128 population, as liberals at the time pointed out) had voted in favour of becoming a Republic, Swart was to become the first state president of the Republic of South Africa, with Hendrik Verwoerd serving as his prime minister. 

Republic Day in 1961 was a damp squib, but the anti-apartheid forces had been successfully suppressed. Die Burger, despite its pro-government stance, called the newly renamed country the stinkmuishond (skunk or polecat) of the world.

If that street name offends me, I can’t imagine how much more it would offend the people who really suffered under the odious apartheid regime. It must be changed.

On the other hand, if it is changed, it will likely be changed to honour some equally divisive and equally odious character, likely a politician, from history.

Odious communist dictator
I say this, because when the ‘pride of the Free State’, the tallest building in Bloemfontein and the seat of the provincial government, the C.R. Swart building was renamed in 2015, it was named after none other than the odious communist dictator, Fidel Castro.

It is true that Fidel Castro has a place dear to the heart of the anti-apartheid movement, thanks to his intervention on behalf of Angola in its war against apartheid South Africa.

Yet he is a divisive figure for many reasons, among them that he was a brutal dictator who rejected democracy, ruthlessly persecuted his political opponents, harshly punished civilians who spoke out against his communist policies, and ran a police state rife with surveillance and censorship. 

Nominally free education and healthcare – both of questionable quality and universality – does not even begin to compensate for such an inhuman, oppressive regime. 

Stompie Sepei Drive
In a similar vein, William Nicol Drive in Johannesburg used to be named after a former chairperson of the Afrikaner Broederbond who, despite his nationalist beliefs, strongly opposed Bantu Education, believed everyone had the right to equal education in their mother tongue, and translated the Bible into various South African languages, notably isiZulu. 

Fair enough, heading up the Broederbond might be grounds to be struck off the street map, but when the time came to find a new name, the officials in charge selected Winnie Madikizela Mandela. 

Winnie’s famous face had kept the struggle alive in the eyes of the world while her then-husband, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned. For that, she once merited applause.

Her fall from grace began in the 1980s, when her role began to be eclipsed by that of her husband and the ANC in exile.

Contrary to Nelson’s ideal of a peaceful transition and a negotiated settlement, Winnie promised to liberate South Africa ‘with our boxes of matches and our necklaces’. (Necklaces, for those too young to remember, were tyres doused in petrol, placed over the neck of someone suspected of being a police informant or political rival, to burn them alive.)

Worse was to come, when she was convicted of four charges of kidnapping and four charges of accessory after the fact to assault, in a case that led to the death of 14-year-old Stompie Sepei. The charge that she had ordered the murder did not stick, and Mandela never served a prison sentence for these crimes.

Later, she would once again find herself on the wrong side of the law, and was found guilty of 43 counts of fraud and 25 counts of theft during her time as head of the ANC Women’s League. 

After the death of her ex-husband, she attempted to have her divorce from him declared a fraud, in order to lay claim to the Mandela estate in Qunu. Her attempt failed.

Her name was irrevocably tainted, and associated with political violence, kidnapping, murder, misgovernance, fraud, theft, corruption and greed. A moral icon and role model she was not.

From a potentially divisive apartheid-era name, the street went to a certainly divisive liberation-era name. I’ve taken to calling it Stompie Sepei Drive.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of officials deployed throughout the country whose only job it is to rename things. They don’t work for free.

They have lists of thousands of names that have yet to be changed, and work their way through them at the snail’s pace of bureaucracy. 

That is why the names of grand architects of apartheid persist in many towns and cities, even though one might have expected them to be the first to be tossed in the dustbin of history.

Many name-changes smack of triumphalism, of the new guard gloating over the defeat of the old guard. 

The new names serve exactly the same purpose as the old names: to establish an officially-approved version of history that supports the current rulers. Where the old names served Afrikaner nationalism, the new names merely serve African nationalism. They’re nothing more than propaganda.

In a country that aspires to reconciliation and non-racialism, as I hope a majority in South Africa still does, name changes ought to be handled with much more grace and pragmatism.

The first thing name changers should take into account is that name changes cost money. They don’t only cost the government money because they have to change road signs in an expanding radius that could stretch for hundreds of kilometers. They also cost everyone living in, or along, the town or street that is being renamed money. Affected people and businesses all need to replace stationery, notify customers and creditors of new addresses, reprint business cards, and update commercial signage. 

A second factor is that names are means by which people recognise places. When a town or city builds up a brand that becomes appealing to tourists, for example, we ought to be very reluctant to change the name. 

Take Graaff-Reinet, for example. The oldest town in the Eastern Cape, it is named after the Dutch governor of the Cape Colony at the time, Cornelis Jacob van de Graaff, and his wife, Reinet. I doubt many people would know that without looking it up, or are offended by the name. 

There’s a proposal to rename it to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, which is a cumbersome mouthful, and would require the town to rebuild its tourism reputation from scratch. 

Tsepo Sobukwe, the grandson of Robert Sobukwe, told The Herald that he is less than convinced. ‘I’m honoured and appreciate the considerate effort. But I am a little bit torn because it’s my grandfather and he deserves the recognition, but on the other hand I’d prefer to choose a name that holds more significance for the town. I’m divided because there are other ways to memorialise important figures such as stalwarts.’

The triple-barrel proposal for Graaff-Reinet raises another concern: names ought to be practical. The proposed new name for Adendorp, a suburb of Graaff-Reinet, is Kwa Mseki Bishop Limba. 

Besides for the fact that Limba was the bishop of the United Congregational Church church known as the Bantu Church of Christ in Gqeberha, and has nothing at all to do with Adendorp, such a ridiculously long name is just stupid.

(That’s another example: Port Elizabeth was not a particularly offensive name, but it was changed to a name that is hard to spell or pronounce for many of the locals, and all of the foreign tourists.)

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, naming places after people will very often be a matter of division, especially when these people are political figures. As Tsepo Sobukwe says, there are other ways to honour political heroes. 

Pragmatism and neutrality
For these reasons, I would advocate a policy of pragmatism and neutrality. 

Name changes should only be done when the existing name is actually offensive. President C.R. Swart is offensive. Where a town is named after a founder, however, their politics matter far less, if at all. Only when a town is named after a political figure does the question of appropriateness even arise.

Did West Street in Durban really need to be named after a founder of the ANC? Is ‘West’ that offensive to African nationalism?

Officials should by default be reluctant to change names, since doing so costs money and sacrifices name recognition. This is especially true in popular tourist towns, which need name recognition among foreign tourists.

Changing names to traditional indigenous names is not objectionable, provided that the names are not too complicated. Nor is changing names to descriptive words based on geography or location.

New names ought to be short, simple and memorable. 

Instead of naming a town ‘Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe’, which is just the full name of a person, call it Robertstown, or Sobukweville, or something like that. Instead of Dr Pixley ka Isaka Seme Memorial Hospital, which is a whole sentence, perhaps just call it the Seme Hospital. 

Changing Jan Smuts International Airport to Johannesburg International Airport, as was done in 1995, was great. The new name was neutral and inoffensive, yet descriptive. Changing it again, to O.R. Tambo International Airport, made the name divisive again.

In general, the tendency to name things after people ought to be resisted. There are cases where it could be justified, but they are few and far between. Too often, it is merely an attempt to construct a new nationalist history to write over the old nationalist landscape.

And finally, name changes ought to have public support. When one or two people propose a name change, but everyone else in the town is opposed, don’t steamroller the name change through anyway.

It doesn’t make government look like it is delivering services. It makes the government look insecure and deaf to the will of the people. 

Flowers and animals
I dream of a country where we name our places after flowers and animals and geographic locations – things we can all agree on – instead of after politicians who advocated necklacing or communist dictators who ruled with an iron fist.

But then, I still dream of a country where nationalism is banished in favour of a liberal, non-racial society. Maybe I’m just naïve.

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.