Being uninformed is so last season
28 November 2014 04:44 (South Africa)
Opinionista J Brooks Spector

My fellow citizens of Gariep

  • J Brooks Spector
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually. It tells us – and the rest of the world – who we are and where we come from. Places are usually named after their first people and then subsequent conquerors. Place names therefore get a lot of people in various passions. I have a suggestion that should – at the very least – offend no one.

The other day, the writer was in Pretoria – or Tshwane, or whatever it is called this week – and noticed that a number of street signs now have red diagonal lines drawn across the current name of the street. Then, below the first sign is another one with a new name for the street affixed to the original one. This is part of the latest set of name changes announced recently for the capital. Over the past several years, as the process has been carried out, renaming streets, towns and cities has become enormously contentious in South Africa.

Maybe there are good reasons for some of this collective high blood pressure and ill humour, maybe there are not. But we need to dig a bit deeper here. If there is ever a truly empty landscape with no aboriginal inhabitants, the first arrivals obviously get all the naming rights. The most recent example has been what happened with the Antarctic landscape. But that’s been about it: over the past aeons, humankind has been enormously resourceful in managing to populate almost every other speck of land on the planet – even severely isolated places like Easter Island or Tierra del Fuego.

The thing of it is, of course, that the first people who sailed, rode or walked to such very isolated places usually didn’t call them what we call them now. Someone else bearing more firepower eventually seized that privilege. Go to truly contested spots and, depending on whose map you look at, the names and even the very places change.

Middle Eastern maps printed in some Arab countries often don’t identify Israel, whereas Israeli maps indicate the absorption of the Old City of Jerusalem and other nearby places into Israel with newly drawn borders – and place names – very different to the ones everybody else uses.

Right now South Africa probably has more contested territory with competing names per square kilometre than any other nation on earth. And just to make sure it has been able to hold on to this front-place position, for the past decade and a half South Africa has been engaged in a great renaming, similar to the way Russia has reclaimed and renamed its landscape from its 70-year Soviet interregnum.

South Africa has been substituting the names of liberation struggle heroes as well as still earlier names of people and places for many of the names that populated its landscape during the days of Empire and apartheid. Almost every one of these changes has ended up becoming the subject of intensely passionate arguments – with (mostly) black South Africans determined to put their stamp on the landscape and (mostly) white South Africans equally determined to forestall such a wholesale redefinition of that same landscape.

For this writer at least, one of these ongoing renamings in Pretoria – substituting Rev. Johan Heyns in place of HF Verwoerd – actually seems purposely designed to undo the nomenclature-style damage that was done years earlier. Renaming a Pretoria street after a pillar of the Dutch-Reformed Church who had found spiritual reasons to turn away from the apartheid project - and who was then assassinated in his own home one night for this decision – is surely a step in the right direction of replacing at least one bit of bureaucratic obeisance to the so-called architect of apartheid.

It should be almost impossible to argue against this change and, for the purposes of national harmony into the future, maybe it isn’t worth the trouble to oppose any of the planned renamings either. Eventually the wheel will almost certainly turn one more time and some of these newest names will be renamed yet again, just as Lyttelton became Verwoerdburg and then more recently became Centurion within the past half century.

In fact, here’s another suggestion. South Africa clearly has a great oversupply of streets, roads, drives and highways crying out for naming. How many repetitive, boring names like First, Second, Third and Fourth Streets does a city need after all? The only real purpose served is to confuse public safety, fire, post office and other delivery services. (Someone once tried to deliver a huge commercial gas oven to the writer’s house a few years ago, insisting the writer’s address was the right one – 4th Street versus 4th Avenue in this case.)

Now here is a project worth taking on that could help people come to grips with this country’s complex history and make the job of the post office easier – simultaneously.

Governments should systematically work through all the nation’s suburbs and start a grand renaming project of unique, informative names – streets in one place could be named after heroes of the liberation struggle, in another to honour the nation’s pioneering entrepreneurs, in others to recognise famous artists, scientists, inventors and educators.

Think of the Johannesburg suburb of Victory Park and Tana Road – the latter, after all, was the site of a victorious battle by the South African army against the Italians in Ethiopia during World War II. Then think how many more creative possibilities exist. For all these grand renaming exercises, there would be ceremonies, all calling attention to the country’s history, rather than yet another tiresome argument about whether removing one more HF Verwoerd road sign is actually a subversive effort to wipe away the country’s history or the memory of yet another cynical, failed politician.

And how about place names like Soweto, Soshanguve and Tokoza and all the other remnants of the apartheid project? Soweto, after all simply meant Southwest Townships, Soshanguve was an acronym for the major ethnicities forced to be housed in that township and Thokoza (“rejoice”) was merely one more cynical effort to insist its denizens were bureaucratically to be defined as happy to be put where they were placed. Why not find more imaginative names for all those places burdened with a faux Africanness?

For comparison’s sake, note that one of the tasks of the US Board of Geographic Names is to help come up with alternatives to names that use derogatory ethnic terminology – places that use “squaw” as part of their texture, for example.

But why stop there? The very name “South Africa” is also controversial – in lots of ways. For some people, the country’s very name has been tarnished by its continuing association with its apartheid past, by contemporary international reporting about its crime and corruption, a vigorously polygamous president, the sometimes-violent xenophobia and the rest of the litany of the country’s social ills.

For others, the name remains redolent of an unhappy colonial, imperial past – a constant mental “Post-it” that recalls the subjugation of one people by another. Still others simply point out it doesn’t do much more for the country’s international image, other than provide bland geographical co-ordinates suitable for a GPS. There is no mystery, no music, and no poetry in this name.

Yet names do matter, at least to those who decide upon them. Abyssinia became Ethiopia and Persia became Iran to escape ill-starred pasts. Northern and Southern Rhodesia and British Honduras became Zambia, Zimbabwe and Belize after their decolonisation. Upper Volta became Burkina Faso – “the land of a smiling people” I believe it means – and maybe they are, too. Once the Soviet Union died, Russia became Russia again – reaching back to a name with rich historic import and nuance, especially since it was named after a Viking invader who took over the joint with an army of chancers and opportunists. And the United States picked its name after the 13 colonies stopped being colonies and they simply had to call the place something else – it was embarrassing.

The problem for South Africa, however, is that there are no obvious historical choices to pick. The country couldn’t become recommissioned as the Transvaal-Orange-Free-State-Cape-Colony-Natalia-Transkei, after all. Besides all the awkward allusions to the component parts, only the acronym would ever fit on the nation’s coins and official stationery. And picking another name by drawing from one of the country’s 11 official languages is almost guaranteed to generate a national uproar over competing language rights, allegations of tribal favouritism, and the desecration of somebody’s traditional values. But there is another solution.

The San people have lived in what is now South Africa for, well, since there were human beings. If the anthropologists, paeleontologists, geneticists and archeologists are correct, the San’s forebears are the Ur-aboriginal inhabitants of this land. And for the past 70,000 years or so they must have called the place something. As hunter-gatherers they travelled around all the time and they named things. We don’t know everything they named across a vast landscape, but we do know they called the Orange River basin the Gariep – and that name has survived up until today. Its original meaning may be uncertain, but scholars and the San themselves seem to agree the term “Gariep” was applied to one heck of a major feature of this country’s vast landscape.

Think of it – here is a chance to rebrand the entire country and expunge the memories of all those hoary old stereotypes and ill favoured, now-yellowing media clippings. In place of those bad vibes, here is a name that speaks majestically to the broad spaces of the African landscape, even as it is paired with a deep reach back into the land’s prehistory. And it is also a name that is unquestionably authentic and of this place, unlike another choice, “Azania”, which, while it may have resonances for some politicians, in its contemporary guise it was simply used to name a made-up place in a British comic novel that lampooned Africa.

So here is the ultimate chance to rebrand and start afresh but, yes, it also offers another advantage. Think of the possibilities of leaping forward six or seven rows to the front in virtually every international gathering, gaining more public visibility – and getting a chance to move away from sitting next to the continent’s most famous failed state – Somalia.

In fact, the only real problem this writer can think of off the top of his head is: what to call the inhabitants of this ancient land? Are they to be Gariepians, Garieps or the Gariepii? But this can be overcome as well. Perhaps a bit of archeological and linguistic research will produce an accurate, authentic way to draw upon a San word or bit of grammar for this very purpose. And there is some interesting symmetry as well: the national coat of arms draws upon Khoi-San, words even if such wording doesn’t draw on one of the country’s current official languages. So why shouldn’t the name of the country follow suit? DM

P.S. As a service to the rebranding effort, I have established a new email address: brooksingariep@gmail.com.


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  • J Brooks Spector
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Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

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