The name of the nation’s capital is of particular significance to every country. If you name it, you own it, you really are in charge. There’s a reason why Washington D.C. is named after the person who did more than any other to gain independence for the US.
Being South African, we almost want to put in a “perhaps” in that sentence, because we’re so used to our history changing. Government seems to be in three minds about it, but that is also not exactly unexpected as the ANC itself is split on the issue. In happier days, when he was still ANC chairman, Mosuia Lekota gatecrashed an Afrikaner meeting one Day of National Reconciliation (he enjoyed doing that kind of thing) to tell his audience, “Pretoria sal Pretoria bly”. But the local council had other ideas, and voted overwhelmingly to call itself the “City of Tshwane”.
When the Geographical Names Commission finally got its A into G, it said the name should change. That meant that, as far as it was concerned, proper consultation had happened, all the right procedures had been followed etc. etc. But then arts and culture minister Pallo Jordan refused to sign off on it, and things were stymied there. Obviously, he would have wanted Cabinet to carry the can for this, and it seems they refused. Handy confusion resulted, with the SABC calling the place Tshwane until the Broadcasting Complaints Commission told them not to. National government press releases referred to Pretoria, while the ANC called it Tshwane.
But there’s a real danger here. We’re a fractured country as it is, where people live different lives within the same geographic space. The names issue aggravates that: On maps, whites point at Klerksdorp, blacks look forward to visiting Matlosana. The ANC refers to Ethekwini, Tshwane and the Nelson Mandela municipalities. Others look at Durban, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. And there’s space for real anger over this lack of political will. It’s time for us to have the argument about who’s in charge. It’s time for those who lost to accept that and move on with their lives. And it’s time for the majority to enjoy whatever benefit changing a name brings them. This is not like economic policy, where the wrong policy can bring down the whole pack of cards. This is important symbolic stuff.
Name changes are like history. They get set by them what won. So if the Bolsheviks ruled the Kremlin, and one of their leaders died, well, so much for the former name of the country’s other big city. We’re in power now, you’re not, and so cheers to St. Petersburg, and in with Leningrad. Pretoria may not have quite the same romance to it as Peter the Great, but the principle is the same. And when all of that collapses and someone else takes over with a view to supporting a country’s imperial past, well, back it goes.
The psychology of this goes back to that old controlling instinct. If you are in charge, you need to show you’re in charge, and changing big tangible things is a good way of doing it. It’s also a useful way of taking people’s eyes off the ball, and showing you’re in charge at the same time.
What happened in Durban a few years ago is a great case in point. Remember when suddenly the ANC there started to change all the street names. Things like Mangosuthu Buthelezi Highway were in danger. Most provocative was the idea of naming a highway near Amanzimtoti after Andrew Mlangeni, who’d planted a bomb in a shopping mall there during the struggle. So much for national reconciliation.
But the real reason, according to the cynics, was that the local ANC branches were suffering a crisis of membership. And Polokwane was approaching, and members were needed urgently. The simplest thing to get them up was to concoct a big issue that would piss off the whites and the IFP all at once. And it worked brilliantly. The IFP started to hold protests, the DA did its white-anger thing and the ANC was able to claim it was the legitimate voice of the people.
But it is also right that names accurately reflect the history of a country, the people who formed it, those who fought for and against various causes, and in a way, it should honour those who did the most for its people. And therein lies the rub. Our history is hugely contested. It’s not like Germany where the name Nuremburg still carries a connotation that most people can agree is slightly negative. It’s not like the UK where just about everybody in England (apart from the Cornish National Party) realises Nelson should have a column. Here you’ll battle to get three people of different hues to agree on the real significance of pretty much any historical fact.
Business Day’s editor Peter Bruce once said that if you show him a place named after a white man before 1994, he’ll show you a racist. He’s absolutely right, and it’s time to realise that fully. A few caveats though. The process must be done properly. Everyone must vent their spleen. A name should only chosen if there are no other names likely to unify people, rather than divide them. The process must be reviewable by a judge, a neutral party, not some ANC hack. Also, the process mustn’t be used to score political points in the present day, and thus no one alive should have their name used for anything. And crucially, once a name has been changed, it should not be changed again. Seriously, like for a hundred years. Changing names is an expensive business. So do it once, get it over with, and don’t do it again. Making it impossible to change a name again will make everybody think longer and harder about it.
It’s time to get the fighting over with, and move on.