Resistance is futile
14 December 2017 10:11 (South Africa)
Opinionista Stephen Grootes

What’s in a name? A rather useful distraction.

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

As the debate about our history, symbols, and statues threatens to calm down to the quiet riot that passes for polite debate in our society, a group of professional politicians are beginning to stir the pot once again. Almost deliberately, it might seem. And they’re not the extremists. Rather, they are representing the very establishment of our politics. The ANC in the North-West Province has decided that they don’t like their name. It doesn’t have any zing to it, and they want to add some. And so they have decided that their province should be named after Moses Kotane. If they succeed, it would be the first time one of our provinces has been named after a person. It’s a drastic, unrealistic, and deliberately provocative suggestion. And it smacks of distraction from the real issues.

On Tuesday ANC Member of the North-West Provincial Legislature, Gordon Kegakilwe, formally proposed the motion that the province should be renamed after the late activist and Communist Party Secretary General Moses Kotane.

It’s been a busy few weeks for the legacy of Kotane. Amid great and proper ceremony, his remains were transported home from Russia, and he was re-buried with full honours. All of that is good and right, and in keeping with much of what makes South Africa a warm and human place to live. Kotane’s place in the Struggle Parthenon is a big one. He gave up almost all of his life for freedom, and there seems to be no claim against his character.

As such, there is already a hospital named after him. There is also a municipality named after him. And thus, goes the reasoning of Kegakilwe, there is no reason why a province should not be named after him either. When it’s put to him that naming an entire province after a person is a pretty big step, his answer was essentially “So what?” His argument is that there was a time when municipalities weren’t named after people either, and we have to start somewhere.

Asked if there would not be unbearable historical irony, should the province one day come to be ruled by the DA, Kegakilwe’s answer is prepared and strong: “If the DA wins the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro Municipality, will they rename that?”

It’s a good point. But there is surely a world of difference between Mandela and Kotane. The rejoinder to that could simply be that many of us don’t know enough about Kotane’s contribution. But that misses the point.

To rename a province requires the consent of Parliament. Which means it is something the entire country has to be consulted about. But the philosophical point here is that surely to rename a province requires not just an overwhelming majority, but consensus. It is something almost everyone, and really, almost all South Africans, have to agree to. And Kotane, despite his Struggle credentials, is surely first and foremost a figure of the ANC. In other words, one person would have an entire province named after them simply because one political party wants to do that, at one time. Unlike the Mandela example, there is no consensus on this. It is entirely possible to imagine (or even fantasise) that one day the Economic Freedom Fighters flag will fly from the ramparts of Mahikeng. And those in charge may think that Julius Malema is a name with a certain zing to it. That seems impossible to consider alongside the Mandela example.

It’s worth just examining the names of our provinces briefly. Gauteng is simply a mixture of Afrikaans and Sotho, and is generally accepted to mean place of gold. It has the virtue of pleasing everyone, and has a certain brand to it. Limpopo, of course, is named after something grey, green and greasy; and KwaZulu-Natal is named for a people and from a word that originally came from Portuguese. The Western, Northern and Eastern Capes provide some difficulty for 21st-century South Africa. The word “cape”, when not being draped carelessly over a shoulder, usually means a geographic feature of rock extending into a body of water. Upington is quite a long way from water. And then there is the Free State. Well, that seems almost impossible to justify; it’s just a shortened version of an old Boer Republik. Imagine re-naming Gauteng “Transvaaltjie”. Yip, unlikely isn’t it? Mpumalanga means "the place where the sun rises" in no less than four languages: Swazi, Xhosa, Ndebele and Zulu.

All of that said, it does seem impossible to justify naming a whole province after one person. It’s hard to think of other examples where this does happen [Um – Ed]. Certainly, there don’t seem to be any African examples [Um, seriously, I’m going to interrupt you… – Ed]. In Europe there don’t seem to be many, but in the UK some people have place-names as surnames; think the Duke of Kent, named after the place rather than the other way round. And then there’s the US. Oh, wait a minute... The Great State of Washington. Named, not after a geographic place…but after a person. [And, uhm, both Virginias, both Carolinas, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania – Ed.]

Of course, it is perfectly human to want to honour a hero, and it’s obvious, surely to everyone, that “North-West” is a pretty stupid name. It’s about as exciting as Steve Hofmeyr on repeat. But coming so soon after the recent debate about the Rhodes statue, and the arguments about our symbols, it’s hard not to wonder aloud if this is just about stirring a debate to keep focus off the real issues plaguing our country. There is a tendency at the moment for major political figures to spend more time talking about the past than about the present. Ceremony honouring a fallen hero follows commemoration following a memorial. Nothing wrong with that, but it certainly detracts from the airtime devoted to the very real problems we face. Anything as a distraction would certainly help some people.

There is one final point to consider, and that is how much of an honour the renaming really is. The North-West is one of our worst-run provinces in South Africa. The ANC there has been so divided for so long that the city of Tlokwe (Potchefstroom) actually fell into the hands of the DA for a time. How good a monument to Kotane is a badly-run province? Like Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital, the name will become etched in the public mind as a place where bad things happen. How does it honour the great and good, those who have made a real contribution, to name a badly performing place or institution after them?

Surely, surely, they deserve better than that. DM

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

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