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Port Elizabeth’s name change to Gqeberha is timely – now we must honour the legacy of Krotoa

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Vusumzi Vusie Mba is a researcher for the Eastern Cape Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture. He writes in his personal capacity.

The story of Princess Krotoa of the Goringhaicona should serve as a constant reminder that the Struggle is not the ANC, neither is the ANC the Struggle. Her story is a reminder that we have reduced our Struggle to hero-worshipping and praising the ANC’s ideas more than building a rainbow nation, that we have neglected and marginalised the Khoisan people and other minority groups.

The decision to rename the city of Port Elizabeth in our indigenous languages – isiXhosa Gqeberha, in Khoi Khabera – and the renaming of Port Elizabeth International Airport after Khoi political activist and Khoi chief Dawid Stuurman is part of the decolonial project, which seeks to reshape and reimagine the benefit of preserving our heritage in post-colonial South Africa.

The project seeks to remind us who we are, where we come from. Mhlawumbi sizilibele ukuba sizalwa ngobani na (Maybe we have forgotten our roots). The decision to rename the airport after a Khoi chief reminds some of us of the story of the Khoisan princess Krotoa.      

If there is a woman to remind us of our past, it is Princess Krotoa of the Goringhaicona; a translator for the Dutch settlers, negotiating relationships between the settlers and the indigenous population; one of the first prisoners on Robben Island and fierce enemy to the Dutch.

Princess Krotoa was born in 1643, in the Cape of Good Hope, in what is now the Western Cape. She was the niece of Goringhaicona Chief Autshumao. At the age of 10 she had her first real contact with the Dutch settlers when she was taken in by Jan van Riebeeck (the first settler) as a domestic worker in his house. She mastered Dutch and soon began to work as an interpreter, trading agent and chief negotiator between the indigenous population, the Dutch, Portuguese and the English in the Cape.

The princess was a linguist of note and a courageous woman such that by 1660 she had become the principal interpreter to the Dutch, surpassing her uncle who had been their principal interpreter. She had an in-depth knowledge of Khoi and Dutch cultures, which enabled her to mediate between the settlers and the indigenous people during the early years of colonialism. Her legacy is like an echo that must continue to inspire us to learn, lead and fight.

Krotoa’s legacy is more than a memory of the hardships of colonialism, but a footprint that generations will follow to change their lives. Her marriage to Pieter van Meerhof – the Danish surgeon and explorer – was the first interracial marriage recorded in South African history. They were married on 2 June 1664 and had three children, who were also later baptised into Christianity. Her union with Van Meerhof gave birth to the concept of cultural assimilation in South Africa, which was later developed and articulated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Tata Nelson Mandela as the rainbow nation, a society where all can live together, love each other and embrace each other’s cultural differences. 

The story of Princess Krotoa should serve as a constant reminder that the Struggle is not the ANC, neither is the ANC the Struggle. The Struggle has always been the Struggle of the people for the people to change their living conditions for the future, to live better.

In 1662, Princess Krotoa made history as the first indigenous southern African to convert to and be baptised into Christianity. She was then given a colonial name, Eva. Her conversion and marriage to a settler left the Khoi and San people with many questions. Her decision to fall in love with a settler and adopt praises and worship for a “foreign God” made her an outcast who was isolated by the Khoisan people. It also presented her with a challenge as to where her loyalties must lie.

Like many South African women, Princess Krotoa was a victim of rape by men who use authority, violence and force to have sex with women who are in a lesser position of power in society. There is speculation, but no proof, among historians that Van Riebeeck used his position to rape and impregnate Krotoa.

The same year, as Van Riebeeck was leaving the Cape, he recommended the princess to his successor, Commander Zacharias Wagenaer, who later became suspicious of her and accused her of being more loyal to the Khoisan people. After a series of setbacks, including the death of her husband, she lost her job, status and dignity in society. She resorted to alcohol abuse and prostitution. Life became tremendously hard for her, especially after the death of Chief Autshumao.

The princess stood up when standing up was not easy. Her story of rape reminds me of Khwezi and other rape victims who stood up against all odds and inspired others to stand firm and talk about rape, regardless of who raped them. Her story is no different from many of our township stories of young women who lost hope due to societal challenges and resorted to alcohol.

Princess Krotoa of the Goringhaicona was a towering figure and remarkable woman who should be part of our decolonised education – an extraordinary figure who should inspire young women and the whole country. Her legacy and contributions should be celebrated at the same level as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Charlotte Maxeke, Lilian Ngoyi, Queen Nonesi and others.   

In honour of her legacy and contribution, the Khoisan people have suggested her name for Cape Town International Airport. Many South Africans were perhaps asking themselves: Who is that? What is she famous for? The answer is Princess Krotoa was an activist and candid feminist who defied the societal behaviour and standards of native women during the early days of colonial settlement in the Cape. Her story belongs to the archives of legends.

It is a reminder to us that we have reduced our Struggle to hero-worshipping and praising the ANC’s ideas more than building a rainbow nation. It is a reminder that we have neglected and marginalised the Khoisan people and the minority groups. It is a cue that we have shifted away from the idea of building a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society that celebrates its multicultural diversity. Not celebrating the contribution of Indians, coloureds, Khoisan and other cultural groups to the Struggle for a better South Africa is a reminder that we have narrowed the Struggle to Africans in the ANC.

The story of Princess Krotoa should serve as a constant reminder that the Struggle is not the ANC, neither is the ANC the Struggle. The Struggle has always been the Struggle of the people for the people to change their living conditions for the future, to live better.

All those who served, suffered and sacrificed should be equally honoured, respected and celebrated in the manner they deserve. The legacy of Krotoa is a true footprint in the sands of time. DM   

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Zoe Tookey says:

    That is fascinating, and a valuable insight into our history, thank you!

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Airports are dirty, noisy, smelly places of poor architectural significance filled with people rushing through life. Why anyone would feel honoured or would want to honour someone by naming an airport after them does not make sense. Its actually an insult. All airports should be named by the place (city, town) where they are located. Rather name the main beach after Dawid Stuurnam – not Kings Beach or Pollacks Beach. I am sure he would be a lot happier.

  • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

    It’s time to get beyond name changes and build a future…

    • Rob Glenister says:

      Well said.

    • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

      Well said. It is not the changing of names that gets under the skin. It is the just that there seems to be no end to these changes. Get it over and done with. Change all the names you feel should be changed. Nobody REALLY cares what a place or street or airport or …. is called anyway. Just get it over and done with, so that all South Africans can carry on with their lives.

    • Alan Paterson says:

      Agreed. Remember the good old days of statue toppling? At least that fad was quite quick but name-changing in South Africa seems to go on forever. I get confused in my dotage, not even sure if Bloemfontein still exists as a place. But wait, it must imply a tender, our favourite sport other than soccer, to change the names. And, talking about soccer, that was inflicted on us by the colonialists. Stadium names are mostly fine so no problem here but the game must be changed to… Rugby? No, also British Empire. Cricket? No….!

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    A very healthy and positive point of view of the precise mindset lacking in our present day rulers. The Honourable Mthethwa, (hallowed be he in his bubble) has managed to do the right thing for the wrong reason, which is an improvement on doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason, his usual modus operandi. Name changing is a necessity in the process of decolonialising, but also a bit like applying lipstick to a cadaver. The reality of a city in a state of decay makes such actions pretty much only symbolic. And the Honourable Minister’s (hallowed be he in his bubble) timing is dreadful. Changing a City’s name costs money, a LOT of money, ill-afforded at present. Our economy is battered beyond recognition, the tax base is in full flight, and 32% plus of our population without jobs. Nathi has become a Nero, fiddling while his bubble fizzes and pops.

  • Dick Binge Binge says:

    Thank you for the history. A very thought provoking article.

  • Sam Joubs says:

    New name, same level of corruption.. Oh well, I suppose it keeps the sheeple happy.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Excellent point and a reminder that all of us were immigrants into this part of the world and on current ANC logic, all land should be returned to the San and the Khoi!!
    Unless of course you subscribe to this being the cradle of human kind, in which case when Europeans moved in to Southern Africa in the 17th century, it could be said they were returning ”home”!!

    • M D Fraser says:

      Hey Miles, you’re 100% correct. All homo sapiens sapiens originated in Africa, DNA studies prove this beyond doubt. Some intermingling with Neanderthals and Dravidians occurred also, before the homo sapiens outcompeted them and they became extinct. Indeed any peoples from around the world coming to Africa, are “coming home”. Imagine leaving home, improving yourself, then being blamed for coming home and outperforming those that never left. Talk about sour grapes !

  • Pieter Schoombee says:

    Name change after name change at huge, useless expenditure. And the perpetrators strut about as if they have actually achieved something. Don’t we have a country to repair?

  • Ronnie Hazell says:

    Has the stupid ANC got nothing better to do than waste huge amounts of money renaming things when there are people dying of starvation!!

  • Rodney Weidemann says:

    Thank you for the insightful history lesson – as someone who learned history in school through the lens of the Apartheid government, that is NOT a story I had ever heard before, yet it is a fascinating one that deserves far more exposure.
    As to the concerns raised by many about ‘wasting’ money on name changes instead of putting the effort into providing decent service delivery, I don’t presume to speak for the people in the region – I do not live there, I did not suffer under Apartheid and I did not see my history and heroes overwritten by colonial ones, so I have no idea how important it is to the people living in the area to see their own history and heroes represented through these new names.
    It may just be that seeing things through this new lens is far more important than overcoming some of the service delivery problems that have for so long plagued this part of the country, I don’t know.
    What I can say is that I believe that any complaints about money being wasted on name changes instead of service delivery needs to come from the indigenous people who live there, not from middle aged white people living in a different province entirely.

    • Jurgen Blignaut says:

      Spot on, Rodney!

    • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

      How about just allowing TAXPAYERS to complain about how their money is being spent/wasted?

      • Wilhelm van Rooyen says:

        Agreed, specifically as my taxes get wasted across all provincial borders. I’m glad if some people feel better because of the name changes, but this does nothing to truly better people’s lives. And Rodney, as a middle aged white person who pays 50%+ of his earnings to government in taxes, I surely should have a right to a view? Or is this reserved for young, black people only?

  • HARRY FRIEDLAND says:

    I matriculated in 1971. But I read an article like this, about history which we were never taught and know absolutely nothing about, and I wish that I could re-live my education with this in it. We were force-fed the Great Trek until it came out of our noses, and the rest was left to textbooks which we may or may not have picked up after our school years. It is an unfortunate fact of life and studies of history that we live forwards but we learn backwards. The further we go into the future, the more we learn about the past. The evil that we wreak today can be swept under the carpet, but some day somebody’s going to lift the carpet – alas, usually too late to avert the immediate consequences. And we never learn, of course.

    Every now and then these lines by WH Auden (poem titled September 1, 1939) pop into my head as I watch the carryings-on of our glorious world leaders:
    “Faces along the bar
    Cling to their average day:
    The lights must never go out,
    The music must always play,
    All the conventions conspire
    To make this fort assume
    The furniture of home;
    Lest we should see where we are,
    Lost in a haunted wood,
    Children afraid of the night
    Who have never been happy or good.”
    It is my earnest hope that we will ignore the windy vanity and base instincts of our small-minded leaders and stick it out together in SA for another two generations, by which time hopefully the overall pigmentation of all of our descendants will be distinctly uniform, as we begin to meld into a single nation. Am I being naive?

    • Desmond McLeod says:

      Assimilation occurs either through force or mutual respect. It does not occur when differences are constantly magnified and rammed done the throats of the cultures. When this occurs, a laager or tribal mentality will emerge and they spare no effort to try to keep the culture “pure”. I think you will concur, as your name suggests a member of the Jewish faith – a perfect example of a people/culture, persecuted for thousands of years still resisting assimilation and retaining a “purity” of culture. So yes, I think you are being romantically naive.

  • Gary Taylor says:

    I really wouldn’t care about name changes if these places were shining examples of progress, but changing names during the current stage of decay is the African equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns and does nothing more than provide a superficial ‘feel good’ about ‘decolonisation’ to ‘decolonisers’ when there’s nothing of real substance to feel good about and when the ‘decolonisers’ have nothing of real substance to contribute except be part of a struggle to go backwards.

    Perhaps a name change is indeed a good thing as it’s quite likely that those who these places were named after wouldn’t want their names to be associated with the degradation that has taken place…

  • Ron Ron says:

    An interesting perspective on Princess Krotoa or Eva, but I doubt she could be called a fierce enemy of the Dutch given that it was she who counselled Van Riebeck to capture and imprison Autshumao for a time. She had an eventful life and how much of it we can truly know is questionable. I resent the changing of the name of Port Elizabeth in this year which marks the 201st since the 1820 Settlers who built up much of the EC and made it what it is today arrived. Some of those were ancestors of mine, but I am also a descendant of a slave who married her (Dutch) master. The fort and the settlement that were the kernel of the modern city were called Port Elizabeth, after another remarkable woman, by the people that built it and they should be honoured too because of their great efforts and extreme fortitude. That takes nothing away from the Xhosa, but this move says to those who speak English that we are irrelevant, our contributions are denigrated and our voice is drowned. I wonder how many of the people living in the poverty to which the pernicious practices of the Eastern Cape government have condemned them really care.

  • Guy Young says:

    Name changing is nothing more than a strategy to hide the problems of the inept. The ANC have got themselves in trouble and this bit of idiocy is typical.

  • Ann Bown says:

    My preference would have been to rename PE to Princess Krotoa. Why not?

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