Sunday 28 February 2021

Picture Post #62: What's In a Name?

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be 
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Sapho Mahilihili*

On 23 February 2021, the South African city of

Port Elizabeth was renamed Gqeberha.

This thing of changing names is pure stupidity, especially where it is applied to cities. It promotes laziness.

Look at it this way.

Our government has not built a single city, yet it has renamed many cities. Cities around the world are named after the people who founded them.

If the government could build a new city, and name it after the president, I would welcome that. This would instill a culture of building things from the ground up. The same applies to airports and universities. I welcomed the building and naming of King Shaka International Airport, and Sol Plaatjie University—built from scratch instead of renaming the old.

Let us build from the ground up, instead of hijacking things that are already built. This will create employment and contestation between presidents and their administrations, as to who built more and created more employment than the other. Instead of this silly idea, contesting who renames the most, while it creates no employment of the citizen.

Transformation of words and names is pure nonsense—places previously reserved and written Whites Only. Today they are written Management Only or Staff Only, and people think we are making strides. Go to that Gbeberha. Whites are still living in opulence, while Blacks are languishing in the same townships as before.

We need to build cities, especially along the coast, to tap in to the marine industry. Name those cities after people we love, instead of renaming cities whose old structural format remains intact, where Black people are pacified to believe that they made progress where there is none.

This is a regressive transformation, created out of hatred and spite towards White people, not to promote and elevate African people’s standard of living to those of White counterparts.

*Sapho Mahilihili is a well-known South African grassroots leader, 

   a #FeesMustFall and #Decolonization activist.

Editors' note: Twitter has suspended #Decolonization. One may refer to 

  #DecolonizeAcademia and other hashtags. 


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Apart from being interesting in itself, this post shows how the rising generation is thinking in South Africa.

I was in two minds about the racial classifications, but perhaps there is no other way of saying it at this point in history.

Keith said...

A BBC article explains that pronunciation of the name Gqeberha ‘does not come naturally to non-Xhosa-speakers — even many black South Africans’. (I wonder, then, how the new name was arrived at.)

Beyond the curiosity of pronunciation, however, the graver claim that the former name Port Elizabeth was reminiscent of the country’s ‘colonial, or apartheid, legacy’ strikes me as a serious and credible charge. One I can cheer on.

Similar changes of names of buildings or other structures (even the removal of statues) have happened in recent years in the United States and other countries, where the honorific names of, say, university buildings evoked the history of slavery and racism.

I therefore find such reckoning — the renaming — to be a culturally healthy righting of history’s more-sordid landmarks.

In the case of Gqeberha, however, what seems to have happened is that one issue — its awkward, tongue-twisting pronunciation — has served as an avoidable distraction from a justifiable objective — the need to erase objectionable history.

Of course, as you point out, the hard part going into the future is to focus on the knottier business of improving people’s lives, including the righting of inequalities of assets, incomes, and perhaps more crucial to quality of life, inequality of opportunities.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

A comment elsewhere on the Internet:

Not sure I agree. I'm all for the decolonising project. However, I do agree that creating is better than reshaping, but sometimes reshaping is also necessary.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Every creation carries along fragments of previous images and ideas. Creation is a connection and mixture of many things. Architectonical constructions could embrace the past, present and future. As names might reflect the same. Only once I’ve seen a Greek temple in which a Roman temple was build and following a Baroque church. All these passing dominations visible in one building seem to reflect that we are as layered as the past we faced. To me, a progressive view would build on this idea, instead of preserving or to erase, to intervene without exclaiming solely a specific identity and embrace a humanity that regards us all. And if this could happen, perhaps architectonical structures and names would truly hand a transformation of what happened in history so far?

docmartincohen said...

It's a good point to raise, anyway! I lived in Queensland (sic) Australia for a few years and one of the key indicators of local politics was the names of the settlements. Where settlers were most ruthless and literally killed most indigenous people, the names were all rehashed English towns. Where the settlers sought to create shared futures, the old names survived. So my settlement was 'Coolum' and nearby was Maroochydore, words signifying things like the huge waves and surf of the coast there. By the way, another name "Murdering Creek' was in English, but also a kind of nod at political issues: it recorded a particularly nasty massacre of indigenous fishermen after which the creeks waters ran dark red with blood.

But as to what I think is Sapho's main argument - the attempt to 'rewrite' long histories by top-down and really rather imperialistic changes of town names, I think I would condemn it. If the settlement has long been called after a brutal tyrant, is it better to recognise that than attempt to pretend otherwise?

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