Lingering language of apartheid

SUN JOURNAL

Names: Schools, hospitals, airports, even cities are being renamed to reflect the cultural diversity and democratic values of the country.

April 21, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In 1971, anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol died when his body plunged from the 10th floor of the notorious security-police headquarters in John Vorster Square here.

He had been under interrogation in detention for five days. He was the 22nd person to die in police custody after the 1963 introduction of detention without trial under the apartheid system.

Magistrate J. J. L. de Villiers ruled eight months later that Timol died "from serious brain injuries and loss of blood when he jumped from a window. The cause of death is suicide and nobody is to blame."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by this country's first black-majority government to lay the past to rest by exposing its brutality, came to a different conclusion in its final report last year.

It found the police "directly responsible for the death" of Timol, a schoolteacher, and said the magistrate's failure to blame the police "contributed to a culture of impunity that led to further gross human-rights violations."

Last month, Azaadville Secondary School, which replaced the high school where Timol taught in West Rand, was renamed the Ahmed Timol Secondary School at a ceremony attended by President Nelson Mandela.

The school's name change is part of a campaign to replace colonial and apartheid-era nomenclature here with names that reflect the cultural diversity and democratic values of the country, particularly those associated with black pride, dignity, history and achievement.

The question is, how far should it go?

Few would argue with the major hospital in the black township of Soweto adding the name of assassinated anti-apartheid hero Chris Hani to its title, although what claims to be the largest hospital in the world now probably also has the longest name -- The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. It is still almost universally called Bara.

The memory of Hani, the former Communist Party secretary-general who was widely seen as a potential successor to Mandela until he was gunned down, has also been preserved in the names of a nursing college and a provincial laundry.

It's one thing to change a police station named after former law-and-order minister Adriaan Vlok to the geographically neutral Lyttelton Police Station. But perhaps it is another to strip the names of Afrikaner academics and poets from buildings and institutions.

The renaming of the Voortrekkerhoogte army barracks outside Pretoria to the less-aggressive-sounding Thaba Tswala may be in line with these gentler times. The military has led the way in renaming its bases, units and ships.

Gauteng province, centered on Johannesburg and Pretoria, has also been in the lead. A May 1996 resolution from the provincial Cabinet said: "Every vestige of names of public institutions in this province that evoked bitter memories of events, or of what happened in the past, must be changed in order to promote the spirit of national unity and reconciliation."

Commenting on the current furor in Durban over renaming the major streets in that east-coast city, the Star of Johannesburg said in an editorial:

"Doing away with icons of the past is an emotive issue. Naming streets and amenities after politicians is a mark of public respect some forebears do not deserve. The more offensive reminders of the past should in time be replaced, with names drawn not just from recent heroes and politicians, but from the wider heritage of our nation."

Eyebrows were raised when a member of the ruling African National Congress, sitting on the Pretoria greater metropolitan council, suggested the wholesale renaming of streets, squares and buildings in the capital. Even Pretoria, named after one of the Afrikaner "trekkers," should be rechristened, he suggested.

Advocates of change point north to the former Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and its capital, which in colonial days was Salisbury and today is Harare.

Throughout Africa, name changes have been the order of the times in the latter half of this century as the continent has been liberated from colonial oppression, if not influence.

What was Upper Volta became Burkina Faso, just as Dahomey became Benin, Bechuanaland became Botswana, the Gold Coast became Ghana, British East Africa became Kenya, Northern Rhodesia became Zambia, and so on.

More recently, liberation in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has brought the freedom to record forbidden connections with history, such that Leningrad has become St. Petersburg once more.

But South Africa, under the repressive boot of apartheid for almost 40 years, remained labeled from coast to coast with names associated with white dominance.

It is now catching up quickly with the continental trend. Jan Smuts International Airport is now Johannesburg International Airport. The hospital named for the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, is now the Pretoria Academic Hospital (suggesting that the capital's named is safe -- at least for the moment).

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