S. Africa putting freedom on map

After apartheid, nation struggles to get names in step

December 04, 2006|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun Foreign Reporter

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Hendrik Verwoerd Drive is headed for the dustbin. The busy road, named after a key architect of the apartheid laws that oppressed South Africa's black majority for decades, is likely to get a name more in step with the times: Nkululeko Drive, the Zulu word for "freedom."

Hans Langa, 60, a black street trader who was 12 when Verwoerd became prime minister in 1958, couldn't be happier.

"It's our freedom, you see. Things must be changed from the past for the new system," Langa said. "The name Verwoerd is no longer in this world. It's an offensive name."

A dozen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is in a renaming boom. Having broken the shackles of minority rule, the black-led government is rolling back the white domination still evident on the map.

The process is often contentious, with proposed changes stirring deep emotions. To many black South Africans, and a number of whites, age-old injustice is being cured at last. But many whites, especially Afrikaners descended from 17th-century Dutch settlers, feel the changes are an attempt to erase their heritage and a part of South African history that, however ugly, should not be overwritten.

So far, 833 cities, towns, airports, rivers and mountains have had new appellations granted by the national government. That does not include countless street name changes. The most recent high-profile switch saw Johannesburg's international airport - until 1994 named after the Afrikaner general and political leader Jan Smuts - recast as O.R. Tambo International, after the longtime head of the African National Congress, which led the struggle against white rule.

Much more renaming is expected. A recommendation to change the capital Pretoria to Tshwane, as the metro area is known, awaits action by the government minister in charge of renaming. King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus wants Natal dropped from the province name KwaZulu-Natal. Some say Johannesburg and Cape Town deserve indigenous tags, and Azania has been suggested to replace South Africa.

While critics say ANC politicians too often push the changes through without open debate, the government says the new names have emerged from community-wide deliberations.

It is not just "offensive" names that are fair game for changing, said Sandile Memela, a spokesman for the Department of Arts and Culture, but any that cause painful reminders - in other words, any imposed by the English or Afrikaner settlers who controlled South Africa by the late 1800s.

"For quite a significant segment of the population, [the names] make people remember they are a conquered people, their land was taken from them, they continue not to enjoy the wealth that comes from that, and their heritage is sidelined," Memela said.

Resistance to the scale and method of the changes is being led by the Democratic Alliance, the ANC's official opposition in parliament. It is the party of many white South Africans, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population of 47 million people.

If the name-changing continues for years, "it would keep on dividing us even more, and that's not what we want," said Desiree van der Walt. "The Democratic Alliance strongly believes we have got to share this country, all of us who live here. We must understand where we come from."

Clearly offensive names such as Verwoerd ought to be scrapped, she said, as long as they're not simply replaced with ANC heroes. Afrikaners feel threatened because "it's always their names, their buildings, their language. It seems to be only an Afrikaans thing."

For now, she said, English names such as George, East London and Grahamstown seem safe. By the same token, she noted that no new names honor the Khoisan hunter-gatherers who predated Zulus, Afrikaners and all others here.

Another objection is the cost of changing signs and maps. When Pietersburg became Polokwane in 2003, it cost a reported $12 million. Van der Walt said the money would be better spent on public services.

"Dignity to us means you would have a job, you could have a house, clean water," she said. "Dignity to us is not based purely on a name. We strongly believe we should look at the real needs of the people first."

That is a "very patronizing argument," countered Phakamani Mthembu of the Department of Arts and Culture. In his view, names matter deeply.

"We are thinking beings, spiritual beings," he said. "You can't deal with people by saying you must give them food and shelter. It's animals that can be done that way."

Moreover, he said, whites have been "advantaged" by the renaming blitz, since more than 200 of the 833 new names are English or Afrikaans. However, the vast majority grace new communities and lack the emotional punch of centuries-old town names.

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