Name changing in South Africa was measured, but…

Marcel Berlin is uneasy about a recent almost sudden acceleration in South Africa of the process of changing of names, ostensibly to obliterate remnants of its Boer past.

Recent events in Durban, culminating in protest marches and violence earlier this month, have put name-changing into a new, politically controversial arena. The city (now part of a newly named metropolis, eThekwini) has embarked on a wholesale eradication of place references to colonial and apartheid era figures, and their substitution by world freedom-fighting icons (Che Guevara, Yasser Arafat, etc) and ANC activists, many of them obscure.

I am not suggesting that no other names have been changed or discarded in South Africa, but, until Durban’s mass attack, the pace of the changes has been measured, relaxed and understandable. It took several years for international airports to shed the names of former prime ministers from the bad days; only last year was Johannesburg’s airport renamed after the late, revered president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo. Pretoria is on course to become Tshwane (an African chief), though some of it will still remain Pretoria and there is a fear that too comprehensive a changeover will confuse visitors coming to South Africa for the football World Cup in 2010. There are other examples of name change, and one case of a town that was ordered to revert to its old name (an Afrikaans hero) because it hadn’t followed the proper procedures for renaming.

What troubles me about the Durban initiative is that it shows a meaner, more vengeful, less conciliatory spirit which, I fear, may be catching. It’s all symbolic, I know, but it gives me just a tiny, additional worry about the future.