Recently Bloemfontein made the news when the name of its airport officially changed to Bram Fischer International Airport. The renaming of streets, towns and cities is controversial and often produces heated debate. It is proposed, for example, that 2013 will be the year in which Pretoria becomes Tshwane.
There are deeply held views on the significance of place names. These strong convictions arise from concerns about historical revisionism, financial considerations, the glorification of people who were responsible for the deaths of innocents, and the taint of oppression and dispossession. All the arguments have some validity.
In Africa, the period following the implementation of majority rule is usually characterised by policies that follow a strongly black nationalist and/or ideological agenda, rather than a broader nation-building consensus. Name changes are a way of putting one’s own stamp on a new dispensation and obliterating painful symbols of the past.
It costs a considerable sum to go through the process; often certain groups are alienated; individuals who lost loved ones in bombings or other violent acts suffer great anguish; and the spectre of triumphalism rather than the prospect of inclusivity is raised. On the other hand, those millions who were directly or indirectly affected by apartheid receive some form of redress; the taint on the country’s history is ameliorated to some extent; the culture and history of the majority gains greater currency.
I would like to address a few question to South Africans of ALL backgrounds: are name changes necessary? Does the process accommodate the diverse perspectives and history of this nation? Is the process flawed in its implementation? Are there more pressing issues facing the country?