What’s in a name?

2016-08-01 06:45

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The #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements of 2015 brought recurring issues facing the education sector to light once again – from insourcing, to making fees more affordable and the decolonising of universities. It became apparent that decolonising is still an important factor for transformation to truly take place in South Africa.

When the statue of Cecil John Rhodes came down at the University of Cape Town, there were calls throughout Grahamstown by Rhodes University students for the name of the institution to change as well. It also drew attention to the buildings in and around other campuses around the country that still did not reflect the diverse South African culture. This reignited the post-apartheid calls of ‘name-changing’ which saw the names of various roads, buildings, and even cities changed from their previous colonial and apartheid era names to names which are more reflective of the country’s present circumstances.

The Daily Maverick described the changing of names as a mechanism of transitional justice as it can “assist in restoring dignity and public recognition to victims.” Name changes help to not only to heal the wounds of the past but to educate and encourage a new generation. The Geographical Names Act of 1998 was put in place as a transformation process, which is working to redress imbalances in history and “eradicating a history fraught with oppression and forge” and 22 years later we have only seen the tip of the iceberg of what the changes and steps which could be put in place in order to heal the wounds of the past. Young people learning to drive now would not know that the Christiaan Barnard Drive that they pass through as they head into Cape Town Central, only five years ago was named after Oswald Pirow, the former far-right South African Prime Minister who founded the New Order group. Wouldn’t we rather want a generation asking more about Christiaan Barnard than Oswald Pirow?

The Vienna Memorandum on World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture which was adopted by UNESCO stated that “taking into account the emotional connection between human beings and their environment, their sense of place, it is fundamental to guarantee an urban environmental quality of living to contribute to the economic success of a city and its social and cultural vitality.” People, places, words become immortalised when they are placed on a building, road, town, and we have to decide what type of legacy we want to remember – one of oppression and strife, or one of freedom and diversity.

The calls for the change of the name of the Rhodes University and UCT brought attention to what was happening at other institutions like the University of Johannesburg which had already put measures in place to change their building names. UJ’s Naming Committee was already formed as far back as 2008 and the review of the Residences’ names started in 2010. In 2013, the University changed its strategic direction and focus, it was in this view that the university embarked on an aligned, consultative and informed process of the renaming in 2015. As part of their #UJBeTheSolution campaign, the University of Johannesburg listened to the feedback of their students and committed to change the names of 33 of their residences. These buildings which predominantly had Afrikaans names are now representative of a diverse collection of languages from around South Africa and the continent. The process of student inclusion and consultation showcases what a university that is focussed on changed can do to build an environment that promotes a more inclusive society.

The new names of the residences were decided by the students from the various residences and day houses who brainstormed and discussed what the names should be and wrote concrete manifestos for their residences. According to University of Johannesburg, “the new names for the 33 student residences and day houses reflect the brand and the values of the University of Johannesburg as the pan-African epicentre of critical intellectual inquiry, its role in society, its location in the City of Johannesburg, and its focus on global excellence and stature.”

It is a great example of collaboration between the university and the students to transform and create a diverse environment for all. Perhaps more will follow suit.




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