In 2003, without proper consultation, officials in Limpopo changed the far north town of Louis Trichardt’s name to Makhado.
Makhado Ramabulana was a 19th-century Venda king famous for defeating the Boers at Luatame, Vhulorwa and Ha-Madzie.
In the process they killed lots of vaTsonga warriors led by a Portuguese mercenary named João Albasini.
Not only did authorities fail to consult stakeholders, they also didn’t take into consideration minority concerns that the new name was akin to celebrating a chapter in the vaTsonga’s history soaked in blood.
The imposition failed its first hurdle when the Pretoria High Court ordered the town to revert to Louis Trichardt.
The court didn’t order restoration because Louis Trichardt, a Voortrekker slave-taker and coloniser was a saint but because the process was flawed.
Courts can’t be faulted when they operate on legislation enacted by the department of sports, arts and culture which empowers communities to initiate geographical name changes through a committee that in most cases constitutes the blind leading the blind.
Most municipal power brokers see that piece of legislation as a blank cheque to pursue tribal and partisan agendas.
Some places with foreign names are renamed to appease political and tribal leaders who collaborated with colonisers or remained unrepentant until April 26 1994. Believe me, there are apartheid stooges who became ANC members literally overnight.
Still, the process of renaming historic landmarks is part of a redress government embarked on in 1998.
It was a process vanquished Afrikaner imperialists and former homeland despots knew would hurt and evoke emotions.
What about the renaming of Jan Smuts Airport to Johannesburg International Airport before it became OR Tambo International Airport?
There was a time when the principle was that public amenities would not be named after the living because those people might become Harvey Weinstein or Bishop Abel Muzorewa.
Every revolution produces both heroes and traitors. But that didn’t stop Thabo Mbeki from having his own street in Polokwane or hundreds named after Nelson Mandela.
Quite interestingly, it seems to be a snag Winnie Mandela airport keeps hitting.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s case was pleaded by the EFF, which did it for the political expediency.
It can’t be for the same reason Baragwanath Hospital was renamed Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital when the martyred SA Communist Party leader was neither a doctor nor a nurse.
One could understand the rationale behind Cecilia Makiwane as she was a pioneering nurse. Hani could have befitted a military base or army regiment.
The issue I’m raising is the obsession to rename instead of historical name restoration. Why are we afraid of history and its uncomfortable truths?
When Nelspruit became Mbombela, it was a sore point for some old people who remember its historic name. For them it hurt to see it renamed Mbombela. Why couldn’t its historic name of Emakobolwane, known to African ancestors, be restored?
This quagmire continues to dog municipalities in far-flung parts of the country.
A typical example is the Bushbuckridge Local Municipality in Mpumalanga which, 26 years into democracy, still has tens of villages called Lillydale, Agincourt, Mary Pebbles, Esselington and Dumphries.
These farms were named after white war veterans. Those Boers appropriated hundreds of hectares and named them Welverdiend, Dingleydale and Maviljan.
When homelands were established, those fake names gained legitimacy. When democracy dawned and the process of renaming reached Bushbuckridge, it found a low-level tribal conflict between Mapulana and Amashangana, which started under apartheid.
Amashangana and Mapulana, who used to be neighbourly, had never got along since the creation of the Lebowa and Gazankulu homelands. That was when historic Mapulaneng (now Bushbuckridge) was split to create a Gazankulu region called Mhala (Bushbuck).
As political winds blew, former members of Gazankulu’s ruling party, Ximoko Xa Rixaka, joined the ANC and brought with them its tribal ideology.
When the time came to restore historical names of so-called villages which were in essence farms that used to be Mapulana settlements, they shuddered at the revelation such a progressive process would produce.
The Constitutional Court later upheld the Nhlapo Commission on Traditional Leaderships and Claims, finding against Hosi Eric Nxumalo’s attempt to become paramount king of vaTsonga as Amashangana – who are historically Amandwandwe – only fled into South Africa from Mozambique led by Mpisane Nxumalo in 1896.
“He took along his followers, travelled west and eventually settled at Bushbuckridge, in the present-day Mpumalanga,” the report revealed.
What worries the Ximoko faction in the ANC in Bushbuckridge is: “If we go for name restoration instead of renaming, it might start to debunk the tribal narrative that Bushbuckridge has always been Gazankulu.”
Gazankulu’s nationhood myth only becomes the truth if you keep the names as they are today – in English, Afrikaans, German, Irish, French – and not in Xitsonga or Sepulana.
And that’s what the municipality has chosen to do – to keep demeaning names for narrow tribal expediency.
That’s the failure of the national project called renaming. It is flawed and disregards the fact that those areas were once occupied by Africans and had African names.
These names need to be restored. There are records and people who still remember that Thulamahashe was Maripe and Dwarsloop was known as Saselani before Gazankulu was established.
When Prisoner 46664 regained his freedom, he had his name restored. This is what this country’s landmarks, villages and everything else need, not a renaming with a tribal and political objective.
Maybe Louis Trichardt should be restored to what it was before that ugly moniker – as Tshirululuni.
Mashego is a culture writer and political analyst
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