Name changes erase history
Denver Webb’s views in “Change the names to rid SA of its colonial, apartheid past” (September 21) have certainly undergone a sea change from the days when he was in charge of national monuments in the former Ciskei homeland. Back then he was all for commemorating and preserving vestiges of colonialism such as old British forts.
He has always been something of a cultural mercenary with adaptable principles, but even if we accept that he has undergone a genuine conversion from the person who was once committed to monumentalising colonialism to wanting to eradicate it, it is surprising that a historian (as he describes himself for the purposes of the article) should now take such a narrow view of history.
Historians usually look at the big picture and help us to gain perspective on historical events and characters. It’s extremely unusual for a historian to want to obliterate all traces of a period of our history for whatever reason. History is history and is reflected in the names and tangible legacy associated with it. They are part of historical memory, good or bad.
Webb also displays a narrow view of South African place names by suggesting that they were artificially imposed on the landscape, replacing or corrupting existing names. He has clearly not read the book Falling Into Place by one of South Africa’s foremost onomasticians, Elwyn Jenkins. If he did so he would see that, as Jenkins illustrates, South African place names are surprisingly representative and the process of naming has been a dynamic and organic one. People also attach value to names irrespective of their origins.
With reference to the announcement by the minister of arts and culture of the number of objections to the proposed renaming of Grahamstown (“more than 300”), Webb states: “Given the nature of the objections and the relatively small number … it can be assumed the name change will stay.”
Webb should know that the number given by the minister is disputed and that the actual figure is about 10000 objections, not only from Grahamstonians but from people in all parts of the country and elsewhere.
And how does Webb know what the objections are? They are extremely varied and the minister is required to consider each and every objection and to give reasons for accepting or rejecting them.
Finally, Webb does not seem to be aware that one of the key guidelines contained in the official handbook of the South African Geographical Names Council is that existing names are “part of the historical, cultural and linguistic heritage of the nation which it is more desirable to preserve than destroy”.
The approach that Webb advocates is inconsistent with that important principle.