Name changes erase his­tory

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis -

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.

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