What’s in A Name?

Exploring Secrets
12 Nov 2007
Sacred Romances
1 Dec 2007

What is, indeed, in a name?

Sometimes, it can be a lot. Emotional ties, memories, painful or pleasant, are easily linked to names, whether that name belonged to your aging mother, a lost lover, or a long dead oppressor.

This country has in its history many people who have actively contributed to the segregation laws that have divided the people, at least, politically. Many of them were “immortalised” by the then regime in the naming of towns, roads and various public structures such as airports. Of course, with the turning of the tide and the country changing political hands, many of these names were disregarded in favour of those of people who had featured prominently in the fight to free the land, and free the people.

Understandably, people want to move on, put away this violent and overbearing past, and remove any reminders of it. Mr HF Verwoerd was, for anyone who is aware of the Apartheid history, one of the founders of the structure that earned South Africa the reputation it did, a structure that worked effectively in suppressing the masses and cementing that racial divide we’ve come to know so well. Naturally, being the powerful and active figure that he was, it is unsurprising that a vast majority of streets and towns across the country were named in his honour.

Understandable it would also be, come South Africa’s political independence, that his would be one of the first names to be changed. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the case. Certainly not on a country wide scale. One of the leading roads in Johannesburg, activity hub of South Africa, was called Hendrik Verwoerd Drive up until two months ago.

Two months ago? After thirteen years of democracy, the government only now got around to changing this road’s name? I suppose, one could argue that, being as costly as it is to change road and town names, perhaps this particular stretch of tar just wasn’t in the budget. And so, the lesser Apartheid minions who may have had more major roads named after them were dealt with first.

Of course, the recent name change of a major road throws that idea out of the water.

I cannot imagine our government is not aware of the cost of these changes, in terms of the updating of the various signs, maps (which in a growing city need to be updated regularly anyway), brochures, locale, mapping and navigation software, and businesses that have adopted the name of their location. Not to mention the general initial confusion of the people who use these roads. A Gauteng resident put forth a decent idea in a blog (How to make street renaming simple) that the changes should be made with a nationwide old-new mapping system, with all of one name changed to the same thing, the example provided being all HF Verwoerd could be renamed after say, Oliver Tambo. This would make sense and would be an easy way for the general public to organise their heads around any newly named street or town.

But, again, it has been thirteen years. Surely a name is not something we should be harbouring on anymore. There are far more important activities that require funding. Or so thinks the public. In fact, I would say the vast majority of people in this country who do not have a political agenda (and these include leaders in the old South Africa) consider all these recent changes to be a waste of time and resources. When the democracy was younger, yes, fine. Now, it’s time to move on. Let it be.

And, at the very least, be intelligent about it.

Every South African may well have raised her or his eyebrow when it was announced that our country’s main international airport would undergo a name change from the apolitical and fairly straightforward Johannesburg International to OR Tambo International. (On an aside, I do find it amusing that, after the 1994 elections, the airport was initially changed from Jan Smuts to Jhb International, and, yet, the main road of Jan Smuts that runs halfway across the city remains to this day as is. Hmmm.)

Nobody has any issues against Mr Tambo but we still do not see the point in the change. There were cries of “well, the airport isn’t officially in Johannesburg jurisdiction and so can’t be named such”. So, in other words, more political egos to sooth.

Do these same people think beyond themselves to how this affects us on an international level? How many foreigners know OR Tambo? Do they even care? Yet, how many would have heard of Johannesburg, given that it is a main city and the port of call for many a business?

Would it not make sense to name an international airport so that it can be easily located by internationals? Maybe I’m over thinking this.

I just feel, as many do given the conversations I’ve had, that to a degree, the current government is merely repeating a lot of its predecessors’ actions. We can only hope that when the current main political party is overthrown, there will not be further money thrown away on street, town, park, river and whatever other name changes to reflect the new party’s figureheads.