Monday, March 14, 2016

Changing colonial-era names

It may have escaped most people’s notice, but the ANC government is back to its name-changing obsession in the Eastern Cape.

The latest example, reported in the Weekend Post (March 5, 2016), is the changing of Queenstown to Komani.

Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa has given the go-ahead for this change to “its original African name”, as the report puts it.

According to the February government gazette, Mount Frere will also be renamed KwaBhaca, Elliot will become Khowa and Mount Ayliff will be eMaXesibeni. Lady Frere will be renamed Cacadu.

As a fifth generation white South African whose great-great-great grandparents came out with the 1820 British settlers I take serious offence at this decision.

And I do so as an individual who opposed apartheid throughout his adult life.

Queenstown, like all the others mentioned, is a product of the hard work of the early settlers, in conjunction with the labour of black people in the area.

The town was founded in early 1853 under the direction of Sir George Cathcart, who named the settlement, and then fort, after Queen Victoria. Work on its railway connection to the port city of East London was begun by the Cape government of John Molteno in 1876, and the line was officially opened on 19 May 1880

The genesis of Queenstown, famous for its school, Queen’s College, was replicated along similar lines for every other town and city in this country.

Bizarrely, when I was growing up in East London, the psychiatric hospital in Queenstown was called Komani. It still is. So immediately you also have a rather sad connotation attached to the name.

Why does this renaming fetish offend me, when I was part of the anti-apartheid struggle from my teenage years when I first started writing letters to the editor of the Daily Dispatch attacking apartheid? When I worked as a volunteer for the Progressive Federal Party of Helen Susman, and later as a poorly paid organiser for the party in the politically unfertile terrain of the Border district? When I became a reporter on the anti-apartheid Evening Post at the start of the 1984 United Democratic Front-led uprising, working closely with veteran township reporter Jimmy Matyu? When I reported daily for the Post, and later the Eastern Province Herald, on the morally indefensible policy of apartheid, as UDF leaders were rounded up by security police?

I oppose these name changes simply because I abhor the idea of trying to erase history. What happened in the past, in the long process which led to the formation of South Africa as a single, unitary state, was a complex, multifaceted process.

I am all too aware that this land we call South Africa was occupied by the San, Khoi and various black African tribes when the Europeans first arrived. It is a long, often sorry history of exploitation which really began when ship’s surgeon Jan van Riebeeck led the first settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Initially all the Dutch East India Company wanted to do was to establish a small refreshment station (Company gardens were developed) to supply their ships heading to India and the Far East.
But over the next two centuries, the Dutch and French Huguenots who later joined them, gradually spread eastward, taking land as farms and establishing towns along the way, including as far east as Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage, both of which feature wonderful Cape Dutch architecture. But they also subjugated the Khoisan, either taking them on as indentured labourers, or pushing them to the periphery of habitable territory.

The British settlers and the 1857 German settlers in East London and the Border area extended this process, occupying the land and going about the business of what they were sent out to do in the first place: establish a buffer between the Xhosa territories to the east and the Cape Colony and open up the country to trade and industry through the establishment of infrastructure like ports, railway lines, roads, electricity, dams, and so on.

Meanwhile, mainly Scottish missionaries established the first western schools and colleges for black people, with Nelson Mandela being a prime example of the sort of education such people received.

Which is an appropriate point to draw attention to one of the great hypocrisies of this name-changing obsession.

If colonial names are so hurtful and abhorrent to black South Africans, why on earth is there not a clamour from the ANC to change the name of Fort Hare University?

As Wikipedia notes: “Originally, Fort Hare was a British fort in the wars between British settlers and the Xhosa of the 19th century. Some of the ruins of the fort are still visible today, as well as graves of some of the British soldiers who died while on duty there.”

Wikipedia tells us further: “Missionary activity under James Stewart led to the creation of a school for missionaries from which at the beginning of the 20th century the university resulted.” Fort Hare University was established exactly 100 years ago this year.

The only demand for Fort Hare’s name to be changed has come, I believe, from the PAC, which wants it named after its founder, former student Robert Sobukwe.

Surely the sort of scenario we have in Port Elizabeth is the best solution. By calling the metro Nelson Mandela Bay, you pay tribute to a great conciliatory leader from the Eastern Cape (who, paradoxically had few links with PE), while retaining the names of the original settler towns of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage.
But why did they change the name of the Market Square to the Vuyisile Mini Square? Mini was a struggle hero, killed brutally by the apartheid regime in 1964, as were the Pebco Three and Cradock Four in 1985, at a time when I was identifying closely with their struggle.

But why not instead erect a monument to Mini on the Market Square?

The Market Square in Port Elizabeth literally grew out of the dust and dung of the town’s origins as a small port from which products, most notably merino wool and ostrich feathers farmed in the Karoo in the 19th century, were exported abroad. In so doing, the port integrated this part of the nascent South African state into the global economy.

Similarly, Main Street grew organically as the town developed. It is as old as Port Elizabeth, that is 194 years, and there was no need to rename it after the late Govan “Oom Gov” Mbeki, the gentleman communist party and ANC leader who release from Robben Island I reported on for the Evening Post when he was freed in Port Elizabeth on November 5, 1987.

Each and every town and village with a European name (and many in the former Transkei with Xhosa names) is not a product of a deliberate policy called colonialism so much as the creation of the hard work and ingenuity of the settlers who developed them – obviously with the help of cheap black labour. But at least that labour was gradually becoming integrated into the first-world economy, a process which, however, was set back decades by the apartheid policies of the National Party when it came to power in 1948, particularly as far as social and residential integration is concerned.

Our history is too interesting, too nauseating, too wonderful and too terrible for place names like Queenstown simply to be wiped off the map in the name of political correctness.

The ANC, to its credit, decried the recent attacks on colonial-era monuments like the Queen Victoria and Horse Memorial statues in Port Elizabeth. But the hatred inherent in removing names like Queenstown and Mount Ayliff is little different to that which motivates people to attack monuments that have been around for more than 100 years.

What it says to white people in this country is that their familes’ centuries of contributing to the westernisation and development of this land as a first-world economy is totally of no value and to be condemned. We’ll just pretend, they seem to imply, that all the advances we see on the southern tip of Africa occurred as if by a miracle.

The reality, as we all know, is totally different. I’ve said it before, but it seems it needs repeating. Without the European settlers we would not have modern infrastructure, including a road and rail network, dams and irrigation schemes, harbours and airports, towns and cities, schools and universities, electricity and treated water.

We wouldn’t have engineers, doctors, dentists, psychiatrists, physiotherapists and so on. We wouldn’t have cars and tractors, radios, computers, television and cellphones, nor the internet and all that goes with it.
I, as an individual, can take no credit for any of that. But I do know that all these things are the product of Europeans settling across the length and breadth of this land, as well as further north in what are now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia, as well as, to a lesser extent, in Angola and Mozambique.

In fact, renaming these towns is, in my view, tantamount to hate speech and should be investigated by the Human Rights Commission on that basis.

It bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing, in that it seeks to eliminate from the collective memory the contribution of hardy, enterprising settlers who, in the case of the 1820 settlers, were literally dumped, like today’s squatters, in the inhospitable Albany district, there to eke out an existence with the minimum of support from Britain and under the constant threat of attack by Xhosa and Khoikhoi.

I urge the HRC to investigate this Orwellian attempt to expunge hundreds of years of our history from the country’s collective memory.

There can be no quibble with combining isiXhosa names, like Makana, with that of Grahamstown, as currently is the case with most overarching district municipalities and metros. Surely that is adequate recognition, along with some appropriate statuary, as suggested for Port Elizabeth’s market square?

Like Rhodes University, Grahamstown has become a brand name, as have all the others.

Eliminate those widely recognised brand names and the Xhosa names will simply be lost and forgotten in a global economy which will be none too keen to try to get its head around the Xhosa clicks, as beautiful and intriguing as they may sound to those of us who grew up with them.

Remember that Fort Hare is just such a brand name, as is the historic Port Elizabeth township of New Brighton. Are they going to be eliminated too?

Where will it end? Already university art works and historic collections are under threat.

Will they start burning books with western links? If so, the entire scientific output of the Western world since the Renaissance, arguably mankind’s greatest achievement, will have to be eradicated.

They may as well get rid of their computers and smartphones, too, since they are also a product of western intellectual endeavour.

Surely from these examples the lunacy and hypocrisy of such selective iconoclasm becomes more than self-evident?