It is a common theme throughout history that once a nation goes through a period of great socio-political change, many geographical names are changed to try suit the new political agenda. We’ve seen this with Vietnam changing Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Saint Petersburg changed to Petrograd, then Leningrad and then back to Saint Petersburg after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This trend has also been very common in African countries after independence as a way of ridding themselves of their colonial past.
South Africa has taken the issue of name changes to heart and many historic places have had their names changed. However, this has often come with mixed response and great criticism. From the progressive side, there is a great call to ‘decolonise’ and ‘Afrikanise’ (sic) our country. From the conservative side, there is a care for the history of original names and what they stand for.
Most recently, a name change debate has been resurfacing in my new home of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape; for many years now, there has been debate about a potential name change for the town. Recently, a suggestion to change the name to ‘Makhanda’ has been proposed, to a rather mixed response. The largely leftist student body at Rhodes University has had a few supporters in favour of the name change, however many Grahamstown residents and more conservative organisations have met the proposed name change negatively; organisations such as the Front Nasionaal have cited historical reasons for keeping the name while others, such as the organisation Keep Grahamstown Grahamstown, have cited more practical reasons, demonstrating through polls that a majority of residents in the town want to keep the name, regardless of what race they are.
Another practical problem faced by a possible name change is the sheer cost involved. A name change would cost millions of rands in replacing the signage and branding of the town. What’s more, the Makana Municipality which governs the town is notorious for being in continual financial disarray, and the town has much more immediate needs relating to crumbling infrastructure. As an example: water cuts are common, and this year mere days before the annual National Arts Festival was scheduled to take place, a number of water pumps were flooded and water was cut out in certain areas. As a student at Rhodes University and therefore, a resident of this town, I can confirm that there are often cuts in power and water, constant roadworks, and a number of other far more urgent needs which require attention. Frankly, given the financial implications, even the consideration of a name change is, in my mind, an enormous fiscal luxury which is at the present time irresponsible and unsustainable.
South Africa, of course, is a country known to put ‘transformation’ and ‘decolonisation’ much higher on its list of priorities than fiscal responsibility. Vukile Skeyi, secretary of the South African Municipal Workers Union stated: ‘Some say it is a waste of money, but it costs money to name all the places Grahamstown in the first place.’ With logic like this in authority over our tax money, perhaps it may be better to offer an alternative choice.
My solution to the name change debate in Grahamstown is simple: have more than one official name. The concept might sound strange, but it is already done all over South Africa. For official purposes, the name of Grahamstown could stay as it is in English, but for use in Xhosa, one could either use ‘Makhanda’ or ‘iRhini’ (‘iRhini’ being the Xhosa word historically used for the region and the name of Grahamstown used colloquially by Xhosa speakers). While there would still be a fair cost involved here, the multiple names would mean that the municipality would not be under time pressure to add the new official name to official documents, signage, etc. Instead, they could wait until there came a period where their budget was in a better state and they were able to responsibly pay for all the costs involved.
In addition to this, the multiple-official-names option would seem to be the one which causes the least conflict between the two sides. This way, those who feel the name of the town is somehow offensive or problematic in a different sense need not call it ‘Grahamstown’, and those who don’t can continue to do so. Businesses based in Grahamstown would not be obliged to change their details either.
Moreover, this solution is one which has been tried and tested, not just in Africa, but also in Europe. In the UK, English speakers might refer to Cardiff, while Welsh speakers call it Caerdydd. Depending on what language one speaks, they could find themselves in the country of Ireland or Éire, Wales or Cymru, Scotland or Alba. An even better example would be the multilingual Switzerland which has four official languages: Swiss-German, French, Italian and Romansch. Because of this, most cities and town have a different name in each language. Take for example Zurich (Swiss-German: Zürich, French: Zurich, Italian: Zurigo, Romansch: Turigt). Even Finland has compromised with its small minority of Swedish speakers and made Swedish names for most places such as Pietasaari (SE: Jakobstad), Oulu (SE: Uleåborg) and even the capital Helsinki (SE: Helsingfors). The Germans even have an extensive list of German names for cities around Europe, thanks largely to their World War 2.
And if that still doesn’t convince you, consider that we have already been doing this in South Africa for years. Weather you live in Cape Town (Kaapstad, iKapa), Port Elizabeth (iBhayi) or Johannesburg (iGoli), just know that a geographical name is by no means a zero-sum game.