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The town where I was born and went to school, Kroonstad, is getting a new name: Moakeng, or Place of the Thorn Trees.
I have mixed feelings about that. There is perhaps good reason to change the name, but the town is among the most neglected local authorities in the post-1994 era.
When I was a youngster, the white part of Kroonstad was a pretty little town with a river running through it. The townships were cramped and nasty places.
After 18 years of ANC mismanagement, the townships are still unpleasant, unhealthy places to live in. But the rest of the town is now also a dump and the river full of sewage, while the mayor and councillors are living the life of Riley.
I am remembering Juliet’s words in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
Romeo would, were he not Romeo
Retain that dear perfection which
Without that title.
So Moakeng would retain the “dear perfection” of Kroonstad. Only the name will change; it will remain a neglected town with a corrupt and inefficient local authority.
Inhabitants arguing that the money spent on the name change would be better spent on the town’s crumbling infrastructure probably have a point. But I suspect many of those who opposed the name change were not so much worried about the cost as the symbolism.
Kroonstad was a Voortrekker town; for two months during the Anglo Boer War even the capital of the Republic of the Orange Free State.
The town was named after a horse (yes, really), Kroon, that belonged to Voortrekker preacher Sarel Celliers and that broke its leg in the river in the 1840s.
When colonial official Joseph Orpen wanted to proclaim the town in 1855, he acknowledged that the area fell under the jurisdiction of King Moshoeshoe of the Basotho, and first got his permission.
The point is that, long before the Voortrekkers moved into the Free State from the 1830s onwards, the land had been occupied by Sesotho-speakers and Bushmen (San). The Voortrekkers moved in and, wherever they went, they simply renamed rivers and mountains that already had names and named towns where settlements with good names had existed for centuries. This is true of most of SA.
I don’t believe in the renaming of places for the sake of renaming. Place names should reflect our history, and thus we need to bring in some new names to correct the imbalance. Imagine Harare still being called Salisbury or Maputo being called Lourenco Marques.
The other Free State names being changed are Petrus Steyn to Mamafubedu, Universitas Hospital to Albertina Sisulu and Bloemfontein airport to Bram Fischer.
The town Petrus Steyn was named after the farmer whose farm it was built on. For centuries before that the Leghoya and the Basotho called it Mamafubedu – and it was an important cultural and historic centre in the region.
And who can seriously build a case against honouring Albertina Sisulu, one of the greats in our recent history; or Bram Fischer, the Bloemfontein boy who became the lawyer at the Rivonia Trial and who spent years in jail for opposing apartheid?
If the ANC was a more responsible, mature party, it would have launched negotiations forums for name changes in every province.
The Afrikaner communities of the Free State could go to such a forum and make a case for town names that were really important to them, like Wepener (war hero Louw Wepener), Brandfort (President Jan Brand) and Steynsrus (President Marthinus Steyn), and which ones were not. Other communities could do the same and a harmonious compromise could be found.
And perhaps there should be input from local historians.
If we are serious about reflecting our history in place names, we should not only be looking at names given by the Afrikaners, but also the British and Dutch colonialists.
Names such as Newcastle (after the Duke of Newcastle), Greytown (Sir George Grey), Wellington (the Duke of Wellington), George (King George III), Port Shepstone (Sir Theophilus Shepstone) and Grahamstown (John Graham, a cruel British military officer).
And why should Sir Harry Smith, not a great man in anyone’s books, have three towns named after him and his wife (Harrismith, Ladysmith and Ladismith)? Why do we still have two Heidelbergs, an Ermelo, a Worcester, an East London and an Amsterdam?
The most under-represented part of our history as reflected in place names is that of the Khoikhoi and the Bushmen, the first peoples of our subcontinent. Why, for instance, does the one town where the Khoi culture is still alive, Upington (named after Sir Thomas Upington, a former prime minister of the Cape), not yet have a Khoi name?
Name changes don’t really need to be that expensive and can have great value in making communities feel recognised and reflected. But it should be done very carefully and not punitively – and never to divert attention from bad governance.