Please can we set these mountains free?
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Murray Williams thinks that the towering Hottentots Holland mountains in the Western Cape should be renamed.
If you take to the sea at Rooi Els and start paddling due north, you will see the most wonderful sight. Once you’ve punched through the surf on your surfski or kayak, the Strand is about 22km away.
First you cross the magnificent bay which surrounds Kogel Bay, or Koeël Bay – named after the round rocks which line the eastern corner of the shoreline, shaped like cannonballs.
After about 11km, you’ll reach Steenbras river mouth, where the Coca-Cola-coloured water tangles with the tangy sea.
The next sight you’ll see, straight ahead of you, is this sight of which I speak.
It’s the False Bay coastline, with a range of mountains towering in the distance.
If the southerly wind is blowing, you’ll find yourself riding huge, undulating swells. As you dip into each 5m-deep trough, you’ll see the shoreline ahead of you, across the water, but with every single Strand skyscraper blocked out.
So the sight you see is what this place probably looked like 500 years ago. And 2 000 years ago. Possibly even 100 000 years ago. It’s a sight of great innocence.
Staring down the bow of your kayak, as you surf the giant swells, you can imagine watching history unfold on that shore.
Some historians – like those whose expertise informed the SA Tourism website – tell us “modern humans” began to evolve throughout Africa – including the Western Cape – 100 000 to 200 000 years ago.
They became the San, who later met up with southbound Khoi pastoralists from the north who drifted down into the Western Cape in around 300AD – followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, etc.
I have often wondered what these mountains I have stared at should be named – this vast fortress of guardian peaks. I’ll tell you what they should not be named – their current name, the Hottentots Holland mountains.
Why not “Hottentots Holland”?
This is why. And this principle, I’d humbly suggest, is at the heart of the various “name-changing” debates.
“Hottentots Holland” is obscene for two reasons:
First, because common agreement is that the Dutch settlers labelled the Khoi “Hottentots” in imitation of the sound of the Khoekhoe language.
Second, because the name takes a place, a majestic natural feature, and defines it in relation to The Netherlands, to “Holland”.
It is “the Hottentots’ Holland”.
Both names are equally offensive for precisely the same reason: because they frame this place in relation to “the other”. Not their own intrinsic worth.
And that is the opposite of self-identity, self-determination.
The “Hottentots Holland” name represents the worst part of our history. A history of powerlessness, of subjugation.
Please, can we set these towering mountains free, by naming them for themselves, and restore their dignity – and thus ours?
* Murray Williams’ column ’Shooting from the Lip’ appears in the Cape Argus.