Johannesburg - GQE-BE-RHA, Gqeberha!
This is the name/word that has been hot on the lips of many South Africans since Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa approved and gazetted Gqeberha as the new name for Port Elizabeth.
It has trended at the top of the Twitter charts.
Gqeberha was the isiXhosa name for the Baakens River, and was also the isiXhosa name of the Walmer township in Port Elizabeth.
Since the name was proposed two years ago, there have been protestations, with some people complaining that they do not know how to pronounce it, while others have said they have no desire to pronounce it properly.
“I’ll stick to PE”, they protest online.
IOL spoke to Dr Sebolelo Mokapela, head of department for African Language studies at the University of Western Cape.
Mokapela is a linguistics expert and on her LinkedIn profile she explains the importance of language in society:
“Language is more than just a means of communication. Language is culture. Language is identity. Language is you, me, you and me, us.
“Language has more power to shape a community, a society, a people. Losing your language is losing you.
“Embracing multilingualism and advocating for its realisation are things I am passionate about,” she writes.
The other name changes to take place in the Eastern Cape are:
Port Elizabeth Airport/Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport
East London Airport/King Phalo International Airport
King William’s Town/Qonce
The new names for the Eastern Cape towns and airports, according to the PE-based Herald newspaper, were proposed to honour the Xhosa, Khoi and San people.
It was Boy Lamani of KwaMgxaki who proposed the name Gqeberha as a substitute for PE.
“Gqeberha — which is the isiXhosa name for Walmer Township — is one of the first and oldest Port Elizabeth townships.
“Initially Walmer was called Gqeberha but because the Walmer name became prominent as industrialisation grew, Gqeberha lost its popularity.
“Peter Mkata, John Masiza, Makhaya Jack, and the Majola surname are just a few of the families that originated in Gqeberha,” he was quoted as saying by the Herald.
Gqeberha was also the name of the Baakens River.
In an interview with IOL on Wednesday, Mokapela said most of the changes could be traced back to landmarks and not to individuals.
In the case of Gqeberha, she said it was the IsiXhosa name of the Baakens River near Port Elizabeth.
“They have decided to change the name and use the original name. If you look at all the new names that were used before and they referred to the rivers that people lived nearby, this is what people used to call these places before, there was a strong reliance on using landmarks to name places and not individuals,” Mokapela said.
“They have tried to go back to the traditional ways of naming places like they did before” she said.
Mokapela said although she had her reservations about the timing of the name changes, it was mostly a good thing.
“It is good because these names carry history with it. However, if the government is doing this they must do this and give the history behind it so that people can be able to relate with it.
“We can look at this as a process of redefining ourselves, so in that sense it is good to use landmarks instead of people’s names.
“This is how our forefathers used to refer to our places,” she said.
In the short history of the new South Africa, there have been several name changes in the forms of towns, roads, freeways, rivers, cities, airports or provinces, and they all typically take a long time to set in, some longer than others.
Many to this day still refer to KwaZulu-Natal as “the Natal”, the apartheid and colonial name for the province, particularly people from the Transvaal (now known as Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North West).
But in some instances, new names do rub off faster than others.
One example is Limpopo province, renamed from Northern Province in 2002, with its capital city, Polokwane, formerly known as Pietersburg.
Mokapela agrees that events and advertising helps, and in the case of Polokwane, the hotly contested 2007 ANC elective conference took place in Polokwane.
As a result, it is often referred to as the Polokwane conference and everyone knows exactly what is being referred to.
“The constant use of the name will help, people can get used to it faster.
“Even if you can throw some satire into that, that will definitely help in getting the names out there, so creating entertainment and events also helps, but of course we have the Covid-19 problem at the moment,” she said.