Rhodes University File photo

There are more important things to spend money on and make a real difference, writes Rich Mkhondo.

“What's in a name?” Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet four centuries ago. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Many people agree that whether one calls it by its botanical name, Rosaceae, its common name, rose, or by any other name, the flower's smell remains as sweet and enchanting.

So what is in the name for my alma mater, Rhodes University?

As we discuss the possible name change, I do it with an open mind and, yes,trepidation. All change evokes feelings of fear, helplessness and lack of trust or confidence.

Changing the name of an institution is not something we should consider lightly. We need to do our homework. It is encouraging that this august institution is listening to a lot of us who attended it and are proud of our association with it.

Here are some of the arguments everyone is considering: should we really care more about what the institution is called than what kind of learning goes on in its lecture rooms?

What about the fact that history is complicated and we need to learn about it as real people and events, not as fairy tales dreamed up by apologists?

Some argue that a different name will signal a quest for a new image, a new perspective, a new beginning. Others say: "What’s in a name? Just a series of letters."

There are also those who say choosing the right name can create magic, change behaviour and be the difference between success and failure. Still others point out that when an organisation is forced to change its name, the circumstances are usually adverse.

A name may become a liability or a burden, or simply lose its appeal to people.

To some, a new name may require constant explaining. If a name obscures origin, it may become a liability.

We all know that generally, a name is a word devised to uniquely describe an object, a place, or a person. It may derive from historical events, fictional beliefs, or a mere expression of hope and expectations.

The renaming of schools, streets and other public places expresses many significant things. Among them are the growing political clout of new groups who are coming of age as full participants in our country’s dynamic political stew.

There are those who say we should not judge yesterday’s heroes by today’s standards, that we should leave today’s institutions’ names to those whose character and accomplishments can best point the way to a brighter tomorrow.

The truth is all kinds of things can trigger name changes. But what is essential, is that everyone accepts the given meaning.

If a name change happens for no reason, or because some political heavyweight does not like the sound of the old one, money is being wasted.

For me to argue that a name change is propelled solely by nationalism, rather than by a whole menagerie of nativist impulses rooted in culture, tradition and history does not engage adequately with an extremely complex phenomenon.

I don’t believe in the renaming of places for the sake of it. A name is a place marker, a memory maker. We write it over and over at the top of every paper, shout it during any communication, ending up in history just as Rhodes has done.

Names have origins, history and meaning. Whether we like it or not, our name is tied to our identity. A study published in the journal Attitudes and Social Cognition found that some names are changed for “implicit egotism”. The journal said in many countries, including Singapore and Malaysia, they have taken great trouble to ensure that none of the old and colonial names are changed as they realise the value of historical names.

What a name ends up representing to the community depends on what the community stands for or against.

Names can tell a lot about institutions. They remind us of the special affection we have with them. Any change of the name of the university will change the affection, and alienate former students who will always have to explain the ins and outs of the new name.

Considering today’s tough education conditions, value-for-education should be the top priority in most students' and their parents’ minds, not changing the name of the university.

Rhodes has survived more than 100 years in a tough and competitive world of education, producing leaders in different industries and sectors. Its brand trust comes with time and great service which the institution has contributed to education in our country.

We need real transformation, not superficial transformation such as changing the name of the institution.

Why superficial? How will changing the name of the university bring transformation beyond just changing the name? Transformation should be about eradicating the inequalities in education, our systems, our structures and our political and social culture, to attempt to correct the imbalances of the past as quickly as is feasible.

We need to spend resources and energy creating access to education and the economy and opportunities for those side-lined through past policies. Where does changing the name fit in here? Nowhere.

True transformation cannot be about changing the name only. It should be about things that make a positive difference to the lives of people.

I don’t believe in the renaming of places for the sake of it. In a lot of cultures past and some present, names have been taken seriously as indicators of a country’s nature, as protection, as a statement about the life the country represents.

I see no reason why we should be ashamed to carry on with the name Rhodes University, as it is rich in history and certainly forms a part of our history. After all, history is not always nice.

If we do change the name, it loses a connection to an interesting feature in our past, a time when blacks were not accepted, when some of us entered the institution after obtaining “ministerial consent”.

As brand experts often say, a good brand name is as enduring as well-tended land. It serves as the groundwork for growing a successful product or enterprise, and is able to withstand the winds of change, Rhodes has done that.

Changing Rhodes University’s name will be a total waste of money, particularly when the institution is surrounded by unemployment, poverty and inequality.

We need real change. Money spent on the name change would be better spent on the town’s crumbling infrastructure.

The country and university have more important things to spend money on than a name change.

* Mkhondo is a graduate of Rhodes University's School of Journalism and Media Studies

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent