AFRICAN: The names of our country and some provinces are still mere geographical expressions, says the writer. Picture: Terry Haywood

Travelling in and out of Africa is, in most cases, a big learning experience. Seeking an environment where her talents could flourish, and burning with an inner fire to exceed the expectations of her birth, Babalwa, a chartered accountant, left North West for Finland. Born in the Eastern Cape, she is a staunch follower of the Somali-born human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the strong advocate of women’s rights and freedom of thought in the Horn of Africa and throughout the world.

In Finland the first woman she met excitedly wanted to know more about her.

“Where do you come from?”

“South Africa.”

“From which country in South Africa?”

Confused, and thinking the woman wanted to know her home province, Babalwa said: “North West.”

“Actually, where were you born?”

“In the Eastern Cape, not very far from Northern Cape and Western Cape.”

The two women looked at each other in stunned silence. Their minds could not connect. They really could not understand each other. Each thought the other was ignorant or simply unwise.

It was not their fault that 19 years into our democratic dispensation, the names of our country and some provinces are still geographical expressions. To make matters worse, the name South Africa was given to this country by foreigners who settled here through merciless repression and the power of the gun. And as everyone sees, the name is creating a lot of confusion around the world.

Sometimes it is even difficult for South Africans to believe they are in Africa. That is why, when our soccer teams go to play in CAF championships, one hears sentiments such as, “We are going to play in Africa” and “Playing there in Africa is not easy”. By implication, our country is not part of Africa and furthermore, we are not Africans. This is wrong and deserves to be corrected as a matter of urgency.

It is even worse with some of our provinces, cities and towns, as well as universities. You have Gauteng as a province. This is in order. But in the same province, you still have Johannesburg as the city’s name and many towns that are still carrying colonial names. And you still have Wits University, the University of Johannesburg, the University of Pretoria and the University of South Africa. So many years since our democratic deliverance, one wonders why this situation still prevails. One wonders what is preventing the ANC leadership from taking the renaming process to its logical conclusion.

Bloemfontein has been correctly renamed Mangaung but it is in a province still called Free State. Why? To me it came as a great shock at a rugby match between the Blue Bulls and the Cheetahs on February 9 at Peter Mokaba Stadium when I heard one white male fan who was sitting behind me screaming: “Haak Vrystaat!

In this regard, I think we should give credit to the ANC in Limpopo. From 1994, the very first ANC leadership exerted real efforts to ensure the province was transformed in rhythm with the spirit of our continent. In 1994, it was called Northern Province. But within a short time it was renamed Limpopo. The city of Pietersburg was changed to Polokwane, Louis Trichardt became Makhado, Potgietersrus became Mokopane, Naboomspruit was changed to Mookgopong, Nylstroom became Modimolle, Warmbaths was turned into Bela Bela and Ellisras became Lephalale.

The icing on the cake was the renaming of the University of the North to the University of Limpopo. Residential areas bear names of revolutionary icons like OR Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani and others. The streets inside the university also reflect an African institution. Neighbouring high schools which feed the university have names such as Mamabudusha, Phiri-Kolobe, Bjatladi, Seoloana and Mankweng. We also have the University of Venda.

No one can doubt us when we say this is a province in Africa. But you can’t say the same about North West, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, Free State and Western Cape.

Given this reality, I often concede that educated as we claim to be, we are no different from the man who on June 25-26, 1955, during the Congress of the People in Kliptown, after being given a paper to write what he would like to see put into the Freedom Charter, wrote that he wanted a warm coat so that he would no longer be cold in winter.

Are we ashamed of being free? Or do we want to shake off our revolutionary past? Are we running short of the will to create changes? Or are we deliberately betraying Africa as a continent? Why have we dragged our feet for so long when we should have acted with the speed of a cheetah in following the footsteps of other African countries after we got our independence?

It should be recalled that under British colonialism, Ghana, the first African country to gain independence, was called Gold Coast.

Immediately after getting independence on March 6, 1957, the political leadership dropped the colonial name of Gold Coast and celebrated the political birth of a new nation under the name of Ghana.

The same thing happened with other African countries whose names were as irrelevant as that of South Africa and some of our provinces.

For example, Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe; Northern Rhodesia became Zambia; South West Africa changed to Namibia; Portuguese East Africa became Mozambique; and Upper Volta become Burkina Faso.

In this era of freedom, we cannot afford to perpetuate colonial injustice. And although one can hardly see a silver lining with regard to this challenge, I positively express my confidence and hope in the political leadership to speed up the process of name changing as well as the total transformation of this country so that it can be part of Africa – the founding home of humanity.

Our freedom is a crown that has been put on our heads by liberation fighters, some of whom have died and are still lying in unmarked graves in the dense forests of our continent. In spirit-breaking circumstances, they fought, bled and died under the inspiration that South Africa was not going to be the same.

And in seeking the restoration of our country, we are quite literally restoring ourselves.

l Abe Mokoena is a Polokwane commentator.