Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan on the occasion of the launch of the campaign – Nationwide Public hearings on the South African Geographical Names

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30 May 2008

Thank You Programme Director,
Honourable Members of the Portfolio Committee of Arts and Culture,
Members of the South African Geographical Names Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to begin this day with such an historic announcement. Today’s is an event that is unprecedented in the history of this country. I can confidently say that today’s event is an integral part of the healing process our nation is still passing through since the advent of democracy.

We are gathered here today to launch one of our campaigns whose aim is to nurture Social Cohesion amongst South Africans.

The events of the past fourteen days should serve to remind us all that societies, in the last instance, are made up of sentient human beings. They have physical needs, such as food, drink, shelter. But they also have very deeply rooted emotional needs that can sometimes determine how they are likely to behave when under stress.

While all of us have been profoundly humiliated by the violence inflicted on foreign nationals within the borders of our country, we must remember that although the images might have filled a television screen, it was in fact a very small minority of South Africans who actually participated in these attacks. In Alexandra Township, for example, these attacks were confined to a small section of the township, between First and Sixth Avenue.

Unfortunately the media does not report the about the number of children who did not get lost on a day. The media invariably focuses on those children who did get lost! That distorts the picture somewhat, because the hundreds of citizens of Alexandra who took in foreign nationals, who protected them against attackers, who fed and clothed victims of attack, did not and do not receive the same prominence as those who were on the rampage.

South Africa, the overwhelming majority of our people, have responded to this xenophobia with shock, horror and alarm. The majority, including primary and high-school pupils, have responded to calls for assistance with generosity. All three tiers of government, civil society, religious bodies and private individuals have rallied to offer tents, blankets, food and other comforts to those who have been displaced.

But it would be wrong to downplay the horror of these events because they are a serious warning about a profound malaise in our society, though it was only a few who actually acted in this barbaric manner.

We come from a deeply fractured and violent past. Given that historical experience, all of us have to do all we can rid South African society of the anguish, the pain and the degradation of the past.

Exclusion came in a myriad of shapes and forms.

It is one of the key responsibilities of government to ensure that all South Africans feel they belong – that the exclusions, proscriptions and prohibitions that signalled to the majority of our citizens that they had no place in society, are now in the past. We are charged with the responsibility of engendering a sense of unity, a feeling that we are all one nation, diverse though we may be in terms of race, colour, creed, class, gender or social standing.

Today we are commencing an important campaign that will take the form of a road-show across South Africa. We will be mounting nationwide public hearings to test public opinion on the transformation and standardization of geographical place names. Hopefully, these will provide a platform for proper and effective consultation and communication within and among communities. It is our hope too that through them government, at all three tiers, will become more conversant with public opinion on this matter.

The law relating to geographical places names was passed by parliament as long ago 1998. Its purpose was multi-fold. Most obviously, there were and there continue to be a host of geographical names that have been corrupted because of the ignorance, and often arrogance, of colonial officials who misunderstood or misheard names in the indigenous languages. There were also place names and geographical features that were given names that are offensive – either because of their racist implications or because they degrade one or other section of our diverse society. In addition to these two categories, there were and continue be place names that many in South Africa would find objectionable because of our past history and experience.

Because government understood from the onset that the changing of place names is necessarily controversial, the law made provision for consultative processes to try to ensure that the South African public were integrally involved in any contemplated changes. Despite attempts at effective consultation, it has become clear in recent years that there are sections of society who still feel excluded from the process.

It must immediately be underscored that not in one single instance has the national government or the minister initiated the change or standardization of a geographical place name. Every change, standardization or revisiting of a place name has been initiated either by groups of citizens, acting together, or by municipal authorities, exercising a popular mandate.

The names of places on our geographical and heritage landscape all have significance. They symbolize our relationship with each another, our relationship with the environment, our relationship with our neighbours, our relationship with our deities, our relationship with the universe, and our relationship with historic events, personalities and figures. It is precisely the symbolic character of place names that has the potential to make them very emotive, because, they have a significance beyond the words employed to name a place. Place names are thus invested with memories, identities and a number of other intangibles that nonetheless matter to human beings.

We name geographical features and places as a way of orienting ourselves as we move across a landscape. Changing their names can consequently be disorienting.

More than three centuries of colonial and apartheid domination resulted in the subjugation, denigration and marginalization of the languages, cultures, customs, and traditions of the indigenous communities. As in many other colonies, South Africa witnessed the replacement of indigenous geographical names with names derived from the languages of the dominant colonial power.

To use an example drawn from another part of the world, and possibly, one that will be less emotive for a South African audience, I cite the city that we all call New York today. It used to have other names before it was called New York. Before the European Renaissance the place was called Manahatta. When the Dutch colonized the territory, probably inspired by the waterways they saw, they renamed it Nieuw Amsterdam. When the English displaced the Dutch as colonial power they too renamed it, New York.

The traces of the names the place previously had can still be found in New York till this day. The central island is called Manhattan, cross the East River and you arrive in Brooklyn, named after the Dutch town Breukelen! Sail up the East River, upstream you will encounter the Haarlem River, another Dutch name, till you reach the Bronx, also a Dutch name, for a place the Native Americans called Aquahung,.

These name changes tell a story. After the Native American tribe, the Lenape, were displaced by the colonizing Dutch, as a means of asserting their authority and also to redefine the territory as theirs, the Dutch gave it the name of their capital city, Amsterdam, preceded by the adjective Nieuw! The English in their turn did likewise by naming it after a city in their home country, York.

These very deliberate actions were never intended to be neutral nor were they experienced as such by either the Native Americans or by the Dutch, when the English renamed Nieuw Amsterdam. Giving a conquered territory a new name symbolically is intended not only to re-brand the territory, but also to erase the achievements, the culture and the historical record of the previous inhabitants. The Dutch redefined the place as an outpost of the Netherlands. Then came to English, who further redefined it as an outpost of England.

These actions symbolically told the indigenous populations that their past was of no consequence, that their future was in jeopardy and that whatever claims they had on the territory, had been permanently nullified. They compelled indigenous communities to think differently about themselves, about their heritage, about their languages and the land they had once called home. These colonial and imperial labels also signified their reduced social and political status. The indigenous people were no longer a self-governing people, they were colonial subjects.

The inhuman practices and atrocities perpetrated against indigenous populations by colonial powers in every part of the world are a matter of historical record.

What then is the relevance of this trans-Atlantic example to South Africa today?

No one, least of all our government and myself, wishes to unscramble the historic omelette that is the diverse South Africa we have today. But, there has to be recognition of a number of realities lest we deceive ourselves about the shared experience that makes up South Africa’s history.

There is not a single geographical feature, place or human settlement in South Africa that did not have a name prior to the arrival of the first European settlers in 1652.

Many, conceivably, had even older names, either lost in the mists of time or replaced by names imposed by earlier settlers and itinerant groups like the Khoi and the Bantu-speakers.

The history of this part of Africa is littered with changes of place names reflecting its turbulent past. States, indigenous and colonial, have defined and re-defined this piece of the continent as one superseded the other. These name changes are part of the texture of South African history, which none of us can wish away.

Yet it is that very history which is often in dispute because no single narrative has been embraced as the definitive record of our past. The conflicting and opposing arguments marshalled in the debate about place names reflect these contradictory narratives. Ironically neither side in the debate seems to recognise that the contradictory narratives are themselves aspects of the historical texture of South Africa.

A collective national commitment and compact was entered into by the people of South Africa on Human Rights Day, December 10th 1996. It took the form of a Constitution that declares in its preamble:

“We, the people of South Africa,
Recognise the injustices of our past;
Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country;
Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to ¬
• Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
• Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
• Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
• Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
• May God protect our people.”

I want to appeal to the authority of that august document in weighing the merits of the various contenders in the continuing debate about changing the names of geographical features and places.

We can learn from the Constitution-making process the value of listening to the voices of political, racial and cultural communities other than our own. It still comes as a surprise to many of our White compatriots that many of the original African names of place names and geographical features have never fallen into disuse and continue to be used among those language communities. Considered in that light, is the expectation that democracy would also usher in the decolonization of South Africa’s landscape really extravagant? As South Africa takes her place in the world, this country will necessarily be re-branded, as an African country on the African continent.

Equally, it is incumbent on us to integrate the history of South Africa more fully, unambiguously and confidently into the African experience. The three centuries of a European and Asian presence in South Africa is integral to the African story and is as deeply woven into the tapestry of Africa's present as any other. Is it not time that we all considered that the present and future we are striving to build will be a synthesis of the contradictory, yet interdependent, narratives that constitute the current debate?

While the proponents of change would want to see a more representative heritage landscape, the heroes and heroines of all the sections of our populations must also be accommodated within it.

The imperative that we all handle the matter of geographical names with sensitivity, humility and responsibility cannot be over-emphasized. We are therefore reviving an important traditional form of consultation, the Izimbizo. We shall expect rigorous research, particularly at local government level, to support all claims and counter claims. The assertion that South Africa is the home of us all must find expression both in the spirit with which we undertake this task and in its outcome. The immense debt South Africa owes to the many peoples, nations, public figures and statesmen who contributed to our struggle for democracy can also not be forgotten.

But it is important that the communities should be made fully aware of the consultations that will ensue. There really is no need to rush these processes. The streams, rivers, hills and mountains will still be there tomorrow. As will be the villages, towns and cities built in the past.

I take this opportunity to thank those who have agreed to serve on the South African Geographical Names Council. I thank you all for availing yourselves for this thankless task. I am confident that in the course of transforming and decolonizing our landscape, you will work in a spirit of unity that will enhance the cohesion of our society and not create new points of fracture. The naming process should not evoke feelings of loss, demoralization, disorientation and despair among any section of South Africans. Ours is a country in transition and the need to reclaim previously subjugated memories and identities is incontestable. So I call upon you all to keep before you a vision of the future you would like to see, in the recognition that what you do in the present is building that future.

Thank You.