A name change cannot fill an empty plate

By Published On: 9th May 2019

There has been much controversy and public debate around the topic of the renaming of roads, buildings and streets in South Africa. I believe name changes are crucial to the creation of a truly inclusive and democratic society. They help facilitate an environment where black bodies, who have been isolated and made to feel they don’t belong for so long, feel comfortable in spaces around our country. This is premised on the view that the renaming changes the way in which individuals interact and negotiate with the spaces in question. A personal example is that I have had the privilege of being able to graduate twice from UCT.

The first graduation occurred when the venue in which these ceremonies were held was still called Jameson Hall. The second occurred when this venue had been re named Sarah Baart man Hall. I cannot express how differ ent my interaction with the space was during my second graduation. As I was waiting for my name to be called in the hall it was as if the architectural dimensions of the buildings itself were changed to accompany the name change. Coupled with this I felt a greater sense of me as a black body being comfortable in this space. Fast forward to a trip a colleague and I took to facilitate a discussion about how Makhanda previously named Grahamstown was grappling with the 200 year anniversary of the Battle of Grahamstown, which occurred in 1819.

I made a point to try to engage with as many people as I could around what their sentiments were about the name change. I had the hypothesis that everyone of colour would welcome the name change and the only resistance would be from the white community. This assumption was proved wrong, repeatedly. On a trip to the Fingo community library, in Fingo township, I asked a group who were part of an elderly persons programme for their views on the name change . They all commented that the name change meant nothing to them. They spoke about the horrible conditions they endured under apartheid and said what they wanted was not a name change, but an actual change in their material living standards. Attached to this Fingo library is an amazing day care centre and the two teachers there echoed the sentiments of the older people I had spoken to.

They said that they were only able to employ two individuals because they could not secure funding from the Department of Social Development. They said if children were truly the future, they needed to be treated with the care they deserved, and what they needed was more funding and support from government, not a mere name change. Finally, I met with some lecturers from the Rhodes University journalism department. To my surprise, they echoed the sentiments of the previous two groups. While they acknowledged the symbolic power of the name change, they pointed out that what Makhanda needed was basic services. I ended the trip feeling rather demotivated, but also with a more nuanced understanding of the politics behind name changes.


Mikhail Petersen holds a Bachelor of Social Science degree in Politics and Economic History as well as an LLB from UCT, and is an intern in the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Cape Town

Published by The Star (Country Edition)

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