By Craig Nudelman
In February, the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthetwa, officially changed the names of 10 locations in South Africa.
One of these was a very controversial decision – Port Elizabeth is now called Gqeberha. A furor occurred, with the more than 50 000 people signing a petition to change the name back to Port Elizabeth. Others cheered the decision, saying that the renaming of streets, public spaces and cities is an important act of the decolonisation of South Africa. So why are names so important and why are we so attached to them?
It was my wife’s birthday at the beginning of the month, and even though her name is clearly visible on her Facebook profile, the messages she received contained plenty of misspellings of her name. Now, my wife’s name is Gabrielle, but Gabi for short. Her name is not Gaby, Gabbi, or Gabby. It is Gabi. When someone spells it wrong, she takes umbridge to it, as do I when someone spells my name Graig (I have no idea why they even think there’s a ‘G’ there) or when my surname is incorrectly spelled Nudleman, Nadelman (and there is a Craig Nadelman, to make things confusing), or the worst of all, Noodleman. My name is Craig Nudelman, not Graig Noodleman!
But it’s not just the spelling of the name that is important. It is how it is said, too. When people mispronounce my name, and I’m sure yours, it is frustrating. Our name is our personal brand and identifies us, just like a company. It tells people who we are, what we do, and even how we do things. It represents the transactions we make and can even create things. Without our names, we would not have an identity. From birth to death, we are remembered by our names, from our school years to graduating from university, buying our first car, and marrying the person we love.
During our wedding speech, Gabi spoke about my Hebrew name, Chaim Lior, Chaim meaning ‘life’, and Lior meaning, ‘my light’, and said that I was her light in her life. It was beautiful. So, too, we chose Hebrew names for Jessica and Livi that invoke aspects that we wish them to have. Jessica’s name is Yaffa Rania, ‘a beautiful song of G-d’, whereas Livi’s is Levia Raya, Levia being a lioness, and Raya being a friend, or good person.
But names can have negative connotations too. I was driving through town the other day and I noticed (as I’m sure you have, too) that there is still a street named after D.F. Malan, the first Prime Minister of the apartheid regime. That this is the road right by Cape Town station and the Civic Centre is just beyond the pale. Keeping a name of a street by the individual who was instrumental in introducing the first apartheid laws is insensitive and is not in line with what we should strive for in South Africa. But where do we draw the line?
This is where the name changes of towns, cities, airports, and streets become a bit blurry. Where does our colonial history begin, and what names should we change? Mcebisi Ndletyana, in his paper for the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, writes about the changing of place names in post-apartheid South Africa. He states that the naming of places (toponomy) is representative of who settled in the area and who or why they want to honour that person or place. He argues that places, “speak to the irrepressible urge within mankind to assert identity.” Thus, he says, “naming (…) is not a neutral exercise. It is mediated by power relations, depending on the political order.”
We can see that those who colonised South Africa had a political agenda, asserting their identity on the land. Grahamstown, Harrismith, Ladysmith, Port Elizabeth, among countless others, are places which perhaps, one could say, don’t belong in a post-colonial or post-apartheid South Africa. But name changing takes effort, time, money, and buy-in from key stakeholders. Critics have said that these name changes could affect tourism in South Africa. However, Chester Missing, the controversial political commentator who is also a puppet, responded to this after the renaming of Port Elizabeth. On Twitter he stated, “The idea that giving our cities South African names is bad for tourism because the tourists won’t be able to say the name is moronic. Experiencing new things is the whole point of tourism.”
So, what should we make of our names, whether they are our own, our business’s, or our places and spaces? One thing that has stuck with me is what Dale Carnegie said about the power of names. He said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Names carry far more meaning than we may realise on a daily basis and affect us profoundly. So maybe next time you visit Gqerbarha, don’t be hesitant to say it and revert back to Port Elizabeth.
Embrace the change and be part of something new and different.
Chag Pesach Sameach!
• Published in the print edition of the March/April Pesach 2021 issue. Download the March/April 2021 issue PDF here.
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