Name changes are essential, but they are just the start

SHOT DEAD: Nicole Muller

There has been much controversy and public debate around the topic of the re-naming of roads, buildings and streets in South Africa. Let me from the start lay out my position on the issue. I believe name changes are crucial to the creation of a truly inclusive and democratic society. Name changes help facilitate an environment where Black bodies, who have been isolated and made to feel like they don’t belong for so long, feel comfortable in spaces around our country. This is premised on the view that the renaming of buildings, streets or institutions fundamentally changes the way in which individuals interact and negotiate with the spaces in question.

A personal example which helps illustrate this point is that I have had the privilege of being able to graduate twice from the University of Cape Town. The first of these graduations occurred when the venue in which these ceremonies were held was still called Jameson Hall. The second however occurred when this venue had officially been re-named Sarah Baartman hall. I cannot express in words how different 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. I also felt that I as a Black body belonged to be in this space, these feelings did not stir up in me on the previous occasions that I had been in the venue.

Fast-forward to a trip a colleague and I from the IJR 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.

Throughout my short time there I made a point to try and engage with as many people as I could around what their sentiments were about the name change. In my mind I had the hypothesis that everyone of colour would welcome the name change and that the only resistance that I may receive to the name change would be from the white community of Makhanda.

This assumption was proved wrong, repeatedly. On a trip to the Fingo Community Library, which is located in Figo Township, I asked a group of elderly black individuals who were part of an elderly persons day time programme what their views on the name change were.

They all commented that the name change meant nothing to them. They spoke about the horrible conditions they endured under apartheid and said that what they wanted was not a name change, but an actual change in their material living standards. Many of those elders were individuals who are in their late seventies were still on housing lists. Many had yet to get geysers installed in them homes. To them the name change was just a symbolic gesture to try and mask the real problems in the community.

Attached to this Figo library is an amazing day care center and the two teachers from this day care center 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 continued, noting that the two individuals who work at the daycare center were receiving stipends and not actual incomes. They said that if children are truly the future, they needed to be treated with the care they deserve and that what they needed was more funding and support from government and not a mere name change.

Finally, I met with a few of the lecturer’s form Rhodes University Journalism Department. These intellectuals to my surprise echoed the sentiments of the previous two groups. Whilst they acknowledged the important symbolic power of the name change, they pointed out that what Makhanda needed was the provision of basic services. The harrowing accounts of lack of water, rolling power cuts, refuse on the streets (as a result of a month-long strike by council workers) were all given as issues which needed to be addressed alongside the name change to Makhanda.

I left the trip feeling rather demotivated but also with a more nuanced understanding of the politics behind name changes. Whilst the changing of the names of spaces change the way that individuals interact with the space, more is needed. In order to have truly inclusive and democratic societies there needs to be the provision of basic resources by municipalities in question. This is to makes sure that the needs of the communities which they serve are met. This is because if they are not, these individuals still feel disempowered and marginalized in the spaces in which they occupy and navigate in their day to day lives, even if this spaces name has changed.


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