Foreign Policy Blogs

What’s In A Name?

One of the mandates of the New South Africa was to try to Africanize many of the names of places and institutions. After all, in that predominantly African country, why would the new, non-racial democracy want to perpetuate the names of the heroes of the white regime, the very people who had disfranchised Africans, who had perpetuated segregation and brought it to its apogee with apartheid? South Africa has eleven official languages and one of the goals after 1994 became to give each of them greater representation.

And so slowly but surely names changed. The very structure of the country shifted with the transformation of the four old provinces to nine new ones, some with names such as “Limpopo” and “Mpumalanga.” Universities and schools and public facilities changed names, often to honor liberation heroes, at other times simply to symbolllically transform those facilities into something more indigenous. Pretoria took on the name Tshwane, though many in the country still refer to it by its old name.

The process of revisiting nomenclature has not always been an easy one. Language and names are powerful cultural forces. When a movement emerged to change the name of Rhodes University, the “Oxford on the Veld,” arguably the most Anglophile institution in all of South Africa, the backlash was fast and fierce. The titular foundation of the school, based on that most emblematic of colonial settlers, Cecil John Rhodes, endured. Rhodes University's problematic name lives on where so many others gave way.

So it is not entirely surprising that naming continues to be a source of controversy. In June 2003 Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan ordered The northern Limpopo town of Louis Trichardt to change its name to Makhado. A group of businessmen brought a case against the name change. In an earlier decision they lost, but today the Supreme Court of Appeal reversed the decisions of lower courts. Makhado is once again Louis Trichardt.  

So who was Louis Trichardt? He was a Boer leader of the Voortrekkers, the intrepid Boers who left the Cape Colony to stake out their own claim to South Africa's frontier. The Great Trek of the 1830s is at the center of the great founding myth of Afrikanerdom and Trichardt is one of the apodictic figures in that mythology. The myth of the Trek fueled the myth of Afrikaners as a chosen people. And of course a central aspect of this mythology is the white supremacy that came to characterize to much of Afrikaner society, especially in the political realm.

Trichardt, whose expedition took him all the way to Delgoa Bay (what is now Maputo, Mozambique), died of malaria along with nearly two dozen other members of his expedition. His name lived on largely because he was the only major Great Trek leader to have kept a diary.

I am not one to deny a people their history, their legends, even their blemishes. But given the role that the Great Trek played in establishing Afrikaner nationalism, and given the role that Afrikaner nationalism played in establishing apartheid, I’m not sure that the New South Africa has any responsibility to continue to commemorate those whose legacy served to perpetuate, refine, and perfect the highest stage of white supremacy. Louis Trichardt died deep in the heart of Africa. Perhaps it is time that the town named after him let that name die as well.