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Name changes: ‘Cost argument’ is nonsense

I’ve often thought that many name change critics approach the debate with a certain intellectual dishonesty. Most of the time I hear that South Africa should not change a name of a city, road, river or geographic region because of the “cost” involved. Critics will usually juxtapose the cost of the name change with how many houses could be built or starving children could be fed. It’s emotive and even true, but misses the point entirely.

I think it’s time for some honesty. Search your feelings and come out with it. Say you don’t want a name changed because you believe that history should be preserved or you think it runs counter to reconciliation in South Africa. Or maybe you are just the nostalgic type. These are legitimate arguments. But don’t waft on about how costly it is, because that’s the small picture.

In any case, critics who push the cost argument don’t really know the price we pay relative to the government’s overall spending budget. I’ll bet it’s fractional, even insignificant in the bigger picture. Maybe it’s a big deal for a small economy like Burkina Faso, but not for this middle-income country.

But more importantly, surely the money is worth it? For the cost involved, will a name change not inculcate pride and patriotism for hundreds of years and many generations of South Africans to come? How can you put a cost on the positive psychological effects this will have on the nation? By renaming a village, town or street after a local hero, we are creating role models and a sense of ownership. And even better if it’s a particularly offensive name like that of an apartheid architect that is changing. For what we are getting at this “cost”, it’s a steal.

It is nothing short of bizarre that South Africans on a daily basis have to drive up and down roads that continue to evoke painful memories of apartheid or colonialism. Many names must change. There is no debate here. However, the process should not be wanton, but be collaborative, empathetic and strike a balance between the new and historical. Such a balance can be achieved that serves all sectors of our diverse country. And that will be money well spent.

For the record, I don’t think the name Grahamstown should be changed. It’s a relatively innocuous, neutral name that has taken on new meaning and been subverted in the modern era. It’s an entirely different proposition to, let’s say, Verwoerdburg. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t change because it will be too costly; I don’t want it to change for nostalgic reasons — it’s part of my own history. And I don’t want that to be deleted. But that’s just me.