Press "Enter" to skip to content

What’s in a name?

Grahamstown, the city which I call home, is in danger of losing its name. This has been in the pipeline for some time, but the whole thing flared up again when President Mbeki called Colonel John Graham, after whom the town is named, a butcher; and the excellent local newspaper Grocott’s Mail has been running with the debate for two weeks now.

Yesterday, mayor Phumelelo Kate upped the stakes when he vowed that the name will go, and he doesn’t care of it costs “two rand or R100-million”. So it looks like Grahamstown will soon be iRhini.

I have a few thoughts about this issue. I’m not quite sure where they lead me, so I’ll list them, in no particular order, and leave you make of them what you want.

One, I agree that the name should go. We can’t, in modern-day South Africa, have towns, streets and public places commemorating people like Graham, who, by all accounts, took his orders to clear the area of its amaXhosa inhabitants quite literally. “A proper degree of terror” is how he defined his methods.

Two, the same applies to place names commemorating people such as Harry Smith, who ransomed the amaXhosa Chief Hintsa for 25 000 head of cattle and then had him shot as he lay badly wounded in a river, pleading for mercy; or the arch-imperialist, racist and crook Cecil John Rhodes; or Alfred Milner, whose theories about racial superiority would not have been out of place in Nazi Germany. The list goes on and on.

Three, many Afrikaans place names have already disappeared, registering barely a note among most of those who now oppose the Grahamstown name change. The Verwoerds, Malans and Potgieters have been erased from our physical history, and it is right that they should be. But they were not the only ones complicit in our country’s history of bloodshed and oppression.

Four, iRhini is really not as difficult to pronounce as some of the letter-writers to Grocott’s Mail complained.

Five, Grahamstown/iRhini really doesn’t have R100-million to spend on a name change, so I hope it doesn’t come to that.

Six, they should have changed the name 10 years ago; then we would have been over it by now.

Seven, my main difficulty with name changes is that they become a proxy for real change. Changing the name of Grahamstown to iRhini will do nothing to improve life in the city’s townships.

And eight, why can’t we, in a multilingual country, have different names for the same places? If the name is offensive, by all means drop it. But why can’t Lydenburg be Lydenburg and Mashishing at the same time, or Warmbad also be Warmbaths and Bela Bela? They do that in other multilingual countries such as Belgium and Spain; why not here?

So there you have it.


  • Robert Brand

    Robert Brand teaches media law, ethics and economics journalism at Rhodes University. Before joining academia, he worked as a journalist for the Pretoria News, the Star and Bloomberg News.