What’s in a name?

22 August 2013

The decision to rename the Caprivi region and the town of Lüderitz to Zambezi region and !Nami?Nüs respectively has provoked a storm of protest in some quarters. Whatever one might think of the new names, it should serve to remind us that the question of place names will always remain a sensitive issue.

It is clearly an area where we need to proceed with caution; carefully consider the consequences of any name change and above all consult as widely as possible.

The complaints of both residents of the former Caprivi and Lüderitz relate exactly to the question of consultation.

Their anger partly springs from the fact that they feel Government has imposed the new names on them unilaterally without taking their views or feelings into consideration.

Government however, adamantly denies this charge and right now, it remains difficult to discern exactly where the truth lies. It is probably six of one and half a dozen of the other.

We are all proud of our culture and naturally, we would all want to have places named in our own indigenous languages that we can easily identify with.

That however, is not practical, reasonable or realistic because we would never all agree on names for most places.

At a rough count, Namibia has 15 or more indigenous languages so we would never be able to please everyone.

The desire to erase memories of colonialism often motivates the decision to change place names.

However, as someone pointed out, if we decided we wanted to change the name of our capital city from the German derived Windhoek it could hold significant potential for unnecessary disputes.

Some would want the name changed to the Otjiherero name Otjomuise while others would want it changed to the Khoekhoegowab name /Ae //Gams.

Why venture into that territory? Why not let sleeping dogs lie?

The most singular characteristic that has marked Namibia as a country since its independence is our culture of tolerance and our live and let live ethos.

We do not try to impose ourselves on each other and we give each other the space to breathe, and to be who we want to be.

It is in this same spirit that our Government has shown a commendable degree of moderation when it comes to name changes.

Clearly, some colonial names such as Verwoerd Park and J.G. Strijdom Airport were so repugnant they just had to go.

These two grand architects of apartheid caused untold suffering, forced removals and even death for millions of black people in both South Africa and Namibia.

To continue to honour their names would have amounted to an insult to the memory of untold numbers of victims of apartheid.

However, it remains a matter for debate whether the wholesale change in place names that has taken place in South Africa is necessarily right for Namibia.

Paradoxically, retaining some colonial names might serve a useful purpose.

However much we might want to, we cannot erase our history and attempting to rewrite history can be dangerous.

We should remember philosopher George Santayana’s words of wisdom, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

We perhaps need daily reminders of the horrors of colonialism so our children can every day say to themselves “Never again”.

Trying to forget our history, would mean stooping to the level of our former German colonial masters who have lulled themselves into a self-induced collective amnesia in order to avoid having to acknowledge the crimes they have committed.

Only three reasons should exist for changing historical names.

These are when the name is in some way offensive, where it misrepresents or distorts the true history or when it denies us the opportunity to celebrate our collective identity.

Whenever Government changes place names, it has to give honest reasons for doing so.

Somehow, one suspects that the reasons for changing the name Caprivi have less to do with its colonial roots than the symbolism it holds for secessionist sympathies in the region.

At this stage it remains unclear whether the name !Nami?Nüs will remain, or whether Government will backtrack.

The Government should resist the temptation to bend to the will of one single person or group of people.

The claim made by Chief Dawid Fredericks of the !Aman community that his people were the first to settle at Lüderitz remains dubious at best.

The likelihood is that the San people had a presence there long before the !Aman ever arrived.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet.

What that tells us is that a name does not necessarily define a person, place or thing.

Those of us, who know Lüderitz, know that it is famous for its cosmopolitan character and the warmth and hospitality of its people.

Those qualities will always remain whether we call the town Lüderitz or !Nami?Nüs.

People exaggerate the claims that the name change will damage the tourism industry, especially since they have always tended to exaggerate the tourism potential of Lüderitz anyway.

Kolmanskop, quaint German architecture, the Crayfish Festival and good angling will always remain a niche tourism market.

Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking Lüderitz is the Costa del Sol or Bermuda with a balmy climate or white tropical beaches.



The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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