Port Elizabeth, South Africa‘s iconic coastal city known for beaches and safari-tourism in the southeast of the country, is now to be known and called Gqeberha but tens of thousands of people have signed on to a petition asking the federal government to reverse its decision.
The intention to rename the city nicknamed Windy City was taken in 2019. Last month, South Africa’s Arts and Culture ministry announced that Port Elizabeth was no more a valid government name. The Eastern Cape Geographical Names Committee (ECGN) which was behind the research and recommendation of new names in the Eastern Cape Province was tasked to “ensure the standardisation of geographical names”.
South Africa, which evolved from a settler-colony for people of European descent, has many parts of the country named according to the whims of the colonizers. This is also a reflection of the land grabs effected by force and by compromise before and during colonization. Having been dispossessed of their lands, the local African peoples were also denied capacities for economic and social progress.
More about this
Port Elizabeth, prior to European occupation, belonged to Xhosa-speaking people. Xhosa is the South African language known as the “click tongue”. Nelson Mandela was a native Xhosa speaker. The city’s new name was taken from the Xhosa call the area around the Baakens river, another geographical fact named by colonizers.
Founded in 1820, Port Elizabeth was named as such by a British governor of the Cape Colony, Rufane Shaw Donkin, in commemoration of his young deceased wife.
But the committee that recommended the renaming of Port Elizabeth was one of the others set up by the South African Geographical Names Council (SAGNC) whose work was seen as rewriting South Africa’s cultural history in the image of its African natives. This was bound to create the tension that has ensued since the new names became official.
This week, Nqaba Bhanga, the Xhosa-speaking Mandela Bay Municipality under which Port Elizabeth falls, said he will write a complaint to the Arts and Culture ministry due to the petition he had received. But he is not the only man is under pressure as a result of the development.
Christian Martin, a man who was one of the leading figures to get the name of Port Elizabeth changed, has reportedly become the target of angry phone calls and texts. He claims that many of these callers “are mainly white guys who call and express negativity about the names”.
Martin did not only campaign for the change of Port Elizabeth to Gqeberha. He also pushed for the Port Elizabeth Airport to be renamed after Dawid Stuurman, an 18th-century local chief whose opposition to Dutch and British settlement continues to be fondly remembered by Black South Africans.
Stuurman’s legacy is generally repudiated by South Africans of European descent. One of the texts Martin received allegedly called Stuurman “a notorious robber and murderer”.