What is in a name? This is a question people have been asking for at least four centuries, from William Shakespeare to Arthur Miller. At its core, I suppose the simple answer is ‘identity’. In South Africa, as in other countries, the government is seeking to reshape a national identity through a process of changing geographical names. The official rationale for this process is to “build one nation with a common attachment to one sovereign state and its symbols by transforming the South African heritage landscape”. This idea of building a homogenised nation with a single national heritage that everyone adheres to is an attempt at cultural hegemony and at total odds with the spirit of the constitution, which aims to respect and protect our rich cultural diversity as a key factor in unifying a historically racially divided society.
The rise of decolonialist and fallist ideologies since 2015 has seen a renewed impetus towards name changes as ‘reparation for past injustices’. The prevailing narrative of these divisive ideologies, which stem from a narrow, highly politicised mis-representation of history, demonises the heritage of a minority sector of the South African population by implying that the Dutch- and English-speaking peoples contributed nothing positive to the development of this country. The latest victim of this absurdity is the university town of Grahamstown, now Makhanda, in the Eastern Cape.
In India a similar process is unfolding. Here, a concerted effort is underway to rename sites dating to the Mughal period in an attempt to erase from the public consciousness aspects of Muslim heritage. The act of renaming historic sites sends a clear signal that the Mughals, who shaped more than 300 years of Indian history, were outsiders and should not feature in the story of India’s “one true national heritage”. Such divisive acts are highly politicised ploys that pander to Hindu extremist voters.
Now, the Grahamstown Foundation, a historically liberal cultural organisation and custodian of the 1820 Settlers Monument, is seeking to rename this iconic building. The building itself can by no stretch of the imagination be described as a feat of architectural brilliance. In fact, it is quite ugly. Its iconicness is what it symbolises to the people of South Africa and to posterity.
The monument was built as a living memorial to the values embodied by the 1820 British Settlers – a group of 4000 men, women and children, mostly from destitute backgrounds, who were settled on the Cape frontier by the colonial government in an attempt to ease socio-economic pressures in Britain. Values of liberal democracy, freedom of expression, access to quality education that “all might have life and have it more abundantly” are some of the ideals for which these Settlers fought. The monument, built in 1974, was intended to be a home for projects aimed at stimulating debate, encouraging freedom of expression, providing educational opportunities for all, and creating an epicentre to showcase and celebrate South Africa’s diverse cultural heritage. The Grahamstown Foundation (formerly the 1820 Settlers’ Foundation) was established to ensure this mandate was met. To this day the monument hosts the hugely popular National Arts Festival, SciFest and the National Schools Festival, among others.
In his re-dedication of the 1820 Settlers Monument in 1996, President Nelson Mandela wrote:
“…monuments which are dedicated to commemorating the past in a way which nurtures a particular tradition of our land, contributing to its vitality and growth make a contribution to our society and enrich the life of our nation. There are monuments that merge the tradition from which they emerged with the rich diversity of South Africa's cultures…[which]…are a beacon for the future of all our people as much as a memory of the past. We are re-dedicating the monument to the universality of those ideals which the English settlers cherished. Our democracy is also the recognition that national unity and reconciliation live in the hearts of our people…a force that propels us towards a vital and unifying national culture which respects, promotes and celebrates our diversity”.
In 2015 the board of the Grahamstown Foundation (comprising ten individuals) took the decision to rename the 1820 Settlers Monument (a decision now being enacted) claiming that the building is, for many South Africans, “alienating and seen as a monument to conquest and colonisation”. No evidence for this claim is provided! On the contrary, since the invitation for public participation was issued in May 2019, there has been much public resistance to the proposed name change. The Foundation’s claim that the Monument currently honours only the 1820 Settlers is absurd and an unethical mis-representation of facts. In its statement, the Foundation’s board, quite ironically, states that it seeks to refocus the ethos of the monument on the South African constitution – a constitution that states in its preamble that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”. The implication that the monument currently does not embody this ethos and that its values are alienating to many South Africans is a straw man argument, clearly serving a social/political agenda that is out of sync with the values of the country’s constitution.
While acknowledging that in some cases name changes might be appropriate, the 1820 Settlers Monument does not fall into this category as it does not convey any ideologies that are offensive in an inclusive, democratic society. That some people might perceive the monument as alienating is inevitable in a country in which extremist populism is the order of the day. But I would argue that, rather than change the name of the monument, the Grahamstown Foundation, together with national government, should strive to educate people about who the 1820 Settlers were and the values for which they stood. If there is indeed a mis-perception around the symbolism of the 1820 Settlers Monument, it stems from a failure on the part of the current board of the Grahamstown Foundation to adequately educate people about this slice of South African history.
Whose interests does it serve for a board of ten people to change the name of a monument to the nation, particularly when the rationale advanced in support of the change has no evidential basis? You cannot create a sense of national unity and pride by eradicating a peoples’ individuality and sense of self, nor by vilifying a peoples’ historical roots. Yet, judging from public comments in the petition (click here to view) against the proposed name change, this is precisely the effect the proposal has had. Many perceive this as an attempt to erase the heritage and history of a large portion of the white, English-speaking community in South Africa. The 1820 Setters are an integral component of the rich, multi-cultural tapestry of South African history. The monument was built by the descendants of the Settlers, during the height of Apartheid, as a ‘living memorial’ to symbolise inclusivity and triumph over adversity, not just of the Settlers themselves, but of all South Africans. Changing the name of the building will not promote inclusivity, but rather its opposite, and fly in the face of the vision of a rainbow nation that Nelson Mandela strove so hard to achieve.
Justin Bradfield (firstname.lastname@example.org), Palaeo-Research Institute, University of Johannesburg