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South Africa, by any other name...just as sweet?

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The famous line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is frequently cited when the importance of the names of things is raised. Juliet would have us believe that names don’t really affect what things really are, but post-colonial Africa would beg to differ.

South Africa by another name1From Abyssinia to Zaire, 19 countries in Africa changed their names following independence. If Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa has his way, South Africa will be the 20th.

In fact, South Africa did change its name post its technical independence from colonial rule – what were four disparate colonies became known as the Union of South Africa under British rule, and this later changed to the current Republic of South Africa after the country declared its independence. However, Mthethwa believes that South Africa is not the name of the country, but just “a geographical description of where we are”. He has therefore vowed to lobby the ANC to change the name.

On a recent visit to Kwa-Zulu Natal, Mthethwa said that the ANC had never given itself time to think about the name of the country, and the time had come to change it. He also said that although the government had made strides in changing the colonial names of some places, there was more to be done.

The Twittersphere exploded, with people from all walks of life weighing in on the debate. If Twitter users are representative of the opinions in the country, more than half of South Africans see no need to go to the trouble and expense of changing the name.

While a number of places in South Africa have been renamed since 1994, many to remove references to Apartheid-era politicians such as Hendrik Verwoerd, most have remained intact. Many of the changes were used to allow places to revert to the names used by the original inhabitants of the regions, and some were just a question of correcting the spelling of these names. Much like the British misspelled (and mispronounced) Mumbai, turning it into Bombay, Mafeking, later Mafikeng, was an incorrect use of the original Mahikeng – the name by which the town is now known.

However, the re-naming of South Africa is not a matter to be taken lightly. IFP caucus leader in eThekwini Mdu Nkosi pointed out that Mthethwa’s additional suggestion that Durban change to eThekwini would have an adverse effect on marketing. Leading up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and during the tournament, advertising billboards had the name Durban and none had eThekwini because internationally people do not know eThekwini Municipality, he told a local newspaper. “They know Durban. Now they want to change that, something that has taken years to market.”

SA flag part twoSimilarly, re-naming the country would throw away years of work done by Brand South Africa to market the country as a tourist and investment destination. In addition, the country’s citizens wold have to be consulted in choosing a new name, which could lead to further divisions among the various demographic groups living in the country.

The name “Azania”, which has been floated as a potential moniker for the country, is admittedly easier on the tongue and ear than “South Africa”, but “South Africa” is neutral, inoffensive, and well-known internationally. As a country trying to build its profile as the investment and tourist destination of choice in Africa, South Africa by any other name might not be as sweet.

Image credit: Copyright: gubh83 / 123RF Stock Photo

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