South Africa: From The Renaming Of An Airport To Ethnic Disobedience

January 13, 2024
5 mins read

What’s in a Name?
By Chippla Vandu
Could one ever write an article about South Africa without stirring up the emotions of different groups of people?
I have never been a fan of the naming of places or public facilities after individuals. In Nigeria, this appears to be the norm. What is even more perplexing about this is when such places or facilities are named after living individuals — a practice I find appalling.
For instance, Olusgeun Obasanjo Way and Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida Golf and Country Club in the capital city of Abuja are named after living Nigerian presidents. The trade fair complex in the city of Kaduna was once named after Sani Abacha, who at that time was a sitting president.Three of the four major airports in Nigeria are also named after individuals. The airport in Lagos is officially called Murtala Muhammed International Airport. That in Abuja is Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, while that in Kano is Mallam Aminu Kano International Airport. It appears that most people couldn’t be bothered by what airports in Nigeria are called.
The IATA flight codes for these airports show no bearing whatsoever to the individuals after which they are named. Lagos airport uses LOS, Abuja uses ABV, while Kano uses KAN. Furthermore, it is much more common to hear people speak of Lagos airport or Abuja airport than of the official Murtala Muhammed airport or Nnamdi Azikiwe airport.Nigeria’s post-independence history is very different from South Africa’s. That is why, while the naming or renaming of an airport, a roadway or a public building in the former would likely draw very little or no public ire (most would simply see it as a means of settling an old score by the ruling class), in the latter, such an act is bound to have much deeper significance.In June 2006, the African National Congress (ANC)-led South African government announced that Johannesburg International Airport, formerly called Jan Smuts International Airport, until 1994, would be renamed as OR Tambo International Airport, in honor of the late ANC president and prominent anti-apartheid fighter, Oliver Tambo.
As expected, reactions on the airport name change have been mixed (both in the mainstream media and in the South African blogosphere).
For instance, while a KwaZulu Natal ANC coordinator praises the name change as laudable, Craig Jameson, a Cape Town-based media designer thinks the name change is a waste of public funds. According to Donwald Pressly, writing in the Mail & Guardian of South Africa, the leader of the African Christian Democratic Party believes that “airports should not be named after politicians but after their localities.”
And of course, the opposition Democratic Alliance party, led by Tony Leon, thinks the name change is the wrong way to go. However, the Johannesburg-based blog Mzansi Afrika sees nothing wrong in the name change, calling the argument put forward by the Democratic Alliance “bullshit.”As with most things in South Africa, one finds subtle divisions along ethnic and racial lines on this issue. But yet, across the ANC-led South Africa of today, one sees a continuous push for change, aimed at erasing memories of the country’s apartheid past. The descendants of those who promulgated apartheid as well as those who benefited from it (directly or indirectly) would surely be uneasy with most of the ongoing changes. For instance, this article in News 24 of South Africa, tells of how the city council of Durban has been busy “removing colonial street names, statues and council buildings.”India is another example of a country that also engaged in the dismantling of colonial names. Though the most well known of these changes happen to have centered on cities—Kolkata (Calcutta), Chennai (Madras), Mumbai (Bombay), Bengaluru (Bangalore)—the changes extended much deeper, as explained by an Indian colleague. But then, India’s post-independence history is very different from South Africa’s.One can almost be certain that name changes will become more common in South Africa. This, it can be argued, is the natural order of things given that ‘power’ now resides with the majority black population. But, should such name changes go on without regard for the fact that a part of South Africa’s linguistic and cultural heritage traces its roots to the Dutch and British immigrants who first graced the shores of the Cape hundreds of years ago?Recently, the Mail & Guardian of South Africa reported about:
“11 white students [who] painted their faces black in a bid to be classified as Africans at the Union Buildings in Pretoria…The students each completed the Department of Labour’s [ ] form, in which they classified themselves as ‘African’, and which they submitted to the president [Thabo Mbeki] for certification as being correct by him.”
The Mail & Guardian article continues:
“On the form, to be filled in by employers or their employees as part of the Department of Labour’s employment equity reports, people were given a choice of being either ‘African’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Indian’ or ‘White’. The students also appealed to all who were born in South Africa to classify themselves as African when completing the  form.”
With the exception of the United States, I cannot think of any other nation that is as obsessed with ‘race’ as South Africa. This most certainly isn’t the fault of the ANC but of the initiators of apartheid. They ended up leaving a disastrous legacy, which today is haunting the very people they glorified to the detriment of the majority population.
Though the Desmond Tutu led Truth and Reconciliation Commission went a long way in trying to heal the wounds of apartheid, it could not fill the hunger of disenfranchised citizens who suffered under the apartheid governments—the hunger for economic empowerment and equal participation.Enter Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) — a laudable idea if, and only if, it could truly serve to empower those excluded from participating in South Africa’s economy during the apartheid years. However, black economic empowerment doesn’t present a good face to the outside world when it makes multi-millionaires of top shots of the ruling ANC, like Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, amongst others.
Mainstream media reports however indicate that the ANC led government is now bent on seeing that the benefits of BEE extend beyond the small elite class that appears to have benefited the most from it.In South Africa, the issue at hand centers on race. In Nigeria, it centers on ‘place of origin.’ Thus, when a South African citizen fills a South African government forms, he has to indicate to what race he belongs. When a Nigerian citizen fills a Nigerian government form he has to indicate what part of the country he comes from.
BEE in South Africa could somewhat be likened to uplifting the ‘disadvantaged or marginalized populations’ in Nigeria. Both are in essence affirmative action sort of programs. But, I repeat once again, Nigeria’s history and ethnic composition are very different from South Africa’s.I see nothing wrong with affirmative action, provided of course that standards are not lowered in order to accommodate certain people.
In Nigeria, this unfortunately is the case with regard to admitting students to public schools and universities. South Africa must not follow the same path if it wants to progress. And, as a matter of fact, it ought to be about time that the government of South Africa stopped using racial classifications first widely promulgated by the proponents of apartheid.All South Africans are Africans irrespective of ethnic origin. One possibility could be referring to their ethnic backgrounds as Afros, Euros and Asios. The term ‘colored’ is meaningless for simple racial classification, and is so reminiscent of apartheid era mentality where lighter skinned people were accorded a higher status than darker skinned people.
In the United States, the so-called colored people of South Africa would be referred to as ‘blacks.’ For now though, South Africans appear so comfortable with the term ‘colored’ given that a unique culture has evolved amongst the ‘colored’ people.
Chippla Vandu is a Nigerian writer and research engineer. He blogs as Chippla.
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