Traci Mackie | Honour Oom Ray by naming airport after him
When the sun was setting on this date in 1989, a 69-year-old Raymond Mhlaba landed at what was then called the H F Verwoerd Airport in Port Elizabeth and the reality dawned on him that he was at last a free man.
Oom Ray, as he was affectionately called, remembered in his memoirs: “The flight to Port Elizabeth felt unreal … I pinched myself to reassure myself that I was a free man.”
He was whisked away to a police station where he spent the night before he was escorted to his family in New Brighton in the early hours of October 11.
He had spent more than 9,000 days behind bars on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor Prison as a political prisoner.
Imagine the relief, excitement and joy when he looked out of the aircraft window that October 10, minutes before touchdown and for the first time in 26 years he saw the city he loved: his home since 1938.
In part, that is why, in June this year, when the Airports Company of South Africa called for submissions for the renaming of the airport, the Raymond Mhlaba Airport was for me an obvious choice.
For Oom Ray – a celebrated struggle veteran and inaugural premier of the Eastern Cape – the city’s airport represented celebration, anticipation and growth.
Unselfishly and with distinction, he also served SA as an anti-apartheid activist, trade unionist, Umkhonto weSizwe co-founder and commanderin-chief, and in his later years, ambassador to Rwanda and Uganda.
His nickname during the nationwide Defiance Campaign, that started in Port Elizabeth in 1952, with him leading the way, was Vulindlela.
Translated from Xhosa it means “opening the way”.
This, too, has a symbolic link.
The airport serves as a gateway to the Eastern Cape, opening the way for tourism, economic growth and development.
Changing the name of an airport is not unique.
Tradition has it that airports are often named after people who enjoy a close affiliation to the location, especially a resident.
John F Kennedy Airport in New York was originally Major General Alexander E Anderson Airport, then New York International.
President John F Kennedy grew up in New York.
Somewhere between 1989 and now, the H F Verwoerd Airport was renamed the Port Elizabeth International Airport.
It symbolically shook off the shackles of apartheid represented by Verwoerd, who was prime minister from 1958 to 1966.
Verwoerd ordered the detention and imprisonment of tens of thousands of people.
Among them were Oom Ray, Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Andrew Mlangeni, Walter Sisulu, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg.
Arrested on October 9 1963, they were prosecuted for sabotage in the iconic Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment, narrowly escaping the death penalty.
Last week, arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa announced that Grahamstown would now be called Makhanda, citing more than enough good reasons why.
The renaming of geographic features was recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in line with the country’s constitution to be a form of “symbolic reparation” to address an unjust past.
Mthethwa’s announcement coincided with media reports at the weekend that the Port Elizabeth Airport was also poised for further development.
Nelson Mandela, according to previous media reports, has also been submitted as a possible name for the airport.
There are those who have argued the marketing sense of this option and that it aligns with the name of the municipality.
But, it’s a matter that goes far deeper than marketing.
The city that was Oom Ray’s home for more than 40 years has in fact done little to recognise this national icon.
He more than deserves his name prominently positioned next to and in absolute unison with that of his old friend and comrade, who already has been honoured by the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and Nelson Mandela University.
In his demise, one can only conjure the thoughts and wishes of Tata Mandela who in his lifetime repeatedly emphasised that more credit was due to other senior struggle veterans, who together with him led SA to democracy.
It is most appropriate to respect these wishes and that during this, Madiba’s 100th birthday year, he would want nothing more than to have the Port Elizabeth Airport renamed the Raymond Mhlaba Airport.
Oom Ray was a humble man, a loyal and dedicated servant of SA.
At all times he evoked unity and patriotism, opening the way for all his countrymen and women to reach great heights.
So, one day soon I hope that when a plane touches down or soars into the sky, it carries with it the spirit of Oom Ray as the namesake of Port Elizabeth’s airport, reminding all who use it, albeit ironically, of the passage of freedom that the H F Verwoerd Airport offered on October 10 1989, welcoming Oom Ray home.
Traci Mackie is the acting CEO of the Raymond and Dideka Mhlaba Foundation.