Beware of divisive rhetoric in name-change debate

Port Elizabeth’s airport
Port Elizabeth’s airport
Image: Riaan Marais

There are very few debates that get South Africans hot under the collar like the frequent one about changing the names of cities and towns.  

The contentious exchanges about this issue throughout our democratic discourse are well documented.

Therefore, our recent story announcing that the city of Port Elizabeth, its airport and Uitenhage could soon be renamed predictably sparked a flurry of responses.

Many of them have been reflected on the letter pages of this newspaper and on our digital platforms since last week.

The major bone of contention, it seems, is the possible renaming of Port Elizabeth to Gqebera and, second, the airport to David Stuurman.

Let us state upfront that like any other space that is a microcosm of our country, as journalists in this newsroom we hold different views on whether Port Elizabeth should be renamed.

But we agree on two things.

The first is that the renaming process often exposes a level of social apathy that exists among many of us.

It highlights the responsibility we all have as active citizens to partake in democratic processes such as public hearings, which are arguably the most suited, timely and hopefully effective platform to have different views heard before such decisions are taken.

Second, we also agree that debates over name changes expose the unnecessarily divisive nature of our public discourse.

For example, beyond rejecting the proposed change itself, some of the public criticism has extended to the name Gqebera.

Apart from disliking it, some have gone as far as to ridicule the name as a subject of mockery in a spectacular display of intolerance which was perhaps summed up by one comment last week: “Those who pay tax cannot pronounce it”.

Not only are such sentiments unfortunate, they are polarising and divisive even to people who may otherwise share similar views against the name change. 

It is reasonable and acceptable to reject the name change as a poor, badly timed decision that amounts to wastage of public money, and even to dislike the name Gqebera, without disrespecting it as an expression of a language and people to which it belongs.

At all times we must be mindful that the maturity of our democracy is gauged in the nature of our most emotive conversations.

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