Name change for popular tourist town in South Africa hits resistance

Staff Writer

 ·29 Feb 2024

The Department of Arts and Culture, together with the Eastern Cape Provincial Geographical Names Committee, conducted public hearings in Graaff-Reinet over its proposed name change – which was met with resistance – while others believe the change is necessary.

At the end of last year, the Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Art and Culture proposed that the town Graaff-Reinet be changed to Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.

The South African Geographical Names Council is an advisory body that facilitates name changes by consulting with communities to advise the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture.

However, tempers flared at the first public hearings of the proposed Graaff-Reinet name change.

Several people noted that no reason had been given as to why the town’s name must be changed. At the same time, the Graaff-Reinet economic forum said the town relied heavily on tourism, and changing a recognisable name such as Graaff-Reinet would hurt businesses.

Countering these views, others believe Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe has a profound history involving Graaff-Reinet, and changing the name will help further build an inclusive history in South Africa.

In response to those resisting the name changes, the Eastern Cape Provincial Geographical Names Committee deputy chair Jonny Mahlala said the changes are necessary to redress and transform old geographical naming systems.

He added, however, that before a final decision is made, the committee will ensure fair public consultation has taken place.

Other name changes included in the provincial department’s proposal (along with Graaff-Reinet) are:

  • Adendorp to Kwa Mseki Bishop Limba;
  • Aberdeen to Camdeboo; and
  • Nieu-Bethesda to Kwa Noheleni.

South Africa has seen several key name changes over the last few years, mainly concentrated in the Eastern Cape.

According to the department, 103 geographical name changes have occurred in the Eastern Cape since 2019.

The most recent proposal for name changes, however, has already provoked widespread criticism before the first public hearing.

Kallie Kriel, the CEO of AfriForum, has objected to the proposed renaming of historic towns such as Graaff-Reinet.

He argues that this would be an unnecessary and unwarranted use of taxpayers’ funds, as none of the current names are offensive or problematic in any way.

“These towns hold significant historical value, and we intend to monitor the renaming process closely and play an active role in preventing it.

“These areas are deep-rooted farming communities with a rich heritage and history, which makes the decision to change their names even more insensitive and hurtful to the people who have cherished these towns for generations,” said Kriel.

Responding to negative reactions to the changes, such as Kriel’s, the department defended them as part of South Africa’s core strategy of fostering heritage.

“This is our own way as a sector of bringing meaning to freedom by ensuring that the many unearthed and untold stories are given the platform through the national oral history project that we support.

“Through the geographical names project, we have also deliberately set the country on a path towards healing by changing names of towns and cities which have unsavoury colonial and apartheid connotations.

“In doing so, we have always sought to consult widely in ensuring that the affected communities are part of the name-change process,” it said.

The department explained that the cost related to the name changes includes public consultation notices and honoraria for committee and council sittings.

it added these are budgeted for within government departments. However, the cost of changing names has not been tracked.