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The audacity of colonialism

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In an obscure French play the main character to be played by Mr. Trouble in his play-making days sits in his Paris garret bemoaning the name of his native city Brazzaville. He asks around who was Brazza and why was his place of birth named after him. He learnt that Monsieur Brazza was an Italian-born French explorer who died of dysentery in Dakar in 1905. He had ‘discovered’ the Congo for the French and so they named the capital after him Brazzaville. And says the entry under his name “and the name was retained by the post-colonial rulers”!!! The fellow in the play moaned that he had been exploring Paris for ten years and had almost died of hunger but nobody has named Paris after him! He then laments not just the audacity of the French colonialists who would give a new name to a place that was not their own but also he condemns the cowardice of the post-colonial African Congolese rulers who retained the name of Brazzaville. What, Trouble’s character screams, was the original Congolese name for Brazzaville?

All over Africa, the audacity of invaders reigns supreme aided and abetted by the cowardice of the post-colonial rulers. In the whole of North Africa occupied by Arab conquerors hardly anything African survives except remnants of the Berber language. Along the West African coast only the little country of Gambia had the courage to rescue their capital from Barthust to Banjul.

How does a person come to Eko Akete, Ilu Ogbon, Arodede maja, Aromi sa Legbe legbe and call it Lagos! What does “lagos” mean? Not only have the post-colonial rulers of Lagos retained this colonial name but they even make poetry out of it!
“If you want to live a happy life in Lagos
Look and go on slowly!
L for look
A for and
G for go
O for on
S for slowly

Look and go on slowly”
It is in South Africa, of course, that the audacity of colonialism receives its crown. It is here that Africans live in acronyms such as NY 14, Soshanguve and Soweto. In the Cape Town township of Langa houses are grouped into NYs for the purposes of identification for postal distributions. Many if not most students from this township did not know what NY was about, what did it mean? Did the two letters mean New York? The words stood for “Native Yard.” You would think that the post-colonial authorities would change this designation now that the “natives” are in charge.

Soshanguve is named after the first two letters of the following South African ethnicities: Sotho, Shangan, Nguni and Venda. Soshanguve is a sprawling township outside of the capital Pretoria and about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg. Apart from the fact that so many other ethnic nationalities live in this township now, since the geography of separate apartheid existence came to an end, this acronym is an insult to the history of Africans in these places and spaces.

Soweto is the most famous acronym township of South Africa. Meaning South West Township it, like the name of the country, is a geographical expression. But unlike the name of the country, nobody has suggested that it be changed to something else.

While there is no known study yet of what living in an environment strangely named or not named in the language and culture of those who live there does to the humanity of Africans, there is no doubt that people do struggle to change such naming. Imagine living in a street named after the chief protagonist of apartheid Verwoerd? There is no doubt that the African soul is wounded every time an African writes that as his or her address. This is one of the reasons that the #ThisorThatMustFall has been a hit with South African students in the last eighteen months.

A massive effort went into changing street names in Durban some five years ago. At street corners sign boards could be seen showing the old street name crossed out over the new street name. But sometimes one would come across both the old and new street names crossed out! This was an indication that someone or some people were protesting against the new street name. Such crossing were sometimes accompanied with pointed question like “what did Fidel Castro do for us?” That the Cuban army helped to defeat the white South African army fighting in Zimbabwe did not impress the white inhabitants of Durban. In all these name changes in Durban there has been no suggestion that the name of the city be changed. What was the original name of the place now known as Durban?

The fact that the former colonial and apartheid leaders of South Africa, the Afrikaner inventors of separate development, did not and could not go back to Holland and France and the various places they came from in the first place, makes renaming problematic in South Africa. In the space of over three hundred years they have morphed into the white tribe of Africa with a right to their own ethnicity and African language, Afrikaans.

And they would also want their environment, the post-colonial, post-apartheid geography which they share must also reflect their history, their heroes and their aspirations? But is it right that those who committed what has been described as a crime against humanity be remembered and memorialised in the post-colonial, post-apartheid environment?

In an environment of the old form of the state of one people, one language, one religion and one culture such a question would not arise since there can only be one people, one language, one religion and one culture. But in a constitutional democracy containing multiplicities of peoples, languages, religions and cultures, would there not be the logic of multiplicities of naming? The street that is Mandela Road to one person is the same street that is Verwoerd Avenue to the Afrikaner. And Freedom Park to some would be Slave Market to others. Is such geographical multiplicity possible? Is it manageable? Can it be administered properly? And where is the gain of the winning majority? How much right would the minority have in such an environment? Who wins in the confrontation of the audacity of colonialism and corrective courage of the post-colonial order?


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Monsieur Brazza

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