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[OPINION] Cape Town International Airport, what's in a name?

When one flies into Reagan International Airport in Washington DC, one can’t help but think of ‘trickle down economics’, yet flying into OR Tambo gives one a sense of justice. Tambo, one of the great South African leaders and liberation heroes, tragically never lived to see freedom. It seems appropriate therefore that the airport carries the name of this great icon of the struggle. He transcends boundaries, after all.

Driving down Nelson Mandela Boulevard in Cape Town seems just right. FW De Klerk Boulevard, maybe not so much.

Naming and renaming can be controversial and bring out the ugliest impulses in a society, as we know only too well here in South Africa. Apartheid names still dot our cities, after all.

The airport in Cape Town was opened in 1954 and named after one of apartheid South Africa’s most notorious Prime Ministers, DF Malan. With the fall of apartheid, it was, appropriately, renamed Cape Town International Airport. It is the second busiest airport in South Africa and the third busiest in Africa.

There were probably some South Africans in the conservative heartland that still hankered after DF Malan Airport, but renaming it to Cape Town International made sense and no one objected gravely.

But yet, here we are again, and tediously so. The Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) has called for public comment on the renaming of Cape Town International Airport, East London Airport, Kimberley Airport and Port Elizabeth International airport. It is part of government’s ‘Transformation of the heritage landscape programme’. It seems as if the renaming of Cape Town International Airport is most controversial of all.

A public ‘debate’ took place on Monday in Cape Town, which quickly turned chaotic, perhaps predictably so. As South Africans we appear to have lost our ability to negotiate difference and it has often tragic and violent consequences, sadly.

Since the passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have been agitating for Cape Town International to be named for Madikizela-Mandela. It seemed to come out of the blue, yet has gained traction amongst some EFF supporters on Twitter (if that is an indication of anything at all) who are already presumptuously calling the airport by this name.

The EFF has now inserted itself forcefully into the Cape Town debate and demanded that the airport be renamed in accordance with its choice.

On the other side, is the Indigenous Khoisan group who want the airport named Krotoa in honour of the niece of Autshumao, a Khoi leader and interpreter to the Dutch (known as ‘Harry’ to the English and the Dutch). Krotoa’s life was, in many senses, tragic. At the age of 10 or 11, Krotoa (known as Eva to the Dutch) was taken in by Jan van Riebeeck and his wife and dubbed by Van Riebeeck as ‘the girl who lived with us’. Krotoa quickly learned Dutch and Portuguese and her command of these languages made her a useful interpreter for the Dutch. Her intimate knowledge of both cultures made her a go-between of sorts between the Dutch and Khoisan, yet she was torn in her loyalties. In 1664, after the Van Riebeecks left the Cape she became engaged to the Dane Pieter Van Meerhof. It was recorded as, "The first marriage contracted here according to Christian usage with a native".

The complexities of Krotoa’s life are well recorded and after living on Robben Island for a while with her family, she returned to the mainland after her husband’s death. Krotoa’s rising resentment towards the settlers and increased drinking made life difficult for her. It caused the Dutch to threaten her with banishment. Eventually Krotoa ran away but she was taken back as a prisoner and then eventually banished to Robben Island for ‘immoral behaviour’. She died five years later in 1674 and was buried in the church on the Castle grounds.

At her death the Dutch saw her tragic life as proof that Khoikhoi were unable to absorb the best of European culture: "With the dogs she returned to her own vomit," the official diarist recorded, "a clear illustration that nature, no matter how tightly muzzled by imprinted moral principles ... reverts to its inborn qualities".

These two lines in and of themselves could be the subject of historical interpretation as they foreground starkly so much of the tensions of our Cape society. It is a powerful story and Krotoa’s life is without doubt a symbol of the injustice of colonisation. It also, importantly, bears all the antecedents of the fraught Western Cape race politics still at play today. That was also crudely on display at the public hearings on Monday night as tempers flared and members of the Khoisan groups said they did not want ‘political domination’. For that read: Cape Town residents would prefer the airport be named after one of ‘their own’ as opposed to someone who is African black, if we are to be brutally honest about some of what was said on Monday evening.

It was in similar vein that Parkwood residents, who had occupied land on the M5 highway, when meeting with MEC for Housing in the Western Cape, Bonginkosi Madikizela said, "Brown people (sic) don’t get houses". The implication being that only African black people are beneficiaries of government housing programmes and not the ‘coloured’ people in the Western Cape. It’s the old chestnut and the one that makes Western Cape politics so very different. Its history is deep-rooted.

It is interesting that former Premier Peter Marais has also sought to insert himself into this debate on behalf of the Khoisan people as an "adviser to the Griqua Royal House". At the meeting someone said, "there will be war" if the name Krotoa was not chosen. War? Really? Is this the nature of our public discourse?

Acsa for its part announced that it would not be deterred and encouraged citizens to continue making submissions.

The problem is that one needs to ask a primary question: why are we suggesting a name change for Cape Town International in the first place?

Has the name Cape Town become offensive? What is the motivation put forward by Acsa and the government for changing what is a perfectly reasonable and functional name? And why are we expending so much energy (and money) on this issue when we have myriad pressing issues to deal with. It would be quite different if the airport were still named for Malan, but it is not. All that the renaming ‘debate’ is doing is fuelling unnecessary tensions in a country and a city that can frankly do without this squabbling.

In any event, whether it is the opportunistic EFF or the Khoisan people, on whose behalf do they actually speak? Marais may be trying to resurrect a role for himself in public life and Malema and the EFF seem to be running out of ideas as Ramaphosa tries to clean up the state. Their politics of disruption and demand is showing itself up for the limited spectacle it mostly is. One can always rely on the opportunistic EFF to make demands, even in a province where it holds 2.37% support.

Yes, we need to debate street and place names but changing the entirely inoffensive name of the airport is a flight of fancy, not only a pun, firstly because the city itself is littered with apartheid street names and outside Parliament stands the statue of Louis Botha and in its grounds, the statue of the puffy Queen Victoria. It is part of a much larger and more complex debate about statues and names that needs to happen in a way that unites and does not drive South Africans further apart.

This renaming happens under the aegis of the Department of Arts and Culture. One wonders whether Minister Nathi Mthethwa does not have more imaginative ways of fostering social cohesion and creating an inclusive dialogue about the past and its impact on the present. The stories of Krotoa, or indeed Saartjie Baartman, the other renaming suggestion, hold many lessons, but it would be better to find ways of public education which are instructive and which help us all to link the past to the present in ways which are deeply meaningful.

Connecting these dots is crucial for true transformation and inclusivity in our cities and towns. Renaming airports seems a very dull and predictable way of doing such important work, especially when, as is the case with Cape Town International Airport, it is entirely gratuitous.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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