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Last Updated: Friday, 27 October 2006, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
What's in a name?
By Peter Biles
Southern Africa correspondent, BBC News

Friday's renaming of Johannesburg International Airport as OR Tambo International Airport is not without controversy.

SAA plane
Johannesburg's airport has been renamed twice
Twelve years after South Africa's remarkable political transition, there is often heated debate, especially in the Afrikaans-speaking community, about many of the name changes that have been made to streets, towns and provinces since the African National Congress came to power in 1994.

For the most part, the names that have disappeared have been those of white Afrikaners, many of them prominent during the days of apartheid.

OR Tambo International is South Africa's busiest airport, handling 16 million passengers a year.

It started life in the 1950s as Jan Smuts Airport, in honour of the country's war-time prime minister.

During the decades of racial segregation, all the airports in South Africa were named after Afrikaner leaders.

However, with the advent of democracy in 1994, those names were removed, and as part of the compromise, the airports became known by their respective towns or cities.

Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in 1991
OR Tambo is an icon in our political history. Everybody in the airport is excited about the name change
Chris Hlekane
Acsa general manager
The decision to rename Johannesburg Airport again is arguably the most important change to date.

Oliver Tambo who was affectionately known as "OR", led the ANC in exile for 30 years.

His contribution to the struggle against apartheid was immense, but he died in 1993, a year before South Africa's first democratic elections.

The Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) says there has been a positive response to the government's decision to recognise the late ANC president.

"OR Tambo is an icon in our political history," says general manager Chris Hlekane.

"Everybody in the airport is excited about the name change. People have begun to say 'ORT', and this marks one of those events which cements what we have come through as a country."

Raging debate

However, opponents of the government's name changes, who are mainly white, say it is unnecessary meddling and a waste of money.

Tim du Plessis, editor of the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper, Rapport, believes that feelings often run much deeper.

"You must understand that the Afrikaners only have one history, and that history is here in South Africa. They feel their history is being obliterated," he says.

They are so many unsung heroes of magnitude in this country who've contributed to where we are today - and very few of them have been recognised
Thembi Tambo

Mr du Plessis points to the town of Lydenburg in Mpumalanga Province where a change to an African name has been proposed.

"Lydenburg means 'town of suffering'. It was a town that the Voortrekkers established after many of them died from malaria at a previous settlement. There's no colonial or political connotation there. And so more and more people are saying: 'why must we put up with this?'"

Oliver Tambo's daughter, Thembi, is delighted that her father is being recognised at Johannesburg Airport.

She hopes that in 20 years, South Africa's history will be more accurately remembered.

"They are so many unsung heroes of magnitude in this country who've contributed to where we are today - and very few of them have been recognised.

"President Thabo Mbkei's father, Govan Mbeki, is one. Moses Mabhida of the SA Communist Party is another. They're people we should know about," she says.

Divisive

The government has been inconsistent in its approach to name changes.

In the suburbs of Johannesburg, for example, the name of the first apartheid-era prime minister, DF Malan, has gone from a main road through the suburbs, and replaced by that of the late Beyers Naude, a prominent anti-apartheid activist.

I don't think we want that kind of ethnic mobilisation to happen in South Africa. It's bad for this country, whether it's Zulu mobilisation or Afrikaner mobilisation
Tim du Plessis
Rapport newspaper editor
But elsewhere in Johannesburg, the names of Afrikaans-speaking politicians remain, including the key architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.

A fierce argument in the capital, Pretoria, has resulted in the retention in the city centre of the name that remembers the Great Trek leader, Andries Pretorius.

But the greater metropolitan area is now known as Tshwane, the name of an old tribal chief.

Rapport editor Tim du Plessis feels it is important that the government should follow this "give-and-take" approach.

But he warns that it is a difficult part of South Africa's ongoing transformation.

"It's very divisive and it causes a form of alienation. It's unifying Afrikaans-speaking people around these things. And I'm not too sure that's a good thing.

"I don't think we want that kind of ethnic mobilisation to happen in South Africa. It's bad for this country, whether it's Zulu mobilisation or Afrikaner mobilisation."




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