The naming of cities is a difficult matter; it isn’t just one of your holiday games

There are evenings in which I toy with the idea of going into politics. Of forming my own party. Running for president. Declaring a three-day working week, introducing free-roaming lions to the suburbs, providing rum for the homeless. That sort of thing. How hard can it be? An idiot with a bucket on his head won 249 votes in the last British general election. Lord Buckethead represents the Gremloids, a party that might or might not exist. One of his manifesto promises was to legalise the hunting of fox hunters. For that alone, he has my vote. Well, he would have if I lived in England, which I don’t ever want to do under any circumstances.

I like titles. I think they’re important in a time when most men don’t even deserve to be called Mister, which is barely one place above Hey You on the list of honorifics. My first wife’s maiden name was Lister. She never took my surname when we married, although she was quite happy to take my dignity and masculinity. People meeting me for the first time would call me Mister Lister. She seemed to enjoy this. Me, less so.

Now look. I’ve had to open a bottle of vodka. It’s the only adult beverage recommended by psychologists for use in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

So what title would I choose should I get a call from President Gupta tomorrow morning? First prize would be minister of defence. I would institute weekly raves at every army base because dancing is the only way to get properly fit. Also, Zimbabwe would be ours by the weekend.

Second prize would be minister of arts and culture. It’s a portfolio that lends itself to flights of fancy. One imagines the position to only ever be occupied by warrior poets capable of flooring their dull-witted opponents with jagged rhyming couplets and then, as the gormless enemy reach for their thesauri, executing a bloodless coup de grace with a flawless quatrain coated in ironic iambic pentameter.

We are truly blessed to have such a man in Nathi Mthethwa. Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness – and the arts and culture portfolio – thrust upon them. After extinguishing himself as minister of police, he was handed what Macbeth described as a poisoned chalice. And while Macbeth went on to murder his cousin King Duncan and take the throne, there is little chance of Mthethwa doing the same. Not without the approval of the ANC branches, anyway.

While Macbeth is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, South Africa is a tragedy by Jacob Zuma. Shakespeare’s play dramatises the damaging physical and psychological effects of political ambition on those who seek power for its own sake. Ah, yes, those were the days. Zuma’s power play has money as its sole incentive. Fair play to him. Or unfair, if not unethical, immoral and utterly illegal.

Anyway. Let us dispense with the hors d’oeuvres and crack on to the main course. A week ago, Mthethwa said he wanted a discussion within the ANC on finding an appropriate name for South Africa. Quite frankly, I think the discussion on finding an appropriate president for South Africa is more important. But he does have a point. Swapo never recognised the name South West Africa as anything more than a geographical location. Let us not even speak of Deutsch-Südwestafrika. At independence, the comrades changed the country’s name to Namibia. This was met with a fair amount of hissing and spitting among the obdurate right, both German and Afrikaner. Even Margaret Thatcher sniffily delivered an elegant expectoration into the Downing Street spittoon.

At first I was confused. It seemed to me that the minister was straying way beyond his remit. You wouldn’t expect the health minister to weigh in on the snoek quota, so why would the arts and culture minister start jabbering about changing the name of the country? Because, shockingly, he can. Apart from underfunding arts and misinterpreting culture, his department is also entitled to change the names of towns, streets and, apparently, the country.

Giving an example of the wrong naming of places, Mthethwa said, “Benjamin D’Urban named our place, eThekwini, after himself and called it Durban.” I don’t get paid enough to do research but I had to check this out. Sir Benjamin was born in Suffolk and died in Canada. He was awarded the Order of the Bath, which is ironic considering that most British people avoid bathing like the plague. That’s probably what started the plague.

By all accounts, he was an ass-creeping suck-up. This is how Wikipedia tells it. “He served in all the principle sieges and battles and never asked to go on leave.” Imagine being stuck in a pub with him. He spent some time in Cape Town where he upset the Dutch so much that they went on the Great Trek, which, if you read about it, wasn’t all that great. If it was, someone would’ve made a movie about it by now.

Then he upset the Xhosa, as we all do when we drive through the Transkei, and arrived in Durban which, in 1834, obviously wasn’t called Durban and almost certainly wasn’t called eThekwini. King Shaka, who went on to achieve immortality as an airport, put up with this nonsense for a while. He cut the whiteys some slack because they were of use to him. Not much has changed in that respect. Then the Voortrekkers pulled in and ruined everything by building ugly holiday homes on the coast and getting vrot on brandy and coke. Dingane showed Piet Retief what he thought of their idea of a Boer Republic this close to the beach and, with the help of the British, sent the Boers off to the Free State and Transvaal where many of them are still found today. A few come back to Durban every December but they don’t stay for long. A lot of them now live in Perth.

Comrade Nathi also wants a name change for Empangeni. “The area used to be called Embangweni Wombuso wakwa Mthethwa (infighting over the chiefdom of Mthethwa clans).” He’s absolutely right. We should also resurrect the infighting to make it even more authentic. Maybe charge an entrance fee. The British and Boers will have to pay a bit more, obviously. Reparations, like.

At the same “cadres meeting” in Molweni township outside Durban, the honourable minister accused Absa and FNB of racist donatery in the Knysna disaster. The banks’ donations of R10-million each, he said, would only benefit “rich white victims of the fire”. Saying the banks’ “selective response” justified President Zuma’s opposition to white monopoly capital, forgetting to explain to the cadres that white monopoly capital is a Machiavellian invention of a London-based public relations firm contracted by Zuma’s Indian blessers to draw attention away from allegations of state capture. And that the firm, Bell Pottinger, is owned exclusively by rich white people. Details, mere details.

Perhaps unwittingly giving credence to the theory that shape-shifting reptilians control Earth, our deeply sensitive minister of arts and culture asked, “Why chase a lizard when there are crocodiles?”

In our Rename South Africa competition, send suggestions on a postcard to President Jacob “Iguana” Zuma, Union Buildings, Private Bag X1000, Pretoria, 0001. The winner gets a free weekend in Dubai and the cabinet position of their choice.

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6 thoughts on “The naming of cities is a difficult matter; it isn’t just one of your holiday games

  1. Pingback: iamberend's Blog
  2. hi Ben
    I love your writing and especially loved the jab about white monopoly capital – you are sharp as … I cant say a knife… as a blade of grass.
    umph. that does not sound so great. you get my drift. xxxDeborah

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