JYAN Blog

What's in a Name?

“What is the biggest problem here in Cape Town?” 

My Uber driver looked up at me through the rearview mirror as if to verify that I was still talking to him. He did not comment on the lack of transportation or the water shortage or the precarious state of housing as I would have expected. Instead, with his eyes fixed on me through the clouded mirror, he said one word: equality.

While there are many infrastructural problems in cities, these issues are the result of larger intangibles, most frequently this notion of (in)equality. For those in the most powerful positions, this fight manifests itself in an effort to maintain power and perpetuate inequalities. But there is one common urban vision: a city that recognizes individual existence and each historical narrative. In Cape Town I was thinking a lot about this issue of recognition and equality through problematizing place names. Permeating our visual and verbal daily vocabulary, names have become sources of public memory and are viewed as an important aspect of belongingness. Further, names are a form of imagined social capital; unofficial renaming acknowledges historical wounds.

As we pulled off the highway into my neighborhood, the Uber stopped in traffic directly beneath a large green road sign. Big white letters on a blue background read “Walmer Estate” and “District 6.” As my eyes lingered a bit longer, I realized something about the sign was off. While “Walmer Estate”was clearly a part of the original sign, “District 6” was off-color and the font was different. Upon further examination, “District 6” was clearly an added sticker. Someone had hidden whatever was written beneath it.

In 1838 in Cape Town, District Six was a neighborhood settled by free blacks after their release from slavery. Due to the area’s convenient location, it rapidly grew into a cramped, close-knit, multiracial neighborhood. During apartheid, in accordance with the Group Areas Act, the government destroyed every inch of existing housing in District 6. They did so on claims that the area was unsightly, full of crime, and wrought with disease. District 6 was reclassified as a “whites only” area. The former residents of District 6 were forcibly moved into low-quality dormitory townships in the Cape Flats, while their former neighborhood turned to rubble. Not only was the infrastructure of District 6 destroyed, but the name of the neighborhood itself was officially eradicated. District Six officially became Zonnebloem against the wills of many former residents. 

On a Sunday night in August of 2013, Haroon Gunn-Salie drove to four intersections in the middle of the night to paste “District 6” stickers over “Zonnebloem.” By returning its original name on the signage, Gunn-Salie attempted to affect the “apartheid and colonial heritage that dominates people’s popular memory.” To him, the name “Zonnebloem” erases the history of displaced people from maps, signs, and public spaces. However, many people in online forums contested this movement. One commenter on an article concerning the renaming of Zonnebloem questioned why Cape Town doesn’t honor the people that were there before the formation of District 6. While unable to identify who they were, he argued that it was these people who deserved recognition in place names. 

When I came home after the Uber ride, I asked my host mother what she thought of the name change. Her eyes lit up. She told me of her mother’s childhood in District 6, and a mischievous smile danced on her lips as she explained the work of Gunn-Salie. At the end of the day, no matter how you get there, “it feels nice to finally be acknowledged.”

Place names for public spaces create a permanent text that canonizes a specific historical telling. The purpose of this emphasis in place names is clear: to shape a certain historical understanding. The daunting task then becomes acknowledging one story, while recognizing another. Acknowledging the former residents of District 6, while recognizing the land’s prior history. This moves beyond duality, each name replete with a multiplicity of historical imperatives. Complications arise working in a privatized capitalist systems, as these names become increasingly more polluted. Metaphorically speaking, people from different backgrounds and histories want to cover up Zonnebloem to replace it with their District Six. Behind every place is an alternate name. Behind every name lies a deep story. 

But I believe there is a difference between hearing and listening. You can slap a name on a sign to make someone’s name heard, but that does not constitute being listened to. In order for people to listen, there needs to be a notion of understanding. With this understanding in the face of (in)equality comes positionality and through that, understanding where reparation is necessary. This is what must be acknowledged: each individual’s story in relation to larger surrounding narratives. Once that listening begins, what follows next goes beyond street signs or monuments or books or poems, and lies instead in social change. What must happen to create a city of equity, of recognition, of dignity lies in dismantling systems of oppression, not in changing a street sign. How should we envision this social change? I do not have an answer, but recognizing the existence of alternatives is half the battle. As we consider the answer to this question, allow my host mom’s words continue to echo through your mind: “It feels nice to finally be acknowledged.”


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