Beyond, the chaos of political names for Cape Town International airport lays the battle for identity!


Clyde Ramalaine

Marinos the philosopher introduced us to the adage, “True learning flourishes in chaos”. What happened at the Cape Town Intl. Airport, where a public meeting intended to engage the renaming of the airport abruptly ended in chaos. Chaos where emotions flared, easily interpreted as uncouth behaviour, untenable intolerance, the ever-pervasive and simmering issue of race or it may just present a moment of learning on the subject matter of identity. The quest for identity involuntarily thrusts itself upon our collective conscience in a post-democratic dispensation. Beyond names bandied around, we are compelled to listen deeper and ask what are we hearing or not hearing from this gathering – I think we are hearing the quest for identity pronouncing itself?

We are told that the names in contention include Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Sarah Baartman and Krotoa of the Goringhaicona.  The one good thing about the names thrown around is for the first time there are more women in this usually male-dominated obsession of names for public places.

South Africa is a nation obsessed with naming public spaces after political personalities. It is not a phenomenon that stems from 1994, but deeply ingrained in the notion of a Republic of SA. It is a direct continuation of an apartheid-era practice of honouring of politicians and leaders as means to flex political muscle. Let us not forget Cape Town International’s last name was DF Malan Airport. In case you forgot, OR Tambo International, was previously known as Jan Smuts Airport, the Bloemfontein Airport was named after JB Hertzog. Hence apartheid beneficiaries can hardly pretend this practice immanent in an obsession of names for public spaces as singularly a democratic era thing.  If the new democratic dispensation learned anything from the heretic systems of colonialism and apartheid it was to inculcate in idol worship their political heroes affording them unique identities eternalised in public spaces. Just as it uncritically appropriated racial classification for means to define a common humanity in questionable frames of black, coloured, white and Indian, whatever these may mean.

However, beyond the irrefutable practice as found from apartheid days lays buried perhaps the golden thread of identity. We may accept that the naming of airports like JB Hertzog, Jan Smuts and DF Malan expressed a sense of political power on one level but it may also at a fundamental level unequivocally articulate a group identity on another level.

In the year that Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu would have turned 100 years these two ANC luminaries are celebrated in a national campaign and series of events, hence some almost naturally assume it normal to bestow the honour of renaming the airport with one of the two. Naming a Nelson Mandela or Albertina Sisulu for the airport would be also neutral since both these figures are celebrated in near sense of deity. Renaming it after any of these two would be considered good public relations exercise in a season when the media claims a resurgence of Mandela-like euphoria.  We may, therefore, deduce going for either a Mandela or Sisulu name is at the core probably an ANC leadership motivated idea. We may conclude it’s the ANC party identity that seeks to exert itself in this regard, particularly in a geographical space where the ANC continues to battle to regain political control.

In the year of her death, the name of Winnie Madikizela- Mandela, for most affectionately known as ‘Mother of the Nation’, is for some the only name for consideration as a means to fix and honour her legacy since the ANC according to some failed to honour this stalwart. Winnie Madikizela- Mandela in her own right divides the ANC as her death showed. The aftermath of her death threatened to unleash a further divide in a very fractious ANC, since information shared laid bare how some key leaders in her party aided the untested claim of her involvement in the death of Stompie Sepei, either by their silence not dispelling that narrative or their compliance to nail her for their own reasons.

While the ANC was dealing with the embarrassment of these revelations and as always absent to engage the public discourse on the subject the EFF seized the moment to gather in the significant spot of Brandfort, the place to which Winnie Mandela was banished under house arrest for nine years. Julius Malema the EFF leader who has an inside track on ANC information often embarrasses the ANC leadership when he blurts information not always meant for public consumption. Malema became the first politician to publicly call for the name of Winnie Mandela as replacement of Cape Town International. With this Malema exerted his personal political identity and that of the EFF as a party that leads. Let us not forget Malema is on record to claim the EFF is directing political theory and the political landscape of SA in this epoch.  A choice for Winnie Mandela while marking her legacy in fixing, really carries the flexing of the identity of the EFF leader and its party. There may also be a radical component of the ANC who is more likely to agree with the EFF because they identify with Madikizela- Mandela and less with Nelson Mandela or Albertina Sisulu.

Robert Smangaliso Sobukwe the Pan African Congress president and Leader and icon, kept in solitary confinement on Robben Island, of whom apartheid’s John Vorster once remarked with the following words: “Compared to [Albert] Luthuli, Sobukwe was a heavyweight, (is also mentioned). Sobukwe due for release on May 3, 1963, was instead eternalised with a special law, called the “Sobukwe Clause”, in the General Laws Amendment Act passed to enable the apartheid government to detain him indefinitely.  The PAC often accuses the ANC of flagrantly usurping the role of the liberation struggle in history in the totality of presence and thus, airbrushing the role Robert Sobukwe and others. Those who call for a Robert Sobukwe renaming of the Cape Town international airport do so in an attempt of exerting the Pan African Congress liberation struggle identity, a claim justified in due recognition. It is an attempt to challenge the ANC in its management of history.

Equally, so others call for the name of Sarah Baartman the Khoi-Khoi woman who was brutally violated and shipped out of the land of her birth forced to perform against her will by Caesars and Dunlop, she was later sold to an animal trainer S. Reaux. Baartman’s physique became the obsession of the French scholar Georges Cuvier who clearly could not see a human but became entrapped seeking to draw a link between and animals in this Khoi-Khoi woman.  Baartman’s body was exploited for scientific racism. Cuvier dissected her body and displayed her remains. She finally returned home as repatriated to rest from where she was violently and inhumanely taken.

On the other hand, some called for the name of Krotoa of the Goringhaicona. Krotoa (known as Eva to the Dutch and English settlers) was the niece of Autshumao, a Khoi leader and interpreter to the Dutch (he was known as Harry/Herry first by the English and then by the Dutch). A young Krotoa, of about 10 or 11 years old, it is claimed was taken in by Jan van Riebeeck during the first few days of Dutch settlement in the Cape. Recent reflections reveal attempts to present her from the other side of her history and more and more defines her a linguist, an intellectual, leader and some of the earliest women leaders in a recorded Khoisan history.

Those who demand the renaming of the Cape Town International airport with names of either Krotoa of the Goringhaicona or Sarah Baartman share a common struggle and that struggle is one for a recognition of identity. For in a free and democratic South Africa, the Khoisan identity is still fighting to be recognised as 21stCentury identity.

Unlike all other identities earlier mentioned, this one remains elusive, reduced to poetry that declared it obsolete. This when many of us long in self-identification claimed our Khoisan identity and have asked the state to stop misidentifying us in trojan horse Coloured identity. When they call for either Krotoa and Baartman it is a call for the Mother of the Cape. It is also intrinsically coupled in manifestation with the thorny subject of land redress. It is for this group natural to call for the honouring of these two brave Khoisan women and their connectedness to what is known as the Cape. Yet it is on a larger scale really group identity trying to be heard. Maya Angelou told us ‘there is no story like a story trying to be told’.

In the end, we run the risk of getting hoodwinked in defending names against other names. Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Robert Sobukwe Sarah Baartman or Krotoa of the Goringhaicona are not just mere names that people lost their tempers for during this heated public engagement that ended in chaos.  They all represent identities.

Perhaps these names represent identities contesting a space in their own way really to unseat DF Malan that continues to hide in garments of a claimed neutral Cape Town International airport.  It can also be argued these identities share a common space of powerlessness, hence they are prepared to contest in outshouting one another even teetering on physical fights. While some of these identities claim a political power they all, in the final analysis, remain victims of powerlessness to varying degrees.

Are we learning anything from this chaos? Shall we hear the quest for identity recognition be it political or in self -definition or will we get lost assuming the names are hated by others who call for their preferred identity? Will those who lead SA ever stop playing mute, we need a Commission on Identity that affords people the inalienable right to self-identify less in apartheid configuration of constricted racist labels.

Clyde N. S. Ramalaine
Political Commentator & Writer Chairperson of TMoSA Foundation