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Umlindi International Airport: A name to unite a nation

The renaming of airports has been in the news this week. In Cape Town the name of the airport – currently called 'Cape Town International' – has been the latest cause of division in South Africa. Mphuthumi Ntabeni takes a look at this question and tries to unpick the complex reality of naming public spaces after people who might be esteemed by one group but not necessarily by others.

The Airports Company South Africa (ACSA), through the Transformation of Heritage Landscape programme of the national Department of Arts and Culture, is planning to change the names of several airports. Among those up for a name change are the airports of East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. They invited the public to suggest names and comment on the process. In Cape Town, this has, as expected, become the latest cause for division.

Many names have been bandied around: Winnie Mandela, Philip Kgosana, Ashley Kriell, Dullar Ohmar, Robert Sobukhwe, Albertina Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. Those who think it is high time for heroes other than politicians to be recognised have suggested Desmond Tutu, the famous jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim and Jakes Gerwel who helped found the University of the Western Cape and the name by which one of the major roads in Cape Town, formerly the Vanguard Drive, will now be known. Other possible names for Cape Town International Airport (CTIA) include those of Brenda Fassie, the famous musician of the 80s born in the township of kwaLanga in Cape Town and authors and intellectuals like Bessie Head and Olive Schreiner.

During the public meeting at CTIA, organised by ACSA, political chaos and rabble-rousing was the order of the day. The Khoisan people were particularly angry, threatening “war” if the airport is not renamed after one of their heroes or heroines. But they disagreed even among themselves and couldn’t decide which traditional name the airport should take. Should it be known as Autshumato, the name of one of the first Khoikhoi leaders incarcerated at the then leper colony of Robben Island, Krotoa, the name of his niece who is believed to be one of the first natives to speak an European language and who was emotionally and sexually abused by Jan van Riebeeck and his cohorts, or Hoerikwaggo, the original Khoikhoi name for Table Mountain?

As if the intra-tribal disputes weren’t enough, the Xhosas also want a stake in the name, insisting it is renamed Umlindi. The name is taken from the Khoisan/Xhosa legend and tells of how the mountain was formed. According to the legend, a giant was tasked by Tixo, the almighty Khoisan God that the Xhosa adopted from the Khoi and call Thixo, to protect the land from the creatures of the sea. But the giant was restless, neglecting his duties, thus allowing for mysterious creatures, later associated with Beluga whales by the Xhosas, to steal the people at night. To keep the giant rooted and in one spot, so as to fulfil his duties, Tixo turned him into stone and gave him a pipe to signal the coming arrival of visitors. Since then it is said that the giant clothes himself in white smoke whenever he feels lonely so as to invite visitors.

The Khoisan and Xhosa greatly feared the Beluga whale because of its features – it has bones that look like knees and fins that look like arms. They thought it to have evil powers. In fact, some say that this is where their aversion to water comes from. They identified water as having hypnotic powers that drew a person into the deep forever.

Some say still that the Beluga whale is the mythical Mamlambo in the Xhosa tradition – a beautiful creature of the waters (sea). Mamlambo, always referred to in the feminine, is hallowed and feared by the amaXhosa, because it is believed that she has entrancing powers, and is known for taking husbands from the uHlanga people.  This is what the Xhosa called their nation after their famous chief who united them with Khoisan people. Also, the name Xhosa, meaning angry man, is what the San called the uHlanga because they were very angry when the San, having no concept of domesticated animals, hunted and ate their cattle seeing them as easy prey. Elsewhere, it is believed that the Beluga name was also used to refer to white people, who were also known as creatures of the sea by the uHlanga, hence the later name aBelungu when white people turned out to be not so benevolent. The name also gained a derogatory connotation as the scum the sea vomits out. But I digress.

It is obvious to me that the change of name at CTIA will not promote the social cohesion intended by the Department of Arts and Culture. It will also not help in correcting the false narratives told of our history as I would have hoped.

Our history, born of the wreckage of our colonial past, is still too raw, hence our approach to it is also still too emotional. Perhaps, we should let the sleeping dogs be and delegate this task to the future generation in the hope that they, more distanced from the past, might be able to be more objective.

Having said all this, my preference would have been Umlindi, which can be loosely translated as the sentinel. I think it has a beautiful ring to it. It means the first to receive the news from the foreign land. Those who sailed to Cape Town spoke of indescribable relief when still from a distance of three days they saw the smoking-cap of Umlindi ready to welcome them to Cape Town.

It also has an obvious common heritage: first between the Khoisan and the Xhosa people, but also with the progeny of white settlers, who are now Africans, themselves, and who might easily be persuaded of the name since the mountain was the first sign of hope for their forefathers who came to settle on the heel of Africa.

Images: Flickr / reworked by Ricardo da Silva SJ

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.