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A comprehensive language policy will solve the street naming conundrum in Zimbabwe

17 Aug 2020 at 09:02hrs | Views
I wish to add my voice to the recurrent debate over the naming and renaming of geographical places, particularly streets, in Zimbabwe. The debate over the renaming of physical infrastructure such as streets and buildings has been raging since independence in Zimbabwe. It is apparent that the naming and renaming of infrastructure is an ongoing exercise which responds to the changing socio-political environment. Sadly, in Zimbabwe, this naming and renaming has gradually degenerated into an ad hoc, divisive, opportunistic and sporadic exercise which causes widespread consternation each time names are changed particularly at the instigation of politicians. This opinion piece argues that a comprehensive national language policy driven by statutory language bodies is the solution. To effectively dissect this matter, let me briefly start by answering the question, what is in a name?

What is in a name?
A name, in general, is a linguistic symbol used to denote an object, a person or place. Apart from the denotative role, a name countenances the cultural milieu of a people through its connotative meaning. Place names (known also as toponyms in technical circles) reflect a people's perception about themselves and their surroundings including their neighbours. Inevitably, place names, apart from enabling society to identify and differentiate places, carry historical, social, economic, political and religious values of a people. Interestingly place-names have near magical powers to recreate the places they denote thereby helping in the configuration and reconfiguration of culture and history. These place-names are, therefore, more than names, they are reservoirs of the intangible heritage of a people.

As 'visible' historical pedestals, place-names legitimise certain narratives of history at the expense of others. In one of my published research papers, I discuss how the Third Chimurenga was projected by those who executed it through names. Just through the names, the narrative of Chimurenga, including the protagonists, objectives, and strategies were recast. Indeed, place-names push certain narratives into the mundane discourse of the people in a way which makes those who interact with the names celebrate the commemorated person or event sometimes unconsciously and even reluctantly. Names are tags that are forced into the lives of those who interact with the named places, hence politicians manipulate place-names for ideological and propaganda reasons. The discourse on place-names should, inevitably, include symbolic features such as statues which I would want to consider a form of symbolic writing of the name of a person. A statue, in my view is similar to a name because it denotes the person on the statue; when one looks at it they see the person just like when they read orthographic writing. Currently, there is raging debate in Zimbabwe on the relevance of erecting a statue of Mbuya Nehanda in Harare. This points to absence of a policy framework to address such matters.
 Let me now briefly discuss the Zimbabwean place-naming situation from a historical perspective before I give my suggestions for the way forward.

Place-naming in post-colonial Zimbabwe
In the colonial period, the colonisers, by naming the land in their own language, exercised and confirmed the take-over of African land. Many African place-names were overwritten by Anglophonic names in Zimbabwe. There was no written policy but there was a de facto policy that the language of the colonial master should carry the day in every respect. The local oral cartography was shredded and the local people were disoriented as the colonists tried to project the image of terra nullius (land without occupants).

After independence the renaming of places was done in line with the political changes. This renaming and naming was largely symbolic and not conclusive. Those who did it were politicians and not sociolinguists or historians. The fact that these issues of naming and renaming of the geographical landscape keep coming up shows that there is a need for a critical re-look to avoid the repeated erasure of names of roads, streets, and Government Institutions in a way which deforms our intangible heritage as represented by place-names. As I write, in Bulawayo, the city fathers are taking the Government to court over what they call the illegal change of street names in the city. The people of Bulawayo have indicated that the definition of what to commemorate should not be a top-down decision of the politicians. In Masvingo, it is reported in the media that the new street names come from one political party, ZANU PF, ignoring proposals from the councillors to honour, Morgan Tsvangirai, a prominent figure of Zimbabwe's post-independence struggle for democracy. There are many such cases in this country where street names commemorate obscure personalities at the expense of national and regional luminaries. One wonders how the names of obscure personalities find their way into the streets and roads.  Currently the renaming of buildings, streets, roads, and institutions such as Army Barracks could be regarded as opportunistic, sporadic and perhaps propagandist. There is a need to bring this to an end through the adoption of what I term the way forward below.

The way forward
We should take a cue from other countries. The closest useful example is South Africa, where statutory bodies were put in place with the mandate to ensure transparency in the naming and renaming of places. The South African Geographical Names Council Act 118 of 1998 enabled the establishment of a permanent advisory body known as the South African Geographical Names Council to advise the Minister responsible for Arts and Culture on the transformation and standardisation of geographical names in South Africa for official purposes; to determine its objectives, functions and methods of work; and to provide for matters connected therewith. The Council is tasked with providing both the name of each geographical feature and the written form of that name.

Further to the above, the Minister of Arts and Culture in South Africa has the final power to approve or reject a geographical name recommended by the Geographical Names Council. However, any person or body dissatisfied with a geographical name approved by the Minister may lodge an appeal against it. The Council also established a new national place-names database for South Africa. A database is indispensable to the examination of trends in the place-naming patterns. In addition to the Council, there is The Pan South African Language Board, an organisation in South Africa established in 1995 to promote multilingualism, to develop the 11 official languages, and to protect language rights in South Africa. This Board makes critical input into the discourse of renaming and naming of places in South Africa. The process of adopting a name or renaming is grassroots driven and works by consensus. This is to avoid the pitfalls of propagandist self-serving naming which is done on the basis of patronage.

In Zimbabwe, as it stands, we might realise that most of the place-names we are commemorating have been over-commemorated and yet there are many important sons and daughters of Zimbabwe who deserve recognition for their service to the country. A similar Council or Board in Zimbabwe would deal with matters of place-naming, for example, in terms of how many places a person should be honoured with in a province or district. The statutory bodies would work towards the crafting of a policy that would address the modalities of commemorative place-naming including the compilation of a national place-names data base.

The policy might also go beyond mere place-names to deal with issues of empowerment of all languages of Zimbabwe. Such a Commission, Board or Council on language would also decide on how the visible linguistic landscape is used to convey the story of Zimbabwe. In one of my studies, I reflected on the lack of a clear policy position on the visible display of language in the public domain. This Commission or Board, once formed, would spearhead the crafting of a clear cut language policy that effectively deals with the 'what' and 'how' part of commemorative street, road and building naming. The Commission, Council or Board would seek to inscribe our geographical landscape by consensus. Without such consensus, there is a high likelihood of loss of valuable heritage when important names are overwritten by undeserving names.

In South Africa, for instance, all the languages used in a particular community are displayed in the public space on sign posts and public buildings. In Zimbabwe, currently, many would agree with me that we ignore our local languages and use English even where communities are not proficient in it. Our roads have, for example, 'Give-Way', 'Slow Down', and 'Hump Ahead' and there is no due regard to communicate the messages in our indigenous languages. There should be policies to positively promote local languages and to preserve the intangible heritage of communities as represented by languages and place-names. Leaving this very important job to politicians is just unwise because politicians, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, have generally not performed their roles in a way that deserves trust from the general populace. In the hands of irresponsible people, political power might be like a stray rocket which hits where it should not, causing immense destruction, in this case in terms of loss of cultural heritage as represented by names of places.

Until and unless we adopt transparent strategies of inscribing and re-inscribing the landscape, there will always be consternation over place-naming in Zimbabwe. The power to name and rename the landscape should always be arrogated to the communities to ensure that our heritage is not corrupted by political objectives. It is time as a country we harness our linguistic, historical, cultural, political, economic and religious knowledge to come up with a clear cut language policy which puts to rest bickering over the renaming of streets, roads, suburbs, buildings, hospitals, airports, and Army barracks, among others. We would agree that 40 years after independence we should be working towards finding names for new infrastructure and not recycling names in a country with numerous heroes and heroines from different spheres of life. We should always avoid a situation where names are seen on partisan lines because once a certain old order gives way to a new order, the names associated with the old order would invariably tumble causing the inadvertent loss of cultural heritage.

Dr Vincent Jenjekwa, Email:; Language Research Fellow, Midlands State University Language Institute. The views expressed here are not views of MSU Language Institute.

Source - Dr Vincent Jenjekwa
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