Welcome to Gqeberha: if this name may seem unpronounceable to you, rest assured, it is also for many South Africans.

After two years of tough negotiations, the Minister of Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, on Wednesday February 24, formalized the name change of Port Elizabeth as well as of the airport and a dozen other cities in the country.

"This name change is part of a government program to transform visible elements of our cultural heritage. Place names must reflect the identity and heritage of the South African people," Nathi Mthethwa said.

The city of 300,000 inhabitants now bears a Xhosa name, one of South Africa's eleven official languages, spoken by eight million people.

Among the famous personalities of Xhosa origin, we can quote Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu or the singer Miriam Makeba.

"This country needs to build a history which ceases to glorify a past of oppression. It is necessary to change as many names as possible so that the black majority finally feels included", rejoices a resident questioned by CNN.

Reluctance to change

But this new name is far from unanimous.

A petition opposing the name change has garnered over 32,000 signatures.

Some inhabitants point to the difficulty of pronunciation of the Xhosa language, which has the particularity of adding to the traditional linguistic sounds of the clicks of the mouth, tongue and palate, called "click".

On social networks, the new challenge is to film yourself trying to pronounce "Gqeberha" while tutorials teach Internet users the intricacies of xhosa.

Gqeberha - I'll DM you my invoice (my rha is really soft because I was whispering) 😂😂😂😂 https://t.co/pLiEIrBhCT pic.twitter.com/HMTvJjEKOG

- South African Traveler (@African_Odyzzee) February 24, 2021

The arguments against change are also economic.

Because changing signs, maps… is expensive.

In this region of the Eastern Cape, one of the poorest in South Africa, some believe that the money could be put elsewhere. 

Michael Cardo, an opposition deputy, tweets ironically: "The region has an unemployment rate nearly 10 points higher than the national average, but at least we have new names. Hashtag progress."  

The Eastern Cape has the highest unemployment rate in the country, according to today's Quarterly Labor Force Survey (52.4% on the expanded definition, almost 10 percentage points more than the national rate).

But, hey, its towns and airports have a new bunch of names.

#Progress https://t.co/qf6I6REe1b

- Michael Cardo (@michaelcardo) February 23, 2021

Others are worried about the attractiveness of the city and fear that this name, difficult to pronounce at first glance, still weighs down tourism in the region a little more.

>> To read on France 24: young South Africans mobilize to bring down the symbols of apartheid

Decolonize memories

Since the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, many provinces, streets and towns have been renamed with the aim of placing black communities at the heart of the country's history.

However, some Afrikaners fear that these measures, recommended at the time by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, will destroy part of their identity.

The name change of Port Elizabeth is part of this process of decolonization of memories and public space.

Founded in 1820 during British colonization, the city was named after the late wife of the then governor, Rufane Donkin, who was called Elizabeth.

As for the city's airport, its name was changed to "Chief Dawis Stuurman International Airport", named after a 19th century activist who fought against the Dutch and British administrations.

The government has assured that other major cities could soon follow this example such as Cape Town, Durban, Brandfort or East London.

Until now, these name changes have concerned urban metropolises.

Thus, Pretoria, the capital, while retaining its original name, has belonged for ten years to the metropolis of Tshwane.

In 2017, a debate had also stirred public opinion to put an end to the name "South Africa", inherited from the English colonists.

According to Nathi Mthethwa, also Minister of Culture at the time, the country should have changed its name after gaining independence in 1961, as did many African countries.

More recently, in 2018, for 50 years of its independence, Swaziland was renamed Eswatini, its name from pre-colonial times.

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