Fri, 25 Jan, 2013
The Grahamstown name-change saga prompts me to consider the political and economic cost of such a move.
Economists are wont to separate economic and political considerations. In practice, it is difficult to do so.
So an argument could be made that changing Grahamstown’s name has no tangible economic benefit and that even if the cost is low the money could be better spent elsewhere.
The argument would be that the symbolic value of ditching “Grahamstown” is outweighed by economic considerations, such as changing marketing materials, signage, the loss of a well-known tourist brand – and more importantly the cost of changing legal documentation.
At the outset let’s realise that any cost argument may not convince the proponents of a name change to stop calling for one.
Though there has been stiff opposition from Afrikaner groups to the proposed change of name from Pretoria to Tshwane, mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa in November last year vowed to change the name whatever the cost or opposition.
Costs can be disputed, and a retreat from a position is defeat.
My first guess was that the direct cost of changing Grahamstown’s name would not be great, involving a few name boards and some stationery and marketing material.
Yet if the Lowveld Chamber of Business and Tourism’s concerns about the name change of Nelspruit, the capital city of Mpumalanga, are correct the cost of a name change is much higher.
According to a City Press report last year the chamber estimated the cost of changing the name of Nelspruit to Mbombela to be around R350 million.
A chamber spokesperson Linda Grimbeek pointed out that not only name boards will have to change, but also items like stationery for local businesses.
The biggest cost to be borne by the municipality however, would be changing “general plans, title deeds and registered bonds on the deeds”.
This would make up most of the R350m cost.
If a name change is going to cost Nelspruit this much, how much will it cost Makana to change Grahamstown’s name?
And has a proper cost-benefit analysis been done?
I find it hard to ascertain the value of the Grahamstown brand. I reckon that the Garden Route, the surrounding game farms, the National Arts Festival and university affect tourist receipts, specifically B&B and other accommodation income, more than any historical meaning of Grahamstown.
Aside from hard figures, there is always the emotional price attached to any major change in the environment in which people live as opposed to the possible benefit.
Many Grahamstown residents will find a change an emotional cost, hard to quantify but nonetheless real. Names evoke nostalgia as well as resentment, and not everybody knows the history of Colonel Graham well enough, or cares enough to want to see part of their personal history vanish.
I suppose that since the people who oppose a name change are considered to be largely white and opponents of the ANC, any resentment at the process is a plus because a name change is then a political victory.
In politics, it has been noted, it is not enough for you to succeed: your opponents must fail.
The political cost for the majority party in the council then is minimal: upsetting people who will not necessarily vote for you. The political benefit is positive, pleasing the members of the party at local and national levels.
Moreover, it’s an easy win.
A name can be changed with much less effort than distributing resources, or erasing other legacies of apartheid and colonialism.
This should be another lesson we draw from the debate.
When the name is changed, the residents of this city can get on with the urgent task of improving the reality that the city name represents.
If this does not happen, the name change will be a bitter reminder of unfulfilled promises of a better life for all.
Moreover, marketing a city as a tourist destination is more useful if the quality of the experience enhances the chance of a repeat visit.
A name change might not even be up for discussion if national politics didn’t dominate local politics.
Local politics might dictate that much more urgent, non-symbolic problems be fixed first, such as the lack of a regular supply of good quality water, and the inefficient collection of rates and taxes.
Finally, there is a cost that isn’t considered, and that is losing the spark for historical memory.
I fear that the very enormity of the colonial conquest of the Eastern Cape that Colonel Graham represented will be forgotten once Grahamstown’s name changes.
I don’t think we should forget or gloss over the brutal reality of colonialism he represents, and his specific crimes against the Xhosa people.