Lately there has been lots of talk about changing the names of towns, schools and streets. It was an idea that made of sense at the beginning of Independence and many streets, schools and important facilities were indeed changed and renamed after heroes of the liberation struggle.
Yet there seems to be a hidden assumption in the most recent proposal emanating from parliament: that by changing the name of a place the long-standing problems associated with it will also disappear. For example, in South Africa the Transvaal province was renamed as Gauteng, but the internecine problems of mass poverty, inequality, racism and rampant crime remain unaffected.
Reading through readers’ comments on the subject one is struck by the fact that the vast majority of people, both young and old, are totally opposed to changing the name of Windhoek and other well-known places. People are more concerned with other pressing issues affecting the quality of life, such as the crumbling health and education infrastructure, the lack of housing and ever-escalating prices and most people clearly understand that at this point in time the costs associated with changing the name of the capital city do not justify such an expense. Many also point to the fact that changing the name of Windhoek to an indigenous name may also fuel further ethnic tension and confusion.
This issue of names also raises an important question about the nature of our democracy and whether it is inclusive and participatory or elitist. If the majority of the population is clearly opposed to something, can politicians merely ignore the opinions of the people and steamroll over their aspirations? This eccentric campaign to change the name of the capital city and other places reflects above all the great distance between the views of decision-makers and people on the ground.
What is needed on the part of the political class is some sober reflection on our priorities as a country. Changing the names of familiar places can only provide a cosmetic remedy to existing problems. We are faced with the conundrum of addressing the crisis of mass unemployment, hunger, hyper-inflation, dilapidated infrastructure and a shrinking manufacturing base. We need to concentrate our scant resources on solving these urgent problems facing the ordinary people, rather than engaging on very expensive and ultimately hollow gestures, that attempt to create a superficial solution to overcome the legacy of the past, by merely changing the name of the issue. A wound cannot be healed merely by applying different terminology to the disease.
What the situation calls for is an urgent agenda to tackle the massive socio-economic crisis facing the people of our country. It has been reported that one-fourth of children in the south suffer from severe malnutrition and that children are often hospitalised with symptoms of starvation. Indeed many children perish from sheer hunger. In the northern regions, Swedish researchers recently found that many children do not ever grow to their full stature and suffer stunted growth due to a lack of nutrition. Pensioners are struggling against great odds to make ends meet, often while caring for several children and grandchildren.
A genuine and compassionate leadership should apply itself firstly to tackling head-on the root causes of our urgent existential problems, instead of dallying with cosmetic solutions for deep-rooted problems, because public resentment may well resurface with redoubled force.
One can ignore the lessons of history, but we cannot escape the logic of history, which has proven time and again that though one can fool some of the people some of the time, it is not possible to fool all of the people all the time.