Dancing the Tambo Tango
Some time ago, in the mid-1990s, Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg (South Africa) was renamed to the infinitely more poetic Johannesburg International Airport. In the spirit of the times, Jan Smuts (being white) was held up as a symbol of apartheid rule. In fact, Jan Smuts opposed the National Party all his life, had quite a few loopy ideas on the holistic nature of the planet and its inhabitants, and was involved in the founding of the League of Nations (forerunner of the United Nations).
On 30 June 2006, Johannesburg International Airport was quietly renamed again, this time to Oliver Tambo International Airport. Now, Oliver Tambo, despite being an ANC luminary and probably all-round splendid fellow, does not appear to match up to the international stature of Jan Smuts.
(In SABC3′s dreadful Great South Africans, Tambo finished as number 31, as opposed to Smuts’s position at number 9. Greatness is not a popularity contest, true, but popularity is a clear indicator of public support.)
According to the Mail & Guardian newspaper:
Department of Transport spokesperson Collen Msibi told the Mail & Guardian Online on Monday that “an overwhelming number of people” have expressed support for the name change, though he could not give exact figures or say whether any objections had been received.
Regardless of how many people supported the name change, I cannot imagine more than a dozen or so of them having hatched the idea. Even worse, I cannot imagine more than a dozen or so of them grasping the impact such a change will have in terms of cost and lost tourism.
Update: A reader of the Sunday Times perhaps comes closest to summing up the pro-renaming camp’s arguments when he writes: “Many if not all of our cities were given either English or Afrikaner names when colonialism took grip of our fatherland.” Of course, this argument holds no water. White settlers didn’t rename existing towns, but rather founded their own in unpopulated areas. An inherently racist argument, but one I believe to be factually correct: an airport like Johannesburg International was largely funded by white taxpayers and white-owned financial institutions, so where is the justification for changing its name?