Why South Africa is not really a Country

2010 is a significant year for Africa. 18 African countries will celebrate their 50th birthday anniversaries this year. That makes 1960 the watershed year for African flag Independence. The next most significant year, for comparison, was 1975, when only 5 countries became independent. Although exciting for the young, as we get older (read, disillusioned) birthdays tend to pall somewhat. Still we can rouse ourselves to significant activity for anniversaries like the big 50. Time to revisit some biggish issues.

Like Names. Yesterday I was looking through the roll of African countries and it is clear that their christening was done with a striking lack of imagination. There are two Congos for instance. Okay so it is a VERY great river, and people, but surely someone could have rolled a die. Think of all those hapless foreigners arriving at the Customs desk at Brazzaville to discover that they have the wrong country. I know what I am talking about.

Of course a lot of progress has been made. Thanks to Thomas Sankara, names like Upper Volta have disappeared from the map in favour of the beautiful Burkina Faso. The ‘upper’ in the name represented a spectacular lack of courage anyway. (Upper Congo? Anyone?) Volta was as good a name as any. It was not as if Ghana, which owned most of the River Volta, would have sued – after all, the name Ghana was borrowed from an ancient kingdom located hundreds of miles north of the present day Ghana. So Gold Coast bravely became Ghana, history being a much better inspiration than geography.

Cote d’Ivoire is clearly not impressed. It has refused to shrug off its commodity name like the owners of ‘Pepper Coast, Slave Coast, and Gold Coast.  There is probably a little history in the name now, since ivory exports have slumped somewhat. Of course it may simply be a case of coming late to the party. The great West African empires of antiquity have perhaps been taken, Mali, Benin, Ghana… all spoken for. Yet there is still Kanem-Bornu, Nok, even the great Songhai Empire which crushed the great Mali Empire… and to go further north, there is The Fatimad, which colonized part of Italy in its day… God knows I’d rather be ‘Nokian’ than ‘Ivorien’. But what do I know? I am Nigerian (not to be mistaken for ‘Nigerien’ from Niger)- And while we are much better off than the ‘Slave Coast’ days, there are still too many geographic echoes of ‘Niger area’ in the name that I really ought to bury my own grandmother before agonizing over the disgrace of my neighbours’ unburied ancestors.

Yet, how can I, with Sudan in the picture? I hope the country stays united after its referendum, otherwise we might end up with two Sudans and another geographical spectre of a Northern Sudan playing off a Southern Sudan, adding to the confusion of the poor citizens of South Africa and Central Africa – who will always need a compass and GPS in addition to their passports to tell who and where they are, because although South Africans are southern Africans, some southern Africans (who used to be called South West Africans) are not actually South Africans because they are really Namibians. (Get it?) Well, I just don’t get names like Central Africa Republic. Okay, so it is an African country that is also centrally located… but it is also time for République Centrafricaine to get over its position on the map and pull off a swift Burkinasque manoeuvre. Still I guess some of us have rather more pressing problems than the content of a name tag. Decades ago, one of Nigeria’s founding fathers called his country a mere ‘geographical expression’. No, it’s a long story.

There were three Guineas at last count. – Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Equatorial Guinea. (Will all Guineans in the house please rise? I don’t mean EquatoGuineans, I said Guineans. No, not Guineans from Guinea. I mean Guineans from Guinea Bissau. Exactly.) Of course Equatorial Guinea is the geographical name to end all geographical names. This country is both within the gulf of Guinea, and close to the Equator, which is a good description of Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, Togo, Ghana and most of the rest of West Africa. Names are a bitch. Steeped in emotion, they are impossible to approach objectively – because there is nothing objective about them. A name that means ‘pedigree’ in one language could denote ‘mongrel’ in another. Nothing more clearly illustrates the vexed relationship between negative names and their ‘owners’ than the proud appropriation by some African-Americans of the expletive moniker and abuse, nigger. And nothing more clearly illustrates the pitfalls of the Name than the Republic of Benin, which went, in the 70s, from the redolently historic name of Dahomey (named for a slave-trading 17th Century African State) to Benin (named geographically after the Bight of Benin) in order to assuage the sense of estrangement of the other ethnic groups in the country. Which makes Ghana’s choice of a kingdom miles from its borders, over the logical Ashanti, a masterclass in political name-giving.

There are some countries whose names spring from the deep loam of history, a history counted not in colonial decades but imperial centuries no less, names whose very utterance evokes clouds of ancestors, skeins of consequence… Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan… there are names that gift gravitas, that come with a leavening of a history of histories, whose ancestral spirits strain to reincarnate in the rich loam of today…  Nubia, Kush, Mamluk… and then there are names of more recent provenance which, though ill-fitting, have become the comfortable garments we have worn all our lives. Yet, history starts everyday. 2010’s rash of 50th anniversaries is another opportunity for African nations (some more urgently than most) to look again with an objective blend of subjectivity at their most-referenced bastion of identity, the Name.

In Igboland the parents name the child, but when the child is full-grown he has an opportunity, at his title ceremony, to pick his own name… but as for the really big beast, the name AFRICA itself, well that is clearly the subject of another post.

9 thoughts on “Why South Africa is not really a Country”

  1. I gave a little read to your article entitled “Why South Africa is not really a Country”. My score is: Outstanding. The only reservation that I have is in relation to the level and the line of thinking. I fear that it is far too deep/advanced for a lot of people, including myself, therefore you might need to “put and little water into your wine”.

    The territory which covers the South, South East and Centre of the current Republic of the Ivory Coast was known by the local population as “Eborou Nian”. In “Fanti” and Ashanti, which are languages spoken by the “Akans”, people of the Akan Kingdom. Eborou Nian means the land of the brothers from the other side of the kingdom (Ashanti Kingdom). I think “Eborou Nian” was transformed into “Eburnea”. The French colonisers decided to own the name of the territory by transforming the phonics or phonetics into a familiar name, which coincidently happened to mean Ivory; as well as owning the territory of Eburnea itself. Eburnea or Ivory http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/eburnean is a reference to the elephant tusks. Eburnea does not have any meaning in any of the sixty six (66) languages and sub-languages spoken in the country. I think the colonisers simply dispossesed the local population from their land and named it to its fancy; bit like a name game.
    The name Ivory Coast or Cote d’Ivoire in French was nothing else but another colonial ownership title. In all fairness the British missed several opportunities to named Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and other former colonies like Rhodesia Ivory Land or Ivory Coast because there are many more elephant there.

  2. Thanks Roger,

    On this showing, your mastery of English is far better than my French is ever going to be!

    I really appreciate the perspective you bring on the origin of the ‘Ivory’ in Cote d’Ivoire. Interesting how ‘Eburnean’ is actually Latin for ‘made of Ivory’. Who said it was a dead language? Here it is banging us about the head with a commodified name of a nationstate. From what you say, there is of course no political chance of Ivory Coast transforming into ‘Eburnea’ anytime soon… nice to get talking about it though.

  3. This is good writing. what is in the name. Have you thought of what our names mean. Some believe you are as good as your name. do names of countries have a meaning or are names of convenience given by colonialists.

  4. @Patrick: Well at an individual level, none of us have a say in what names we get. If we are happy with them, we keep them. If not… well that could be the first act of independence, or maturity if you like.

  5. Always wondered why the origin of the name Nigeria. And the republic of Niger and the Niger state in Nigeria and the Niger river. Do you know by any chance?

    1. The name ‘Nigeria’ is attributed to journalist Flora Shaw, who proposed the name in an 1897 UK article. Nigerien/Nigerian… that’s another rich area for confusion you’ve turned up!

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