South Africa's Port Elizabeth changed for Xhosa 'click language' name Gqeberha to cut colonial ties

Peta Thornycroft
·3 min read
Nelson Mandela Bay in Gqeberha - GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Nelson Mandela Bay in Gqeberha - GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

South Africans are learning how to pronounce the name of one of its most famous port cities after it was given a new non-colonial moniker that starts with a gutteral click.

Port Elizabeth, a port and tourism gateway named after a 19th century British governor’s wife, was officially renamed Gqeberha, a Xhosa word for the Baakens River which flows through the city, on Tuesday.

When pronounced by a native Xhosa speaker, Gqeberha has a guttural click sound at the beginning of the word, which non-Xhosa speakers can find difficult to master. Several people have posted how-to videos on Twitter and Youtube to explain the word is pronounced "click-bear-gha".

The swap was one of seven colonial-era name changes announced this week by Nathi Mthethwa, the arts and culture minister.

Uitenhage, a town not far from Port Elizabeth, is now Kariega. MaClear Town has become Nqanqarhu, and King William's Town is now Qonce, another name requiring mastery of a Xhosa click - there are dozens of different click sounds in the language.

One of the new names that might be easier for non-Xhosa speakers to pronounce is the one for Gqeberha’s airport, which has been renamed after David Stuurman, a chieftain of the Khoi people who fought against British and Dutch colonials in the early 19th century.

Stuurman was one of the first people to be jailed on the infamous Robben Island off Cape Town. He escaped several times before he was transported to Australia on a life sentence. He died there in 1830,

Port Elizabeth was founded by British colonists in 1820, and is the largest city in the eastern cape province.

Xhosa, the language of Nelson Mandela, is spoken by about one-seventh of the population. South Africa has 12 official languages.

The renaming campaign is is part of a programme to use indigenous place names in an effort to restore dignity stripped from black people during the long colonial and Apartheid eras.

The new names in the Eastern Cape province were first submitted to the state’s “geographical committee five years ago and have been subject to intense public debate.

Denver Webb, a historian at the Nelson Mandela University, in a recent paper criticised the slow pace of change and called on South Africans to "embrace name changes and come together to arrive at a set of names that reflects our diversity and that supports our constitutional principles."

Not everyone is happy about the change, however.

Several thousands of people have signed petitions opposed to the move, complaining that many, including non-Xhosa black South Africans, may struggle to say it.

“I have no problem in changing postcolonial names, but only those who speak Xhosa, and can do the click sound, will know how to pronounce it,” said Max du Preez, the editor of an Afrikaans digital newspaper Vrye Weekblad.

There have been several name changes since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

The national capital is officially, Tshwane, but many still say Pretoria. South Africa’s main port, Durban, is officially eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality.