Airport renaming an opportunity to honour Cape Town's heroes

I am not a supporter of changing the name of Cape Town International Airport, but I think it is an important discussion for us to have.

I have always believed in a balance between retaining history and creating new things which could be memorialised by naming it after whoever or whatever.

But the current process of considering a possible name change for the airport is giving us an opportunity to learn a little bit about our history. I am fortunate to interact with many people from all walks of life every day, and I have realised that so much of our history is dying because we are not doing enough to keep it alive.

Imagine if, as part of the renaming consultations, learners were encouraged to investigate the history of Cape Town and, especially, the history of people who have played a role in the Struggle in Cape Town.

Many names have been bandied about to be considered for the airport, and many of them are obvious, such as Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela or other Struggle luminaries. However, there are many other people who played a role in the Struggle in the Western Cape, who deserve to be honoured, if not by naming the airport after them, then by some other means.

Some of the names that immediately came to my mind include Oscar Mpetha, Wilfred Rhodes, Zoli Malindi, Johnny Issel, Alex la Guma, Basil February, Christmas Tinto, Coline Williams, Ashley Kriel, Robert Waterwitch, Eddie Daniels, Krotoa, Autshumao, Elizabeth “Nana” Abrahams, Hester Benjamin, Molly Blackburn, Hassan Howa, Frank van der Horst, Dr Abdullah Abdurahman and Cissy Gool.

Philip Kgosana and Professor Jakes Gerwel have been honoured with parts of major roads being named after them, but they probably deserve a bit more recognition.

There are many others who deserve to be on this list, but this is off the top of my head and without consulting any search engines, as most of us do nowadays.

Most Capetonians would probably never have heard of most of these people but, for those of us who were involved in the Struggle, their names and legacy are important.

Of course, there are others who are still alive who should also be honoured, but I have always been nervous about honouring people who are still alive in case they commit indiscretions which could tarnish their legacy. They are human after all.

For those people who are looking puzzled at my list of names, here is some brief information on some of the people who I regard as Struggle heroes.

Oscar Mpetha was a worker and trade union leader who became the Western Cape president of the ANC in 1958 until the organisation was banned in 1960. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1983 after being convicted of terrorism. He spent most of his sentence under armed guard in Groote Schuur Hospital where he had his legs amputated. In this time, he was also elected as one of the co-presidents of the United Democratic Front, an umbrella body of organisations opposed to apartheid.

Mpetha’s co-presidents of the UDF were Albertina Sisulu, who would have turned 100 in October this year, and KZN political veteran Archie Gumede.

Wilfred Rhodes, an activist from the Kensington/Factreton area, was the chairperson of the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee (Cahac), an umbrella body of civic organisations.

For much of his term in Cahac, a young man called Trevor Manuel was the secretary. Rhodes, who passed away in 2002, was also very active in sport. He was probably one of the most decent human beings I had the pleasure of knowing.

Zoli Malindi and Christmas Tinto were of the same generation and, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. But there were differences. They were both involved in the Western Cape Civic Association, a township equivalent of Cahac and both ascended to high positions in the UDF and the ANC.

Johnny Issel was probably one of the most under-rated and under-celebrated leaders in South Africa.

He was active in the student movement at UWC in the 1970s, and in the UDF and the ANC underground in the 1980s, despite suffering many bannings, house arrest orders and detentions. I learnt most of what I know about politics from Johnny, much of which I learnt in secret political classes we had most Saturday mornings.

Coline Williams, Robert Waterwitch and Ashley Kriel were of the same generation of Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrillas who were killed at a young age in Cape Town.

Autshumao and Krotoa were among the first residents of Cape Town who had to deal with the Dutch invaders in innovative ways in order to survive. I could go on and on.

My aim was not to provide a history lesson but to underscore the importance of knowing our history.

Irrespective of what is decided on the name of the airport, it would be good if the process helps us to remember our history and to honour those who sacrificed so much so that this country could be free.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 2 June 2018)