Street names and statues: How to mark a legacy

Words: Jaco Prinsloo


In March 2015, students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa began protesting the presence on campus of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the British mining magnate, politician and arch-imperialist who left an indelible impression on the history of the continent. According to Zethu Matebeni, a senior researcher at the university’s Humanities in Africa Institute, and a member of the #Rhodesmustfall movement, the statue attested to the ideas that Rhodes himself promoted: the elitism of the white race and Rhodes’ own colonial conquests from Cape to Cairo. 

The protests initially involved acts of civil disobedience and disruption of campus activities, but soon became more fraught, with university property being damaged and buildings looted and burned. The #Rhodesmustfall campaign fiercely divided opinion in the media and public discourse, but protests eventually spread to most other universities nationwide, and soon encompassed wider ideologies like racial transformation and the decolonisation of education.

Even before the polarising events at UCT, a similarly divisive battle over legacy and history had been raging in the country for years, with the issue of geographical place names constituting the front line. Since the arrival of white settlers on the subcontinent in 1652, geographical naming had reflected an oppressive history, and place names like Durban, Uitenhage and King Williams Town entrenched the histories of a multitude of conquering colonialists, as well as the leading lights of apartheid, the system of legislated discrimination through which the white minority government had marginalised the black majority during most of the twentieth century. 

In 1996, two years after the Nelson Mandela-led African National Congress won the country’s first democratically contested elections, the government initiated a wide-ranging renaming programme to ensure that place names were more representative of the people who lived in them. The programme also sought to remove references to apartheid-era personalities like HF Verwoerd and PW Botha that many found offensive, and that served as daily reminders of a painful past and the continued unsatisfactory pace of social and economic transformation. 

Hundreds of heroes of the struggle against apartheid, as well as Black historical figures, were honoured by having municipal regions, towns, airports, highways, streets and buildings named for them. Some names were officially changed to reflect what they had been called colloquially, or to revert to pre-colonial era monikers. So, for instance, Pietersburg became Polokwane, Warmbaths became Bela-Bela (an almost-direct translation from English to Sesotho), and the municipality that includes Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage and Despatch became the Nelson Mandela Metropole. 

It was a controversial and expensive exercise that was subject to withering criticism from inception.  Some questioned how the renaming of a few places could heal collective suffering, and if funds should not rather be spent on building schools, hospitals, roads and economic infrastructure. But most considered the programme a vital step to heal painful memories, and supported the effort to begin to tell the stories that had previously been forgotten, obscured or distorted.

Those stories are the stories of people like Nkosi Maqoma. 

Nkosi, or Chief, Jongumsobomvu Maqoma was born in 1798, to Notontho, the Right Hand (or second) Wife of King Ngqika, of the Rharhabe division of the Xhosa nation, near the town of Keiskammahoek in what is known today as the Eastern Cape province. The lands of the amaXhosa spanned a vast, fertile area between the Indian Ocean coastline to the south-east and the expansive Drakensberg mountain range to the north, and were bounded roughly by the Kat and Kei Rivers in the west, and the Umgungondlovu River and the lands of the amaZulu people in the north east.  At the time of Maqoma’s birth, the westernmost region of the Xhosa kingdom was also the eastern frontier of the British settlement known as the Cape Colony, a border which was rapidly expanding eastward. 

As a young leader, Maqoma had initially agreed with his father’s tactics of compromise with and appeasement of the colony, until eventually all diplomatic options were exhausted, and he was belatedly forced to join a military conflict against a British force that was overwhelmingly superior in numbers and weaponry, but woefully under-prepared and tactically naïve. 

In 1996, two years after the Nelson Mandela-led African National Congress won the country’s first democratically contested elections, the government initiated a wide-ranging renaming programme to ensure that place names were more representative of the people who lived in them.

Maqoma was a reluctant warrior, renowned as much for his eloquence, razor-sharp intellect and political shrewdness as his battlefield bravery and military acumen. He was also tactically astute, strategically brilliant and a formidable enemy, and conducted several hugely successful guerrilla campaigns against British forces and settlers in the Amathole Mountain region of the Eastern Cape between 1834 and 1857, during the so-called ‘Frontier Wars’, also known as the Xhosa Wars of Dispossession. The resistance of Maqoma and other Xhosa leaders like Ndlambe, Tyali and Sandile delayed the inexorable advance of colonialism for a century, but more importantly defended the natural right of the amaXhosa to their land.

Maqoma was first captured by British forces in 1858, and was banished for 21 years, along with his wife Katyi, to Robben Island in Table Bay – one of the first political prisoners of the infamous island prison in which Nelson Mandela and various other Struggle icons would also later be held captive. They were paroled after 12 years, after which Maqoma promptly returned to his homeland to resume his struggle. He was recaptured in 1871, and again sent to Robben Island, this time without Katyi.

Nkosi Maqoma died on Robben Island on the 9 September 1873. His passing was witnessed by an unnamed visiting Anglican priest, who noted that he ‘cried bitterly, before dying of old age and dejection.’ He was buried on the island in an unmarked grave.

Already during Maqoma’s lifetime, but increasingly after his death, colonialist historians, writers and newspaper editors with vested interests began to target his legacy for distortion and misrepresentation. He was variously labelled a drunken troublemaker, absconder and cattle thief, and many similarly tainted representations of his legacy persisted well into the twentieth century. These charges were often convincingly refuted by contemporary witnesses with a greater insight into the complexities of the untenable Xhosa position of the period, and are also not reflected in the oral traditions of Maqoma’s amaJingqi clan.   

More than a century after his death, his grave on Robben Island was identified with the help of a seer and traditional healer named Nomatombi Sonandi, and his remains were re-interred on the 3 August 1978, at the summit of Ntaba ka Ndoda near Keiskammahoek, a mountain that had played a significant role in his life and military career. A monument was constructed alongside his grave, but even in death, Maqoma’s story was being misappropriated and degraded. The memorial had been commissioned by President Lennox Seebe, the leader of the Ciskei: a quasi-independent puppet state installed in the region by the apartheid-era South African government of the twentieth century. 

The residents of Maqoma’s homeland saw the monument, opened in 1981, as a cynical attempt by Seebe to lend a veneer of legitimacy to his faux-presidency, and to ingratiate himself with the apartheid government. They considered it a gross abuse of Maqoma’s powerful legacy, and rejected it outright. The monument soon became abandoned and neglected, never to host the grand events that Seebe had envisioned, with the wide, lush lawns instead offering plentiful grazing to the large herds of cattle of the surrounding communities. 

The statue of Cecil John Rhodes was removed from the Upper Campus of the University of Cape Town on 9 April 2015. And in spite of continued criticism, 24 years since its initiation, the South African government’s renaming programme continues unabated. In September 2020 the CEO of the Nkosi Jongumsobomvu Foundation, Vuyo Fani, called on government to rename the town of Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape in honour of Nkosi Maqoma, so that perhaps, this time, the Chief’s legacy may be properly enshrined.

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Jaco Prinsloo is a writer and tour guide in South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.