Nelson Mandela Foundation

Names are important. They are not just words, they carry profound significance. They serve as signifiers, bearing the weight of history, culture, and identity. Traditional African names, in particular, are not mere labels, they are repositories of important narratives that facilitate self-actualisation. Factors like the time, date and circumstances of a child's birth contribute to the unique stories behind many African names. Delving into the naming traditions of any ethnic group unveils a treasure trove of insights about the individuals who bear these names.


I am a child born after a miscarriage. And so, to commemorate my life, my parents bestowed upon me the name Lonalinamandla Igazilemvana, which translates to "There is power in the blood of the Lamb." This name encapsulates the depth of my identity, my unique life journey, and my unwavering sense of purpose. Because Home Affairs said it was too long, my parents abbreviated it to ‘Mandlenkosi,’ which signifies the dynamic power of God. Yet even this condensed version is sometimes further simplified to just ‘Mandla’ (power), embracing the essence of my name while also respecting practicality, some would say.

The impact of colonialism on African names is a complex and multifaceted topic that reflects the broader consequences of European colonial rule on the African continent and how it consumed traditions, languages, stories, and origins. Colonialism brought significant changes to African societies, including the ways in which names were chosen and used. Examining this impact involves considering both the adoption of European names and the preservation of indigenous naming practices.

European colonial administrations introduced official record-keeping systems that required individuals to have standardized names for identification and administrative purposes. The Apartheid government implemented a range of measures intended to enforce racial segregation and control the population groups. Inadvertently, officials would at times misspell and manipulate African surnames on official records.

This cultural erasure went further, even to entire families losing their last names. In labour environments where White and Coloured people were preferred, African people, particularly Xhosa families in the Western Cape, changed their names to appear to be from a different race group on official records listing individuals available for employment. This is how many African people have surnames such as Charlie, Tom and Grootboom. This had devastating consequences for families as it often led to confusion, difficulties in locating relatives, and even loss of identity. In some cases, the incorrect capture of birth dates further complicated matters.

European-style names and surnames were also promoted through colonial education systems, where students were encouraged to adopt names that were easier for European teachers to pronounce and remember. This is how Rolihlahla Mandela was given his colonial name ‘Nelson.’ This practice contributed to the gradual erosion of indigenous names.

The origins of many ‘Coloured’ surnames like Van Niekerk, February, and September are also examples of culture erasure. The ‘Coloured’ community in South Africa are descendants of enslaved peoples from places including Madagascar, Mozambique, and Malaysia. Many enslaved people were simply given the surname of their Dutch enslavers while others were given the name of the month in which they arrived by ship to the Cape for their last names.

Despite the pressure to adopt European names, many Africans resisted this cultural imposition. They found ways to preserve their indigenous naming practices, often in secret or within their communities. This resistance was a form of asserting cultural identity.

In the case of renaming part of the regional route R511 from William Nicol Drive to Winnie Mandela Drive, the act itself honours a liberation stalwart who may have been overlooked in the past. This preservation of political and cultural memory helps ensure that important contributions to our communal identity are remembered and celebrated. This allows the South African community to reclaim a public space from the shadow of oppressive historical figures. It transforms the road into a symbol of progress, justice, inclusivity and identity reform.

Reckoning with the past is vital for promoting justice, healing, reconciliation, and social progress. It allows individuals and societies to confront difficult truths, learn from history, and work toward a more equitable future. While it can be a challenging and painful process, the benefits of reckoning with the past far outweigh the difficulties, ultimately contributing to a more just society.

While renaming streets, public spaces and other historic landmarks is just one aspect of reckoning with the past, it can serve as a visible and symbolic step towards a more reflective and inclusive society. It encourages dialogue, education, and reflection on the historical context of the places we inhabit and the names we assign to them. Ultimately, such actions contribute to the broader goal of creating more equitable African communities.

In the marketing world, names are considered one of the most foundational elements of brand identity. Brand identity as a principle encompasses the visual, emotional, and symbolic elements that define an entity and distinguish it from all others. It is a critical aspect of a brand's overall strategy and plays a pivotal role in shaping audience perceptions and building brand love and loyalty. It can evoke feelings, sentiments, and associations that resonate with the audience. A well-crafted brand identity can elevate the perceived value of a product or service.

Increasing a country's brand equity is a strategic process that involves enhancing its image, reputation, and appeal to both domestic and international audiences. A strong country brand can attract investments, tourism, talent, and trade. Understanding that building and increasing a country's brand equity is a long-term endeavour that requires commitment, resources, and a coordinated effort from various stakeholders, when successful, it can lead to improved international relations, economic growth, and a positive global image for the country.

The intersections between renaming public landmarks and preserving political and cultural legacies reflect the ongoing evolution of societal values, notions of inclusivity, and historical understanding. It is a dynamic process that requires careful consideration, public engagement, and a commitment to striking a balance between acknowledging the past and advancing a more just and equitable future for South Africa.

Names are not merely linguistic expressions; they are vibrant threads woven into the rich tapestry of human culture and history. Traditional African names carry huge significance for identity-making and carry family histories. Winnie Madikizela Mandela Drive matters on so many different levels in so many different ways. And we are better as a nation for it.