There have been calls especially from councillors and other local authorities for the decolonisation of Francistown by changing both its name and names of its streets.
Significantly, Francistown, named after a gold-digger from England, Daniel Francis, has got the abiding distinction of being the only town in Botswana with a colonial name. Over the years, several motions have been adopted by the town council, the last one being in 2008, to rename Francistown to Nyangabgwe, its traditional name.
Calls have also been made to change the names of streets such Blue Jacket Street, Baines Street, Francis Avenue, Francis Driveway, Moffat Street, Guy Street and Feitelberg Street in favour of names that are more commemorative of the history and culture of the indigenous population because names say a lot about who is in charge.
In Botswana, the call for the renaming of places especially in Francistown reflected the pan-Africanist ethos of the Botswana Peoples’ Party (BPP) of the 1960s which emphasised Marcus Garvey’s slogan of “Africa for the Africans.”
Even back in the pre-independence and post-independence days the BPP had called for the decolonisation of Francistown by renaming it Nyangabgwe after a hillock nearby.
Latter-day calls for the renaming of Francistown and its streets to reflect the local history was no doubt, inspired by developments in countries such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, among others, where place names were changed either to honour local heroes and heroines at the expense of racists and exploiters or to reflect the history of the place.
Pundits view the renaming of places as being part of correcting past injustices. Some believe that, it is the duty of every government to create local models by naming places after local heroes. After independence, Bechuanaland became Botswana while Gaberones changed to Gaborone, the original name of the place.
Southern Rhodesia was an amalgamation of Mashonaland and Matebeleland, but subsequently, it became Zimbabwe-Rhodesia before being renamed Zimbabwe. Although racial bigotry was rampant in Francistown where whites-only hotels, bars and night clubs abounded, the call for the change of names has surprisingly not elicited any urgency.
Obviously irked by the history of racism in Francistown, those calling for the colonial names to be erased are disgusted that Francis and his ilk neglected to develop the place. When an occupying power renames a place, the intention is to “erase” the history, culture and identity of the locals.
The change of the local names signifies power and control by the new rulers. By clamouring for the renaming of Francistown and its streets each time the motion was debated, the Councillors argued that they were reclaiming their history, identity and dignity.
Conquered communities were given place names that reflected settler history. Perhaps to assuage their sense of nostalgia, in some instances, colonisers named a place after where they originated in the metropolis. This must have given them the sense of ‘feeling at home.’
For example, America, which is a former British colony, has names such as New England, New Hemisphere, New York from their English colonisers. Considering themselves the standard bearers, the colonisers believed that the indigenous populations they subjugated, had no history worth preserving let alone celebrating.
They considered colonialism as some kind of rescue operation for which the colonised communities should be grateful. The suppression of the locals by way of giving their places colonial names did not immediately and completely erase those traditional names from the memory of the local people.
Resistance came in many different ways. Some continued to use the indigenous names albeit failing to save them from disappearing from everyday usage especially by the youth. With the technology they had, the colonisers, backed by official power derived from the political power they possessed, were able to codify the colonial names while the traditional ones remained unwritten.
The result was that, the traditional names ultimately faded from use. Needless to say, in countries where hard colonialism was practised and where the locals had to fight for their liberation such as in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and such like, place names mean a lot.
Meanwhile, things are not as emotive in Botswana. There is no doubt that the relative radicalism in the demand for the renaming of Francistown and its streets displayed by Francistown councillors including those from the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) such as Peter Ngoma and James Kgalajwe, whose party is known for its ultra-conservatism, emanates from the fact that under the Tati Company, Francistown experienced what some call hard colonialism.
Ominously for the success of the project, the call for the renaming of places in Francistown has never been people-driven. Instead, it always came from political leaders who were accused of being attention-seekers driving a political agenda. Alternatively, they were labelled tribalists especially when they advocated for the change of the town’s name from Francistown to Nyangabgwe which is a Kalanga name.
Ngoma and Kgalajwe remain hopeful that their goal of decolonising Francistown name-wise will be achieved. “I remain convinced that it is the right thing to do. I am committed to revisiting the matter although I cannot say when. I believe that the occasion of independence should be accompanied by changes that reflect the fact that your towns are no longer centres of colonial power,” said Ngoma.
For his part, Kgalajwe said that it would be wrong to act as if it is business as usual as far as place names is concerned. “Those who want to preserve the history that degraded us should be reminded that history resides in the history books. Place names must reflect what we are now and not what we were before independence,” said Kgalajwe who added that, he intends to resubmit his 2008 motion on the change of names.
“It is not only street names that must change. Francistown must be renamed Nyangabgwe,” said Kgalajwe. Not everybody sees the need for the change of colonial names even if it is for the elimination of any vestige of white oppression like in South Africa.
Says one G. E Turley of South Africa: “If it is necessary to rid this province of every last vestige of colonial rule why not demolish all cities, towns, roads and factories built by colonialists and start afresh.” His take is that, instead of wasting money on changing names and confusing business when new directories and street maps, the money should be used to create jobs, provide water, housing, health care and other more pressing services to the people.
“It amounts to window dressing at best and a waste of resources at worst,” he said.