Gqeberha (formerly known Port-Elizabeth)

South African city of Port Elizabeth becomes Gqeberha

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.

Gqeberha, the new name for the city of Port Elizabeth is the Xhosa name for the Baakens River, which flows through the city.

Xhosa is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages and one of the few in the world that has a “click” sound, which can be difficult for non-Xhosa speakers to master.

Gqeberha is one of a number of name changes to cities, towns and airports in the Eastern Cape province announced by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

The city’s airport is now named after David Stuurman, a leader of the Khoi people who fought colonialists in the 19th Century.

He was among the first political prisoners to be jailed on Robben Island off Cape Town – from which he once escaped. He died in Australia where he had been transported to serve a life sentence.

Why choose a ‘tongue-twister’?

Words By BBC’s Pumza Fihlani, Johannesburg

The name changes have got people talking – and while some have taken to social media to either ask for help on how to pronounce them, others are simply confused if not even a little irritated about why the names were changed in the first place. 

Xhosa’s tongue-twister sounds do not come naturally to non-Xhosa speakers – even many black South Africans. So it’s likely that many will still use the names they know.

So why the change? Officials believe changing some of the country’s many colonial- or apartheid-legacy names will help bring dignity to the black communities living there. 

It is part of a call made by the arts and culture minister last year for an audit of offensive names. It is seen as a way of writing black people into history. 

Not everyone is happy about the new names and the matter has been dragging on for several years, with residents submitting objections.

A petition to keep the name Port Elizabeth, often shortened to PE, started more than a year ago has more than 32,000 signatures – garnering several thousand on Wednesday following the official change.

Gqeberha was commonly known as PE and is the financial hub of the Eastern Cape (image source: Getty Images)

Port Elizabeth was founded in 1820 by British settlers and named in memory of the late wife of the Cape Colony’s then governor. 

Some see the name changes as a waste of money at a time when the economy is struggling. Michael Cardo, an opposition Democratic Alliance MP, said that the Eastern Cape had the highest unemployment rate in country, according to official statistics.

White-minority rule ended in South Africa in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela, but it has been slower than most African countries in changing place names that reflect earlier colonial rulers.

Some cities have, like the capital, Pretoria, kept their name but the local government areas under which they come have been renamed.

For example, Pretoria is in Tswane Metropolitan Municipality and the city of Durban it in eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality.


Here’s a video to help you practice the pronunciation of PE’s new name

South Africa’s name changes

Here are some of the name changes to familiarise yourself with.

Cities:

  • Was Port Elizabeth – now Gqeberha
  • Was Uitenhage – now Kariega

Towns:

  • Was Berlin – now Ntabozuko
  • Was MaClear Town – now Nqanqarhu
  • Was King William’s Town – now Qonce

Airports:

  • Was Port Elizabeth International Airport – now Chief Dawid Stuurman International Airport 
  • Was East London Airport – now King Phalo Airport
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