Thu, Oct 04, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Eswatini acclimates to contentious name change


A woman and her children walk past the former University of Swaziland that is to be renamed the University of Eswatini on Sept. 22 in Lobamba, Eswatini.

Photo: AFP

At the main campus entrance, a large concrete sign welcomes students and visitors to “The University of...” followed by a blank space.

After Swaziland in April changed its name to Eswatini, the nine letters spelling out the old name were removed from the university sign and new letters have not yet arrived.

“We are still waiting,” a security guard said.

On the other side of the road, Banele Syabonga, 25, contemplated his nation’s sudden change of name, which took many citizens by surprise.

“I like the new name — it is more African,” Syabonga, who is unemployed, said while standing outside Lucky’s Hair Cut shop, a tin shack in Manzini.

“Swaziland was the British name. Now we have our own,” he said.

King Mswati III in April marked 50 years since his nation’s independence from British colonial rule by announcing that it would now be known as Eswatini (“land of the Swazis”).

The monarch’s decision, taken without warning or consultation, revealed much about his autocratic rule and his country’s history and poses a logistical challenge as the name change came into immediate effect.

Six weeks after the pronouncement, the nation’s representative informed the UN headquarters in New York City, and the UN soon adopted the new nomenclature.

Regional bodies, including the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, have also quickly changed to Eswatini, although they sometimes swap between names in the same statement.

The adjustment has taken some getting used to inside Eswatini, a landlocked nation of just 1.3 million residents between South Africa and Mozambique.

Senior Swazi officials speaking to reporters during a visit last week repeatedly had to stop and correct themselves mid-sentence.

It is “Swaziland” on the banknotes, but the central bank now uses “Eswatini,” while police stations are gradually changing their signs.

Unlike many nations, such as Zimbabwe — which was called Southern Rhodesia under British rule — Swaziland did not change its name when it became independent in 1968.

“African countries on getting independence reverted to their ancient names before they were colonized,” the king said when he announced the change, having previously complained that Swaziland was often confused with Switzerland.

However, the king’s claim that Eswatini was Swaziland’s old, “authentic” name is fiercely disputed.

“There is disagreement over the precolonial name — many say it was actually ‘Ngwane,’” said Thulani Maseko, an activist and lawyer who is challenging the name change in court.

Ngwane was an ancient name for the Swazi people who settled in the south of the country under King Ngwane III, who ruled in the 18th century.

Swaziland took its name from King Mswati II, who ruled between 1840 and 1868. The area came under joint British and Boer rule in 1894 before becoming a British territory in 1907.

“The name of your country is your identity, so it should not be changed by just one person issuing a royal command,” Maseko said. “It tells you that the king does not consult with the people when he makes fundamental decisions.”

Maseko spent 15 months in jail from 2014 to 2015 for contempt of court after writing about lack of judicial independence, and he accepts that his legal battle over his country’s name faces tough odds.

However, he said he wants to take a stand against the king’s all-encompassing authority.

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