District Six Museum man makes naming committee

Matthew Nissen stands at the very spot, in Rochester Street, District Six, where his grandfather, Martin Wessels once lived. Mr Nissen was part of the District Six Museum’s team that spearheaded the renaming application of the area to District Six from Zonnebloem.

Aspiring historian Matthew Nissen, 35, from Rondebosch, has been appointed by Cultural Affairs and Sport MEC Anroux Marais to serve on the province’s geographical names committee.

The Western Cape Provincial Geographical Names Committee (WCPGNC) assists in the standardisation of geographical names in the province by making recommendations to the South African Geographical Names Council (SAGNC) and the national Minister for Arts and Culture.

Simply put, for any renaming application to be taken seriously, it needs to be made to the WCPGNC.

Mr Nissen holds a Bachelor of Applied Social Science with an Honours degree in curatorship. He completed further studies at the South African College of Applied Psychology in counselling and communication, and is currently completing his Master’s degree in digital curation with the Department of Knowledge and Information Stewardship at UCT.

Mr Nissen says a deep love of history was instilled in him from a very young age. He is currently working as a project manager on the District Six Museum’s Oral History Project.

“A few years ago, I was part of the museum’s team that had begun the process to have the name District Six restored from Zonnebloem.

“After meeting with the WPGNC, we embarked on a door-to-door campaign in District Six, as well as an online campaign. We asked people and businesses to sign a letter, indicating if they wanted it or not, and that became part of our portfolio of evidence according to what was required by the committee and the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act. It was really amazing to see people’s reasons for responding yes and no.”

Mr Nissen says names have importance because they are symbolic or something or signal a moment in time. “For example, Maynardville, in Wynberg, comes from an 1820 settler called John Maynard, who came to the Cape and had built himself a grand home as he had become a man of means. So although his estate is no longer there, we carry the memory of it, as it marks the importance of what was once there.”

In turn, he says, signage can be an important form of acknowledgement. “We know that features in our beautiful cape had Khoi and San names. An important thing is not erasing current names unless they are offensive, rather taking a further step at adding them to current signage officially, so when you drive past and see the sign Liesbeek river, the one might be English, but the next might be Khoi. It creates a space of acknowledgement in our history, which will be a powerful step.”

Mr Nissen will be formally inducted into the committee by the end of November. In the meantime, he is assisting Wynberg East Civic Association with its application to have the Palmerston School on Hayes Road, Wynberg, declared a provincial heritage site.