JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A linguistic storm is brewing in coastal Luderitz, where some residents of the Namibian town are protesting plans to change its name to !Nami#nus.
Those are not typographical errors.
The name, proposed by some local officials and tribal authorities, incorporates click-like sounds in the language spoken by the Nama ethnic group in the southern African nation. Those sounds are often represented in written form with punctuation symbols.
But Luderitz resident Crispin Clay said the proposed name could hurt Luderitz's ability to attract international tourists and might not be recognized by computers and websites.
"Nobody's quite certain how to pronounce or how to spell it," said Clay, noting that a slight mispronunciation of !Nami#nus sounds like a derogatory term for a woman in the local language.
The move to change the name of Luderitz, named after a German colonizer who died in 1886, dovetails with a wider drive in Africa to shed lingering symbols of white rule and reinforce national and indigenous identities.
The history of what is today Namibia is especially traumatic. German occupiers slaughtered tens of thousands of Nama and Herero people after local rebellions in the early 20th century; Luderitz was the site of a German concentration camp in that bloody period.
South Africa occupied the territory after the defeat of German forces there in World War I and later imposed its apartheid system of racial separation. Independence was declared in 1990 after a guerrilla conflict.
A plan to change the name of Luderitz got a boost in 2013 when President Hifikepunye Pohamba referred to it during an address about constituency boundaries ahead of elections. He also approved a recommendation to change the name of Caprivi, a strategic area that was named after a German count and was the scene of past military clashes, to the Zambezi region.
This week, the Namibia Press Agency quoted Suzan Ndjaleka, the mayor of Luderitz, as saying no final decision had been made on the proposed name change.
Opponents of !Nami#nus, which translates roughly as "place embraced by the water," are calling for a referendum and say they may resort to legal action.
The renaming of streets and buildings has been politically contentious elsewhere. Post-apartheid South Africa shed many names from the era of white minority rule, often replacing them with the names of anti-apartheid stalwarts.
Luderitz, which has 20,000 inhabitants, was a boomtown a century ago because of the discovery of diamonds in the area. It is situated on the Atlantic Ocean in a particularly isolated part of Namibia, an arid country of 2 million.
Peter Honey, a former journalist, describes the center of the town as "a time warp with compact, picturesque bay" that lies near "the old prospecting ghost town of Kolmanskop where, if you make your way in, you will find remains of the old dance hall, skittles alley and a smattering of posh houses."
Clay, the Luderitz resident, said nerves are on edge in the normally tranquil town.
"We'll never get the clicks right," he said of the new name.