`Africanizing' of names brings protest

Afrikaners say plan to rename places attacks their culture

March 02, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Residents of South Africa's Northern Province were never entirely pleased by the name of their corner of the country. "Northern" was not descriptive enough to capture the beauty of this land of baobab trees, game parks and sun-filled days, people complained. In fact, it said close to nothing about their home.

So provincial authorities announced last month that they would rename the province Limpopo, after the "great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River," celebrated by Rudyard Kipling, that forms South Africa's border with Zimbabwe.

And if provincial leaders stopped there, maybe none of the trouble would have started.

But Limpopo province officials decided it was time to revise the entire map. Not only would the name of the province be changed, but so would dozens of cities, villages and streets, as an effort to "Africanize" the province.

"More than 300 years ago, the African was subjugated to colonial rule. In the process, we lost everything, including our right to our own names," the premier of the province, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, told the provincial legislature last month. "With that our sense of self-esteem suffered a massive blow. Part of the task of the liberation struggle is to regain the humanity of the Africans, including their right to call themselves by their own names."

The news was met by howls of protest from Afrikaners, the white descendents of South Africa's Dutch settlers and the architects of the old apartheid regime. They viewed the changes as an attack on their culture. Most offensive, they said, were plans for the provincial capital, Pietersburg - a frontier town of broad avenues and flowering trees named after a white Afrikaner general - to become Polokwane, meaning place of peace.

Pietersburg's white residents, who make up the majority of the city's population, took to the streets in protest, threatening to withhold their taxes if they lost their city's historic name.

"What I want to know is what is really behind this? Is it a message to whites to pack their bags and go? Is it racism?" asked Koos Kemp, the former mayor of Pietersburg, who is leading a fight to defend the old South African names.

The controversy is not isolated to Limpopo province. In recent weeks, South Africa has experienced a wave of name changes proposed by local governments - run by the black majority African National Congress party - who want to reclaim the country's black heritage.

Officials in neighboring Mpumalanga province plan to rename all their cities, towns, streets, bridges, rivers and streams. The premier of the Western Cape, home to Cape Town, has joined the movement, too, promising to eliminate all derogatory and insulting names. Eastern Cape is mulling over changes as well.

In 1994, the new South African government led by Nelson Mandela limited name changes to reassure the white population as the country took its first steps as a new democracy.

Now, eight years later, South Africa is following the path of African nations that sought a new image after gaining independence from colonial powers. Rhodesia, upon gaining independence from Great Britain in 1980, became Zimbabwe. Rhodesia's capital, Salisbury, became Harare.

In the past year, the South African seaside city of Port Elizabeth has become Nelson Mandela. East London is now called Buffalo City. Leaders of Johannesburg, named after the Afrikaner surveyor who planned the city, have debated off and on whether to rename the country's economic hub Egoli, which means "city of gold" in Zulu. South Africa's capital, Pretoria, has been absorbed into a mega-city that includes the surrounding suburbs called Tshwane, meaning "we are the same."

In the United States, street names may change from time to time and North Dakota has debated whether a new name might change the state's cold and dull image. But nothing has matched the scale of what is being proposed in South Africa. Mpumalanga officials, for example, have drawn up a list of 2,400 place names for review.

For South Africa's black population, the renamings are welcome and overdue changes, according to Pontsho Mabelane, director of culture and language for Mpumalanga province. "We have a situation where there are some names taken from abroad like Belfast and New Castle," she said, "and we have names that remind us of our bad history of apartheid."

For example, the town Kaffirs- kraal - kaffir is a derogatory Afrikaans word to describe blacks. Daggakraal gets its name for dagga, the South African term for marijuana.

It is unclear what has driven the sudden flood of renaming proposals. Some critics suspect that it might be an easy means for the government to create the appearance of transformation and progress in a country troubled by unemployment, AIDS and poverty. Supporters, however, say the country is finally making changes that should have been made years ago.

Whatever the reason, the way forward will not be easy.

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