Name change for Pretoria causes heated debate

SOUTH AFRICA: Two tribal kings are the latest opponents of the new name reports Robyn Dixon in Pretoria, South Africa

SOUTH AFRICA: Two tribal kings are the latest opponents of the new name reports Robyn Dixon in Pretoria, South Africa

When the government of South Africa's capital decided to change its name from Pretoria to the "authentic African name" of Tshwane, white Afrikaners were angry and frustrated that the name of one of their heroes was being expunged, while many blacks were proud and happy, even if they weren't quite sure what the name actually means.

But two kings from the Ndebele tribe, which has lived in the area for five centuries, say Tshwane, a tribal leader in the 1600s, was practically a nobody - worth naming a street after, perhaps, but not a city. Better to keep Pretoria than adopt Tshwane, a spokesman for the tribe said.

Tens of thousands of South African names are being changed in a process predicted to take at least a decade, as the South African government continues its campaign to rename not only most cities and towns but the majority of the streets, geographical features and landmarks, erasing much Afrikaner and British colonial history, and making a symbolic break with an apartheid past in which the white minority oppressed the black majority.


The debate goes to the heart of what it means to be South African in the post-apartheid era: To many blacks it symbolizes inclusion and progress, while for most Afrikaners it means exclusion and loss.

Pretoria was named after Andries Pretorius, who led the Afrikaner settlers on a "great trek" from British Cape Town to set up their own settlements inland and defeated Zulu tribesmen in the battle of Blood River in the 1830s. His son, Marthinus, founded Pretoria in 1855 and named the town after his father.

"It's been regarded as the mother city of the Afrikaner people," said Willie Spies of the Freedom Front Plus party, leading the campaign against the change.

Until the two Ndebele kings, King Makhosoke II and King Mayisha, weighed in on the Pretoria debate, the controversy raged along race lines, but the anger it caused in the Ndebele community has opened a new debate on whether the change was a case of political correctness tripping up on poor historical research.

The city government's website explains that Tshwane was a tribal leader but that the name also means "we are the same". Opponents of the move contend that the city's take-your-pick approach on the meaning raises questions about the name's authenticity.

Derek Fleming, a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Alliance party, said the name Tshwane had "as much foundation as the city of Atlantis."

He said the ruling African National Congress "decided this name must be scrapped because in their view it's associated with apartheid, and [ they] cast about for facts to match their political intentions."

Sam Mtsweni, a spokesman for Ndebele community, argued that a better name would be Musi, who was a grandfather of Tshwane and the last Ndebele king who united all the Ndebele tribes in the area of Pretoria. Mtsweni said the kings had been warned by the ANC to stop publicly criticizing the name Tshwane.

The chairman of the names council, Thomas Ntsewa, believes the name has nothing to do with any Ndebele chief. To him the meaning is not important: What matters is that Tshwane is the common name blacks have used for Pretoria for many years.

Premi Appalraju, press spokeswoman for Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, said the issue was one of transformation. "Pretoria was known as Tshwane long before the city was developed."

Ntsewa could not estimate how many names are being changed across South Africa, because they are initiated by local governments. He insisted that the changes would cost nothing, saying the old place name signs would stay on until they fell down or wore out.

In Pretoria's streets, some opinions were predictable. "You're sad about it, because you feel like it's not your country any more," said Yvonne Hartog, 56, a white woman.

But not all black residents were in favour of the change. "I'd like to see it called Pretoria," Henry Mashaba, 23, a student from the Tsonga tribe, said. "Because, even my grandfather, when he was working here, it was called Pretoria.