Where the hell are we?

2014-03-09 06:00

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As nine new provinces were invented and place names changed, changed again and changed back to what they were before, Daniel Mothowagae navigates a democratic South Africa.


Former world 800m champion and 2012 Olympic medallist Caster Semenya says her generation never called their home town Pietersburg.

“I tell the world that I’m from Polokwane,” she says.

Simon Mphahlele from Seshego township says Pietersburg sank without a trace.

Mphahlele (33) says the Pietersburg-to-Polokwane name change happened without any fuss in February 2002.

It is different with Warmbaths/Bela-Bela, at least for Giyani resident Willy Nyiko Mkhari (36) who prefers his vacations in Warmbad, Afrikaans for “warm bath”.

Bela-Bela, in the Waterberg district, was transformed from a farm into a township and later a village town before it was granted town council status in 1960.

So it has had numerous names: from Bela-Bela to Het Bad to Hartingsburg to Warmbaths or Warmbad and back to Bela-Bela.

Louis Trichardt or Makhado? I asked Tivhalitshi Phosa, who lives there.

“It’s Makhado, as some of us have known it to be before it became Louis Trichardt.”

Like many other towns in South Africa, Louis Trichardt had its origins in the Voortrekker settlement dating back to 1836, Phosa reminds me, tossing founder Louis Trichardt (Tregardt) into the subject. In 2003, when Makhado was proposed, it was opposed by a local group who won their Supreme Court appeal.

But eight years later the government gazetted the renaming of Louis Trichardt to Makhado anyway. There is significant local opposition.


The name of the provincial capital was officially changed from Nelspruit to Mbombela in October 2009 – it is a siSwati name meaning “a lot of people in a small space”.

As 52-year-old Louis Maluka, a motor mechanic from KaNyamazane township, says: “I have stayed in Nelspruit my entire life and I’d rather call this town Naspoti, as it is commonly known to most residents.” The name is used even by local businesses in the CBD.

Maluka proclaims that he and other residents – as well as businesses – feel that Nelspruit is not a politically offensive name, and, as the place is already a suburb of the Mbombela local municipality, renaming it will cause unnecessary confusion.

The Kruger Lowveld Chamber of Business and tourism took on the national department of arts and culture in a bid to have the city’s name revert back to Nelspruit.

The chamber’s legal team argued in the North Gauteng High Court in November that there had been no proper consultation with the public after around 23 000 residents signed a petition opposing the name change. Judgment is awaited.

Eastern Cape

After Limpopo (318) and Mpumalanga (136), the Eastern Cape is home to the most name changes (134), based on the 2010 statistics from the South African Geographical Names Council.

The most notable changes simply corrected misspelt names in the now defunct Ciskei and Transkei.

The former capitals of the two bantustans were corrected from Bisho to Bhisho and Umtata to Mthatha, respectively.

Bhisho is isXhosa for buffalo and also the name of the river that runs through the tiny town.


Peter Thabethe, from Phiri in Soweto, says he can’t remember ever referring to the Old Potch Road by its new name, Chris Hani Road.

The arterial thoroughfare into the sprawling south western township changed its name in 2008, the same year Roodepoort Road was renamed Elias Motsoaledi – and nobody seems to have a problem with that change.

But “it sounds a bit weird when I say Chris Hani Road”. However, “the new generation will flow with all the post-94 changes”.

Will they? Typical of most Sowetans, the change does not make any difference to 18-year-old Cyprian Maluleke, who was raised in a Chiawelo home where every grown person refers to the road that passes by their section as Old Potch.

Old Potch Road (oops, Chris Hani Road) no longer connects to Potchefstroom.

It terminates in Midway, the industrial area on the western side of Soweto, where it joins the N12.

But it will take a long while to forgo “Old Potch”, particularly when businesses like the Virgin Active gym near the Maponya Mall still give out their addresses as “Chris Hani Road (Old Potchefstroom Road)”.

North West

My late uncle (53), who was a warrant officer, would simply say “Mafikeng” every time he spoke about his place of residence.

Mafikeng – which means place of stones – was misspelled Mafeking by the British colonists but it was subsequently corrected to Mafikeng under the new dispensation.

A submission by the Barolong-Boo-Ratshidi Tribal Authority to the South African National Geographic Council in 2010 led to the tiny town’s new name of Mahikeng.

Some residents argued that priority should rather be given to the speeding up of service delivery.

Early last year, political parties in North West were at war when the ANC suggested the province be changed to struggle stalwart Moses Kotane’s name because North West was “just a direction”.

Free State

One day in late 2012, Jabulani “Jigga” Mbanjani was travelling from Johannesburg to Bloemfontein and he almost drove past the off-ramp that leads to his home town of Rocklands.

“I know my way home with my eyes closed,” he says. The problem was in the signage; it read Raymond Mhlaba instead of Andries Pretorius.”

Mbanjani was speaking about the after-effects of renaming eight streets in 2012.

“You can’t recall all these new names. Even worse, my GPS is one of the many that has not picked up the new street names.”

The name Bloemfontein – for city of roses – is up for oblivion should a proposed change to Mangaung, the name of the metro, be endorsed.

Mbanjani works for an advertising agency in Johannesburg.

An avid Bloemfontein Celtic fan, he can’t imagine his beloved team being called Mangaung Celtic!

But he embraces changes on “negative” names such as the building in the CBD that houses the Free State provincial government offices – from Hendrik Verwoerd to Lebohang, Sesotho for “give thanks”.


On street signs in Durban, the old names, on a yellow background, are conspicuously crossed out with red tape and the new names are etched just above them on a white board.

This is the aftermath of the wholesale changes in 2009 where nearly all of the major streets downtown and in the central suburban areas were renamed.

“We calculated that with the money the council used to effect the street name changes, about 400 RDP houses could have been built.”

This is how the IFP’s caucus leader Mdu Nkosi reacted in 2009.

Most of those honoured ANC heroes of the struggle, although some were named after the likes of non-ANC members, like Samora Machel.

The IFP and the Democratic Alliance brought an application against the entire street renaming process before the Durban High Court, charging that the renaming process was not transparent.

The court rejected the application, but the DA persisted and elevated the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which ruled in its favour on nine of the contested road names.

Western Cape, Northern Cape

These two provinces, which are dominated by Afrikaans-speaking communities, have experienced only a few minor street name changes.

In June 2012, the Khoisan community in die Kaap (as the Cape is called by its Afrikaans speaking inhabitants) suggested that Cape Town be renamed “//Hui !Gaeb”, Khoisan for “where the clouds gather”.

And who would want to change the name of Kimberley to its iconic open pit, “Die Groot Gat” (the Big Hole)?

Taking the name-changing game too far were those who rebranded Kaapstad (Afrikaans for Cape Town) “Kaakstad”, after the infamous 2013 poo wars.

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