News24

What's in a town's name?

2000-08-06 19:29

Johannesburg - Moustaches twitched nervously and the fountains fluttered briefly in Pretoria recently at the suggestion that the seat of the government and military might be renamed Tshwane.

As disbelief trailed over the Voortrekker Monument over the possible choice of the seSotho word, meaning "we are all the same", as the name for the new Pretoria council - one of the many vast new councils to be proclaimed after the 1 November election - a similar debate was raging in Johannesburg.

Loyal city dwellers, loath to shed the international glamour and infamy associated with the name, expressed concern that their home city may be named Egoli, also the name of a television soap opera.

Not everyone felt the same way though, with one Johannesburger surveyed by a local newspaper saying: "Who is this Johannes anyway?" (According to references there are two - Vice President of the old South African Republic, Christiaan Johannes Joubert, and Deputy Surveyor-General Johann Rissik sent to inspect the goldfields of the 1880s and find a suitable site for a city. Another reference suggests Field Cornet Johannes Petrus Meyer).

Over in Krugersdorp, a small West Rand mining town, Carl Mattheus, director of corporate services on the town council, laughs wryly over the rumour that his town may also be renamed.

Already a far rightwing organisation has issued muffled threats if the memory of former South African Republic president Paul Kruger, the man who symbolised the Afrikaner's fight for independence from the British -is removed from their cultural landscape.

"Some people refer to their fathers who fought in the Boer War...," Mattheus says, referring to telephone calls he has had to field from hysterical townsfolk demanding clarification. "It is a misconception that the name of Krugersdorp will be changed."

The name of the town's hospital, once called Paardekraal in honour of a windswept farm a few blocks away where in 1880 Boers pledged themselves to end British rule in the Transvaal and each laid a stone to seal their promise, has already been changed.

The stones are now encased under a monument and the hospital is now known as the Yusuf Dadoo Hospital, named after one of the town's sons, a leading figure in South Africa's struggle for unity and democracy. Dadoo died before the scrapping of laws which prevented him, as an Indian, from being treated in the hospital.

Mattheus says while the town's name will remain the same, the name of the municipality will be changed from Krugersdorp to Mogale City to incorporate a vast municipal area to be established after 1 November, the proposed date for local government elections.

The area currently unimaginatively known as GT411, will stretch from the border of Roodepoort in the east to Magaliesburg in the west, and will also absorb rural councils falling within its circumference.

It will take the name of King Mogale, whose name is already contained in the nearby village of Magaliesburg and the mountain range of the same name.

"Before anyone, the Voortrekkers and whoever lived here, there was King Mogale," says Mattheus.

He admits that a name change for Krugersdorp has been discussed, but this will be a matter for the new council which is sworn in after the elections.

Kwa-Dukuza on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast has already taken the plunge and, and although it is still listed by Telkom under the old name of Stanger, town clerk William Byrnes says the name change has been widely accepted in spite of an initial wad of letters and petitions of protest.

Byrnes says Kwa-Dukuza was chosen because of the town's historical links with King Shaka, whose kraal, named Kwa-Dukuza, was situated on the site of the town centre.

Byrnes says the much-feared costs relating to the name change were "not really of any great magnitude" as no road signs were changed, changes to council stationery did not cost a considerable amount, names of the schools and an area named Stanger Manor remained the same, and only a small number of businesses changed their names to Kwa-Dukuza.

"This was a corporate name change," says Byrnes. "If you look at maps you will still see the name Stanger. But if you want to make a geographic name change it is a (huge) thing - you're talking about changing maps and cartography."

Further down the coast, Durban, named after Sir Benjamin D'Urban, once a British governor of the Cape, had a party on Thursday night to introduce new name suggestions for its new unicity.

Top of the list is Ethekwini, which refers to the horns of a bull and the shape of the bay, and is the original name for the area. Other names mooted are KwaKhangela, the name of the military look-out built there by King Shaka; Egagasini - Zulu for "the place of eternal movement"; Ogwini, which refers to the coastal region; and Elangeni, which means "place of the sun".

Aware of the possibilities for controversy, Johannesburg has decided to call its unicity "City of Johannesburg" and, until a thorough study has been completed into the earliest inhabitants of the area and the true history of the city, Transformation Lekgotla chief Kenny Fihla says they have decided to hold off on any changes.

Of greater urgency though are names considered by many to be offensive, like places named after apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd. A dam named after the long dead prime minister was renamed Gariep, and Johannesburg's John Vorster square police station, another apartheid prime minister, was renamed Johannesburg Central police station.

"A name like Kaffirsrivier is completely unacceptable," says Langalibalele Mathenjwa, head of the South African Geographic Names Council.

Mathenjwa and his team are tasked with researching new name proposals submitted by local authorities and have also put together a list of guidelines for approval by Arts and Culture Minister Ben Ngubane.

For a city or town's name to be changed, the local authority must consult "stakeholders" - although it is not stipulated who these should be - and then submit their suggestion to the Council for research.

Referring to guidelines laid out by several international councils on the subject, the name is checked for standardised spelling, historical accuracy, duplication, and that it isn't foreign.

"When people arrived they carried their identity from where they came and wanted to plant it there ... We don't need another small England," says Mathenjwa, referring to names that were imposed on people by settlers.

One of his bugbears is the incorrect spelling of town names, like Umbogintwini on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast. "They spelt it wrong, they didn't consult anyone. It is meant to be ezimbokodweni."

The incorrect spelling of the word, derived from the Zulu word "imbokodo" - meaning grinding stone - is an example of what his team is faced with daily.

Asked about Thokoza and Thembisa, townships on the East Rand, whose spelling are a constant source of debate in newsrooms as some road signs in the area have them without an "H", Mathenjwa says: "There is no debate.

"The words are aspirated, so of course they carry an 'H'."

While the debate over town and city names continues, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry has taken the lead in renaming dams and rivers.

On Sunday, King Goodwill Zwelithini took time off from his birthday celebrations to join Water Affairs Minister Ronnie Kasrils for the renaming of the Chelmsford Dam near Newcastle to Ntshingwayo Dam, after Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, the general who led the Zulu army that defeated the British forces at Isandlwana on 29 January, 1879.

Mathenjwa hinted that one of the rivers about to be renamed is the famous Crocodile River to Ngwenya - the Zulu name for a crocodile.

Although it is already a common feature in informal settlements, it is possible in South Africa to name a place after a living hero, but they must be of such unquestionable stature that there would be no risk of having to rush around with a can of spray paint amid an unfolding crisis.

And no, there hasn't been a rush to be the first to name a town after Nelson Mandela, says Mathenjwa.

South Africans are also reclaiming their given names, with many people like Mosiuoa (Patrick) Lekota and Membathisi (Shepherd) Mdladlana leading the charge.

Even sports teams have undergone name changes, with the previous Springbok cricketers now known as the Proteas. But the Springbok rugby team remains unchanged with special dispensation by then president Nelson Mandela to retain the name - probably in the interests of internal stability. - Sapa