Place name changes stir deep emotions in South Africa, where a decade after the end of apartheid the map remains studded with towns and cities dubbed after white colonisers, European monarchs and racist jokes.
In Cape Town on Saturday, a national campaign called to discuss the name issue ended with scores of derogatory, racist and outmoded place names up for review.
Residents of Pretoria—named after an early war hero of the white Afrikaners—won a battle last year to keep the capital city’s name on the map, albeit as part of a broader metropolitan area called Tshwane.
Next year those towns celebrating British royalty and other figures will be under scrutiny and several may face the chop.
Two that look set to go are the industrial city of Port Elizabeth, named after the wife of a Cape Colony governor, and George, a sleepy town on the south coast more famous for its lush golf courses than the English king it pays homage to.
“Personally, I would support such a move, because why should we be honouring King George? For what? For colonising us?,” says National Geographical Names Council chairperson Tommy Ntsewa.
The council was set up by legislation enacted in 1998 aimed at leading the campaign to bring the country’s names into line with the new post-apartheid South Africa.
George is likely to change to Outeniqua, a reference to the mountains under which it lies, while the debate over a new title for Port Elizabeth is growing.
Ntsewa said most proposed changes were in the Zulu-dominated KwaZulu-Natal, itself an expanded name for the former Natal province whose name records Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama’s arrival on Christmas Day 1497, and the Eastern Cape.
Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city and named after one of the region’s first white settlers, is set to stay as is the country’s top tourist attraction, Cape Town, he said.
Many names honouring South Africa’s apartheid-era leaders were quickly removed after the country’s first all-race election in 1994, but scores of derogatory titles still remain.
“Some examples are names like Kafferspruit . . . Kaffir Creek,” Ntsewa said.
Others are based on European approximations of local African place names—often such bastardised versions of the originals that they are barely recognisable.
“Some are so wrongly spelt that they are a disservice to our future generations, as well as to other sectors that rely on them for planning and decision-making,” Ntsewa added.
The council has led a series of workshops over the past two months that will culminate in a national conference to be held in Johannesburg in January next year. But the process has not been welcomed by all.
Critics say it is a waste of valuable resources amidst widespread poverty, while others want to preserve the country’s historical heritage—both good and bad.
“If we had unlimited funds and no burning socio-economic challenges, we could possibly indulge in the luxury of lengthy debates around city name changes and other controversial issues,” Ernie Heath, who heads up the department of tourism at the University of Pretoria, said.