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South Africans Find a New Name for Dispute

The move to rename Pretoria divides many blacks and Afrikaners. Tribal kings belittle it.

June 06, 2005|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

PRETORIA, South Africa — When the municipal government of South Africa's administrative capital, Pretoria, decided to change the city's name to the "authentic African" Tshwane, Afrikaners were angry that the name of one of their heroes was being expunged, and many blacks were proud, even though they weren't sure what it meant.

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.

Pretoria is one of tens of thousands of cities and towns whose names are being changed in a government campaign to erase many of South Africa's markers of Afrikaner and British colonial history. The process to make a symbolic break with the country's apartheid past includes streets, geographical features and landmarks and is predicted to take at least a decade.

The name-change 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, but for most Afrikaners it spells exclusion and loss.

Pretoria was named for Andries Pretorius, who in 1835 led the Afrikaners on a "great trek" from British Cape Town to set up their own settlements inland. He defeated Zulu tribesmen in the battle of Blood River in 1838, and his son, Marthinus, founded Pretoria in 1855, naming 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. "There's so many things that happened there that people from my community feel very strongly about today."

Until the two Ndebele clan leaders, King Makhosoke II and King Mayisha III, weighed in on the Pretoria-Tshwane debate, the controversy raged along race lines. But the response from the Ndebele community has opened a new discussion on whether the change was a case of political correctness tripping up on poor historical research.

On its website, the city government, which is controlled by the ruling African National Congress, explains that Tshwane was a tribal leader and 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 ANC decided to discard the name Pretoria "because in their view it's associated with apartheid, and [they] cast about for facts to match their political intentions. It's an example of the ruling party's intention to cut the corners and get this through at all costs."

Sam Mtsweni, a spokesman for Ndebele community, argued that a better name would be Musi, a grandfather of Tshwane and the last king who united all the Ndebele tribes in the Pretoria area.

But Mtsweni said the kings had been warned by the ANC to stop publicly criticizing the name Tshwane.

"We are still under oppression," he complained. "If the freedom to speak is there, they [the kings] must not be intimidated. Now they're being intimidated."

As controversy flared in recent months, the council forged ahead with a $3.8-million marketing campaign, which was ruled illegal by the South Africa's Advertising Standards Assn. Meanwhile, the name has been approved by the South African Geographic Names Council and awaits final approval by the nation's minister for arts and culture. The metropolitan council's website already declares, "Welcome to the city of Tshwane."

Thomas Ntsewa, chairman of the names council, 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 name blacks have used for Pretoria for many years.

Premi Appalraju, 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 says he isn't sure how many names are being changed across South Africa, because the process is initiated by local governments. He said the changes would cost nothing and that the old name signs would stay until they wore out.

Pretoria is a squat, uniform city with streets on a grid pattern, but it is spectacularly beautiful in spring when the streets are purple with petals from jacaranda trees.

It is known as the "city of jacarandas," but that is another aspect that may eventually be expunged, because the trees are not a native African species. The local government has sent out weed inspectors to impose $900 fines on those who fail to rip out jacaranda seedlings, although large adult trees will be allowed to remain.

In Pretoria's streets, many blacks said they supported the name change, offering different theories on what the name means. But most whites were opposed.

"You're sad about it, because you feel like it's not your country anymore," said Yvonne Hartog, 56, a white woman.

But not all black residents were in favor of the change.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said Henry Mashaba, 23, a student from the Tsonga tribe. "This is black empowerment, but to me they don't have forgiveness for what happened a long time ago.

"I'd like to see it called Pretoria because, even my grandfather, when he was working here, it was called Pretoria."

Fleming said his party had the support of many blacks on the issue, especially from Ndebele people.

He warned that reconciliation would come to an end in South Africa if the ANC pushed the change through.

"In all likelihood, it's going to go ahead," he said.

"But we're not letting it go without a fight."

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