Last week the city council of South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, decided it was time the place had a name change. If the South African Geographic Names Council approves, as expected, the city as a whole will henceforth be known as Tshwane, which according to its Web site means “We are the same” or “We are one because we live together.”
Only the city center will still be known as Pretoria. The council deemed both the sentiment and the language represented by the new name to be more fitting for the 150-year-old city than the old one, which honored Andries Pretorius, a leader of the Afrikaans-speaking settlers who arrived in the area in the early 1800s — and whose views with respect to Africans boiled down to: “We are definitely not the same.”
The road from Pretoria to Tshwane has been long and rocky, especially in recent decades, winding through legal discrimination and inequity under apartheid and inefficiency and stagnation under universally elected governments since that dark era ended in 1994. To outsiders reflecting on the journey, this change — any change — therefore seems to be a step in the right direction (provided we don’t suddenly have to travel to South Africa’s capital and find ourselves lost and confused in the middle of Tshwane, having long forgotten about the relabeling). As symbols go, “Pretoria” is unequivocally benign for only a handful of South Africans.
That does not, of course, guarantee that it will be allowed to disappear quietly. In recent years, many places have made name changes for political and/or cultural reasons, and nearly all of them have triggered the kind of friction Pretoria/Tshwane was beginning to experience last week.
It happened when Bombay, the teeming Indian city of more than 15 million people, transformed itself into Mumbai in 1995, to the dismay and outrage of many Indian groups who felt the new name excluded their languages and cultures. It happened again, when in an apparent flurry of admiration for Bombay’s boldness, other Indian cities followed suit, Calcutta becoming Kolkata, Madras morphing into Chennai and Calicut refashioning itself as Kozhikode.
To this day, tourists and foreign newspaper readers alike have trouble dealing with the loss of some of those fabled names. There were reports of non-Indians remarking that Madras seemed to have survived the recent tsunami remarkably well, given its proximity to the affected coast — although they noticed that this place Chennai was obviously hit hard. Cultural references have come unstuck, as well: Should we deplore the vulgarity of “Oh! Kolkata!” now? Or laugh at preppies for wearing chennai plaid shorts?
Still, the woes of foreigners are hardly a consideration. With rare exceptions — as in the Seoul government’s decision last month to change the Chinese-language word for the South Korean capital from Hancheng to Shouer — name changes are for locals to decide and approve.
The trouble, as we saw in India and are now seeing in Pretoria, is that the locals themselves are usually sorely divided. The most obvious split is between those who were outside the sphere of privilege represented by the old name and who generally approve the change — in this case native Africans — and those who feel deposed, threatened or insulted by it — here, the white minority. Neither reaction is surprising.
Yet it’s not that simple. A concurrent but quite separate debate cuts across divisions of race, power or privilege, pitting idealists aware of the power of names and other symbols to shape history against pragmatists counting the ways they think the money could be better spent. In the case of Pretoria’s name change, the council is talking about an end cost of 1.5 billion rand, or a quarter of a billion dollars. The group that is outraged by this includes not just the business, cultural and trade union organizations who on Wednesday formed a pressure group to fight the change under the slogan “Pretoria is Pretoria,” but also social activists who would rather see the money used to alleviate the effects of poverty or combat AIDS. Some of those making this case are blacks; some are whites.
All these points of view are reasonable. In the end, though, it is hard not to root for the advocates of change. This would be true even if one could be sure that money saved by keeping the old name would be spent remedying social ills. There is no reason to think it would be, since budgets don’t work that way. But it hardly matters. The name Pretoria has had its day; it is part of a troubled past. It is preserved, for those who care about such things, as part of the mosaic of names that make up the modern city. It is Africans’ turn now to own, name, plan and hope. Tshwane’s day is just beginning.
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