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Pretoria or Tshwane?

To me, it’s a no-brainer. There was never a pre-existing place called ‘Tshwane’ that Pretoria replaced. Instead, an entirely new population centre came into being, in due course assuming city status. It was named ‘Pretoria’ by its founders, and that it was what was called for over 140 years before it was arbitrarily renamed Tshwane by the new black majority government. The obvious intention of that change was not to restore a title that had been unjustly taken away by a usurper power, but impose an indigenous African-sounding name to disguise, and ultimately erase from popular memory, the city’s white European origins.

The very term ‘indigenous’ is itself debatable in this context. By the 1850s, white Afrikaners had been in South Africa for some two centuries already. Surely, by then they could claim to be authentically African? Certainly, they no longer regarded Europe as they home. Similarly, was not ‘Pretorius’, from which Pretoria is derived, not by then an African name in its own right? When right-wing white supremacists in the UK claim that blacks are not and can never be authentically British, no matter how many generations they have been in the country, they are rightly denounced as beyond-the-pale racists. Surely something similar should apply when it comes to this country, even if there are obvious differences between the two situations?

This is why I resist, and will continue to resist, referring to Pretoria as Tshwane. It may well end up being no more than a symbolic gesture, but that is no reason to tamely acquiesce in a process that effectively represents whites like myself as being an alien, illegitimate presence in South Africa, regardless of the passage of time.

All well and good. But then I thought it over and had the following interior dialogue with myself:

“That being your take, no doubt you would also, on principle, decline to refer to Salisbury as Harare?”
“Uh … well as it happens …”
“Hmmm. Odd that. Well certainly you don’t refer to Lourenco Marques as Maputo. After all, it was called Lourenco Marques for a lot longer than Pretoria was called Pretoria.”
“Um … right …”

In other words, I’m not quite so clear on the whole renaming thing. Why, then, do I regard the above two cases as being somehow different? It is not good enough, obviously, to say that it is because I have never lived in either Zimbabwe or Mozambique and therefore have no real stake in the matter. A principle is a principle, regardless of national boundaries.

After thinking further, I came up with two differences. The first is that in both the Zimbabwe and Mozambique cases, the white minority were essentially forced to capitulate. Once South Africa and Portugal had withdrawn their respective support, military defeat would have inevitably followed. Hence, the context of post-liberation was much more of a “to the victor, the spoils” nature, and consequently somewhat more justifiable. In South Africa, by contrast, whites struck a deal while they were still in a position of relative power and could reasonably expect not to be shunted aside by wholesale Africanisation.

A second difference relates to demographics. Following Mozambique’s independence, the white Portuguese population left almost en masse, whether through compulsion or by choice. Lourenco Marques thus became almost an entirely black city, and changing its name to something its residents (presumably at least) felt more comfortable with is understandable. It is also true that the old regime was very much more obviously a colonial set-up; there was no move by white Portuguese residents to establish their own independent breakaway country, as happened in the Transvaal and in Rhodesia. The name Lourenco Marques was therefore far more associated with the country’s recent colonial past, and hence had to go (along with most other Portuguese-era names).

In the Harare case, the post-independence white population was also proportionately much less than the white population of Pretoria today. It was also known as Salisbury for less time – about ninety years as opposed to over 140 in Pretoria’s case.

While these differences are not insignificant, they are not really sufficient to justify why I feel so different about the Pretoria name change as I do about name changes across the border. It also raises difficult questions. Did the fact, for example, that white Afrikaners and white Rhodesians had severed their ties with their respective mother countries in Europe thereby remove them from the category of coloniser and make them instead just another African people jostling for their place in the sun? Some would say not, especially in the Rhodesian case where white settlement was that much more recent. With regard to numbers, would I be reconciled to Tshwane replacing Pretoria were the white population to drop below a certain proportion of the total, say under 20%? I suppose I might do, but even then it would be with some reluctance.

In essence, I believe that Pretoria has been sufficiently long established under that name to justify its continuing to be called that, and that is regardless of what the racial composition might be, today or in the future. This should apply in general terms to all, or at least most, cities and towns in the country. Certainly, renaming streets, airports and the like is acceptable, indeed desirable, since these are generally named after personalities who for racial and/or political reasons have been excluded during the era of white minority rule. “Africanising” the name of an entire urban entity, on the other hand, sends a message that the white European input into building South Africa is somehow an historic aberration that needs to be effaced from the official record. If such changes are to take place at all, they should at least not be imposed from on high but come about through an appropriately democratic, consultative process amongst the inhabitants of that particular city, town or village itself.


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.