Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The names

It struck me when I first got here that the majority of place names in Johannesburg sound very British: immediately around where I live you can find Sandton, Hyde Park, Kew, Waverley, Melrose, Craighall, Parkhurst, and Greenside. Here and there across the city are Afrikaans names: Strijdom, Bloubosrand, Klippoortje, Weltevreden, Braamfontein, Roodepoort. You have to look a lot harder for names in African languages, and these are mostly in Soweto: Jabulani, Moroka, Mofolo, Naledi, Zondi.

All of these names have their own charm - but the distribution shows that the very naming of South Africa, like so many things here, is still very much marked by the colonialist and apartheid past; names are far from neutral. There are moves to change this: the city of Pretoria has officially been renamed Tshwane - although it will take a long time to change all the street signs and the maps, let alone what people call the city when they talk about it. The larger metropolitan area of Durban is called eThekwini, while Polokwane used to be Pietersburg. A whole long stretch of the R24 in Johannesburg is being renamed Albertina Sisulu Road, replacing some eighteen other street names including Market Street and Main Reef Road. A lot of the changes commemorate heroes of the struggle against racial discrimination: Pretoria Hospital became Stephen Bantu Biko Hospital; Coronation Hospital became Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, and Johannesburg Hospital is now Charlotte Maxeke Hospital. This all seems fair and laudable, although some lament the loss of history for the sake of political correctness, and many criticise the cost of changing street signs, municipal stationary, etc, when the money could be better spent on schools and health care etc.

And some see the funny side: a radio advert for the TomTom GPS navsat device features someone stopping to ask for directions, to be told: "Take this first left on Sekoto which used to be Becker Road, then the second right on Mahlahtini which was once Robin Avenue, then go straight on when it changes to Ntemi Piliso, the street formerly known as Prince."

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