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Old South Africa collides with new in city names

Jean Liou

A sign warmly greets visitors with "Welcome to Mashishing", a town where everything else indicates the name is Lydenburg.

A sign warmly greets visitors with “Welcome to Mashishing”, a town where everything else indicates the name is Lydenburg.

Such geographic confusion occurs across South Africa, as old place names are replaced with new, Africanised ones.

“Officially, the name has been changed to Mashishing,” the town’s spokesperson Puleng Mapheto said.

But aside from a few nearby road signs, it’s hard to know that the name changed five years ago. The police station, the post office, schools, the museum and store ads all refer to Lydenburg.

The Voortrekkers, descended from the first Dutch settlers, founded the town in 1850 as they fled British rule.

They named the town Lydenburg, or city of suffering, because their group had been decimated by malaria.

Mashishing is what the place was traditionally called in Northern Sotho, meaning “long, green grass”.

White residents, very much in the minority, are hardly bothered to make the change.

“This place is called Lydenburg. I don’t know anything about Mashishing,” said an employee at a coffee shop, who declined to give her name.

Gerard van de Water, who owns an antique shop, acknowledged the new name but lamented the change.

“The drive in this country is to do away with white men’s names, whatever it costs,” he said. “This place is no longer worthy to be called Lydenburg, anyway. Mashishing fits 100% with what the town is becoming, with all the potholes in the streets.”

“It’s like all towns in South Africa, they are being changed to black people’s names,” said Elzebe Brits, who runs a second-hand bookshop. “People are very confused! To get things more difficult, the municipality is called Thaba Chweu.”

“Even black people still call this place Lydenburg,” she said with a big smile.

Those whom Agence France-Presse met didn’t seem particularly concerned.

“The problem is that Mashishing refers to the township too,” said Mosima Matlala. “Well, we say both names, it depends on the context.”

As in many towns, some white residents feel the name was changed without sufficient public debate, said Jean-Pierre Celliers, curator of the Lydenburg Museum.

“We know that this area was already settled around 1650,” he said, which is not counting the “Lydenburg Heads”, seven terracotta figures found in the region dating from the sixth century.

“We have to redefine who has a right to have a heritage in this country,” Celliers said.

The name change debate is especially fierce in the capital Pretoria, where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has for now shelved efforts to dub the city Tshwane, the municipality’s name.

But many other towns, mountains and rivers have been renamed in recent years. Three people in the culture ministry are tasked with compiling the public’s requests for changes.

While some cities like Nelspruit and Piet Retief are, like Lydenburg, transforming in fits and starts into Mbombela and eMkhondo, other names are finally starting to take hold, especially in the northern Limpopo province, where the process started earlier.

Naboomspruit is now Mookgophong, Potgietersus is Mokopane, and the provincial capital Pietersburg is Polokwane.

Most signs have also changed, except at post offices in towns like Modimolle, 200km north of Johannesburg.

“For us, it is still called Nylstroom. They still have not entered the new name in the system,” one postal worker said.

Apparently that’s not a problem.

“The sorting machines work with the post codes, mainly. The staff is trained with the name changes, anyway. They are usually very proud of knowing them,” said South African Post Office spokesperson Johan Kruger.

Some names deliberately don’t stick. The town of Louis Trichardt became Makhado, but a court ordered it turned back, for lack of due process.

Other changes went unnoticed. Only the weather service has adopted Mahikeng, as the name of the North-West provincial capital Mafikeng. Even the local government pointedly ignores the switch.

Atlases and roadmaps have changed with the times, more or less. The old name usually appears in parentheses, but not always. And in the distance tables, some historical background helps to find Lephalale, the former Ellisras, still listed under E.—Sapa-AFP

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