Geographical renaming as a methodology to deconstruct power shifts in South Africa allows for inclusion of silenced and marginalized voices from the country's recent past. This article examines the symbolic power of the state, as well as of the processes of boundary-making under the lens of place renaming with a focus on the province of Gauteng. The article introduces the phrase “living archive” to unpack South Africa's changing perceptions of who is oppressor and who is oppressed in the ongoing transition to democratic governance. The article employs the renaming of sites as a metanarrative to reveal a nuanced picture of the political shifts in power. Through the selection of particular facts as usable past, the article argues, the government seeks to identify who is worthy of the role of hero or victim in post-apartheid South Africa.

What is involved in contemporary appeals to the “duty of memory” is not an aspiration to establish the facts of the past as fully as possible, but rather the defense of a particular selection from among these facts, one that assures its protagonists of maintaining the roles of hero or victim. . . .1

—Tzvetan Todorov, 2001

This article offers a typology of acts of geographical renaming in South Africa as a lens to view current hegemony and focuses on Gauteng Province as a representative case. From 1994 to 1999, Nelson Mandela's administration used a cautious approach to name changing to support his reconciliatory project. If the interim government replaced the names of apartheid heroes with liberation heroes, it risked erasing Afrikaner heritage and causing a serious rupture in the fragile peace. Name changing only began in earnest in 2002 after Mandela's retirement with the investiture of the new president, Thabo Mbeki, and the Department of Arts and Culture's new guidelines set to avoid duplication, provide correct spelling, and sensitize toponyms to diversity. A rich scholarship exists on the reasons for and the impact of name changing, and this article aims to add to the work.2

I contend that geographic names are often tools of hegemony and that the location and the name combine to create a document in this “living archive” of the power structure at the point in history when a name change occurs; this phenomenon frequently occurs in transitioning countries such as South Africa. Depending on the context, the renaming signifies a relationship with the past of commemoration, ownership, reparation, or dominance and/or erasure.3 I introduce the phrase “living archive” to unpack South Africa's changing perceptions of who is oppressor and who is oppressed in the more than two decades after the country's transition to democratic governance.

What makes the metaphor of the archive useful for understanding the naming of spaces and their relation to current governance? Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, and Graeme Reid argue in their introduction to Refiguring the Archive that all archive is figured. They define archive as an idea, “which plays (is played) as idea, as institution, accumulation of physical or virtual objects, profession, process, service. Conjoining these words, ‘figure’ and ‘archive’ is to open up a cornucopia of meaning.”4 To figure as a verb includes to appear, to be mentioned, to represent, to be a symbol of, to imagine, to pattern, to calculate, to understand, to determine, to consider.

In post-1994 South Africa, much attention has been paid to the colonial figuring of the archive and how to incorporate “formal conduits” to include those histories that have been traditionally silenced by hegemonic regimes, including the apartheid governance. Accordingly, Cameroonian philosopher Achilles Mbembe cautions against reliance on the Western archive when making disciplined inquiries into “those things we need to know.”

Our capacity to make systematic forays beyond our current knowledge horizons will be severely hampered if we rely exclusively on those aspects of the Western archive that disregard other epistemic [e.g., oral] traditions.5

Mbembe also cautions that decolonization is not simply about de-Westernization but about learning how to see ourselves clearly in relationship to others. He argues that the Western archive contains within itself the resources of its own refutation and is not the exclusive property of the West as Africa decisively contributed to its making. The Western archive in Africa was created by the colonizer to document the task of controlling the colonized. The indigenous voice is seldom heard except in those moments of hegemonic rupture. Yet, without the colonized, the colonizer's archive would have no need to exist except to document exchanges with the motherland. In the Western archive, I argue, the colonizer is the protagonist and the colonized the antagonist. Perhaps it is time to tell both sides of the story. Mbembe encourages Africa to make legitimate claims on the Western archive. Along this line, the living archive could serve a purpose.

To get beyond what Mbembe calls “whiteness” as entrapment, South Africa and countries with similar colonial pasts must decolonize knowledge embedded in the heart of the archive.6 But how do we decolonize the past? Do we redact archival documents? Do we allow new voices to inscribe on events documented in the archive? Can we locate the Xhosa lady who the Department of Bantu Administration and Development “repatriated” (forcibly removed) to her home-land and add her voice as a response to the document?7 Unlikely. Can archivists create a living archive through incorporation of such responses to colonial documents? A monumental task indeed, if at all possible!

I shared a 2009 version of this article on the living archive with Verne Harris, head of the Mandela Foundation and former director of the National Archives of South Africa. I argued that if for Derrida the structure of archiving involves a trace being consigned to a substrate then the site of renaming can be a living archive. Hence, the trace (text + location) is the text of the new name replacing the prior name for a specific location. The substrate is the street sign or plaque on which that trace is consigned. Together, the trace (e.g., Hendrik Verwoerd Drive replaced by Bram Fischer Drive) and the substrate (e.g., street sign) archive the act of consignation by the agency (e.g., Department of Arts and Culture), thereby creating a living archive of the power structure at the point in history where the name change occurred. I had presented a draft of this article at a conference where an audience member argued that street signs cannot be an archive as there is not enough narrative. Harris supported my premise. “Archive happens wherever there is a trace on an exterior substrate and where there is an act of consignation.” The length of the trace is inconsequential.8

For French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the archive does not “consist simply in remembering, in living memory, in anamnesis; but in consigning . . . a trace . . . [to an] external location [archive, street sign, skin].”9 He defines the archive as a location where documents are kept based on the political power of the archons (rulers); he continues that the external location can be “some space outside.” In this description, the sites of geographic name changes (i.e., streets, cities) could be seen as “locations” where the trace of the archons is inscribed.10 This article differs with his statement that “[The] Archive is not a living memory” because of its exteriority.11 Archival documents are static, I argue, not because they have exteriorized the trace but because no mechanism exists for the archivist to add to or change them.

My argument for what constitutes a living archive is two-pronged. First, I argue that when the place also serves as the text of the trace, a geographic site can serve both as “location” and as “trace” and may be viewed as a living archive that interacts with the public. A South African example is Ncome River in KwaZulu-Natal, which is commonly called Blood River. It was at this site on December 16, 1838, that 470 Voortrekkers (Afrikaner pioneers) with their guns fought off 10,000 Zulu warriors, killing such a great number that the river turned red with African blood. While the text of the “trace” is embedded in the actual site at places like Blood River, any “location” can serve as “trace” if a structure, such as a sign or an obelisk, is used to exteriorize the text. Is this not why monuments and memorials can be erected off-site? Yet, actual sites serve as archives without such markers due to their exteriority, but also as living archives due to their interaction with society.

Second, the difference between the closed archive and the living archive is that the latter allows change and provides a mechanism to incorporate public response into the text of the “trace.” The living archive breathes. A prime example of a living archive is the District Six Museum floor map (see Figure 1), which provides space for former District Six residents to inscribe the sites from which they were removed. These changes are later included on the official floor map. Former District Six Museum director Valmont Layne says, “ex-residents come almost as a sort of pilgrimage to make their mark on the map.”12

Contestation over name changing is global and ongoing. When the British annexed the Burmese capital in 1852, England named the city Rangoon. When Burma gained independence in 1948, it renamed the city Yangon, according to local pronunciation, and changed colonial names of streets to Burmese names. After the uprising in 1989, the military government changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar, the Burmese name of the country. During China's civil war, the ruling Knomintang Party renamed Beijing (Northern Capital) as Beiping (Northern Peace). In 1949, the victorious Communist Party reversed the change. For brevity's sake, this article provides only a brief discussion of the literature on renaming and memorialization in South Africa, Germany, and the United States.14

In his discussion of the commemoration of South Africa's Boer War, Bill Nasson posits that new popular perspectives can enrich understanding of a contentious historical event. The litmus test of any commemoration is how well the process can “come to terms with the deep contradictions” of the past and the present.15 Focusing on the renaming of streets and cities within Gauteng Province and the determination to “revitalize” the area through renaming, it is possible to channel and expose the current climate of fractionalization.16

Head of the Political Economy Faculty at the Mapungubwe: Institute for Strategic Reflection Mcebisi Ndletyana argues that “Place names are containers of memory as well as a legitimising tool.” Ndletyana adds that place names are “a reflection of existing political order [which] makes toponymy inevitably fluid.” This notion of place names as reflections of the polity supports my paradigm that renaming is a living archive of past and present hegemony.17

Geoffrey Cubitt positions individual and social memory as entangled and interdependent. He views social memory as a process rather than an objective, which brings a sense of the past into the present. Borrowing his premise that groups (e.g., African National Congress [ANC], Democratic Alliance [DA], etc.) need retrospective knowledge to ensure their performance, to communicate collective identity, and to gain external recognition, I offer that street names serve as mnemonic devices to regain this retrospective knowledge, which is why, depending on the context, renaming is contested. While site-naming is an attempt to fix history, whether intended as a mnemonic or an erasure of the past, Cubitt posits, in the modern era we are less prone to accept memorials as stabilized testaments to the past, instead, viewing them as fluid markers ripe for historical research and interpretation.18

South African researcher and lawyer Mia Swart uses a legal framework to expose the desire of transitional governments to remember nameless victims when dealing with their past, often on sites where the victims' perpetrators still live. Concerned with the memorialization and significance of the names of victims, she compares Germany's remembrance of the Holocaust with South Africa's representation of apartheid.19

Given the caveat that every transitional context is unique, she cites common trends and features in name changes that follow political transitions. Stating that name changes of streets represent the most common example of this practice, Swart asserts that the seemingly administrative procedure of “awarding a street name can be a powerful expression of political change.” She continues that name changes can also be a mechanism of transitional justice and have significance as reparations to restore dignity and to confer public recognition on victims.

Swart outlines three functions of name changes: as vehicles for commemoration, as symbolic reparations for human rights abuses, and as constructs of a politicized history.20 She warns, and I agree, that the new body politic can easily manipulate the last of these. But Swart argues that as a construct of a politicized history, name changes can be viewed as legal, as well as political, instruments of change when part of a package of restorative measures. Outlining the legal framework for accepting the practice of name changes as reparation for gross human rights violations, she avers that street name changes in Germany and South Africa can assist in changing the cultural and political landscape after transition. Particularly keen is her observation that street name changes are not as contested as memorials or monuments, as street names are not “charged with the sacred.”21 With the name changes hitting South Africans, her observation must be revisited as citizens, mainly Afrikaners, have begun to challenge the rationale and motives behind the refiguring of their history. Swart does, in her conclusion, acknowledge that a great amount of contestation has occurred in South Africa. But she believes that debate should be encouraged and that renaming should be seen as a form of repair consistent with South Africa's constitutional and international law obligations.

While Swart's discussion centers on Germany's Berlin and South Africa, Karen E. Till limits the field to the new Berlin. Here, places of memory, including street names, continue to be “(re)established and debated.” She argues that this communicates Berliners' fear of returning to traumatic national pasts.22 Berlin remains distinctive, Till adds, for its haunted memories. Compare this with the haunted memories of Soweto, a black township outside of Johannesburg proper, whose most famous inhabitant was Nelson Mandela. Zanele Twala recounts that in the 1980s at night one could hear helicopters overhead dropping loads that landed with a thud.23 The morning light revealed these loads were black human body parts. The site of the 1976 student uprisings, Soweto (Southwestern Townships) is filled with such haunted memories.

Renaming held very different meanings in Soweto from renaming in Johannesburg, where many streets were originally named after Afrikaner “heroes.” Hence, Johannesburg street renaming meant moving away from that earlier repressive era. In Soweto, the change was due to the desire to honor the liberation fighters. Soweto did not have Afrikaner names for its streets; Soweto was not even recognized as a municipality until majority rule.

Sylvain Guyot and Cecil Seethal posit that site-renaming constitutes a critical tool to analyze territorial restructuring in postapartheid South Africa within a nation-building context.24 Renaming raises the question of how multiculturism plays out in this prescribed coexistence context and emphasizes the question of memory of a past that new names want to rectify or to clear. They argue further that renaming is an “entry point to study the evolution of today's identities in South Africa.”25 If toponyms reflect the identity of a place, their changes indicate the multiple identities contained in one place or territory. While positioning contestations of name changes within the national/global dichotomy, Guyot and Seethal aver that the politics of name changes that incorporate the politics of street names and states cannot be separated from the conflicts and tensions over political and cultural hegemony among different constituencies in South Africa. Depending on the location of the name change, the decision level can include both national and local representatives. Of concern to mainly Afrikaner readers of the text of name changes is the international marketing power of such place recognition names as Pretoria. Hence, I argue this contestation around Pretoria/Tshwane implies an international stake around name changes where place names are used as a political instrument to link place and identity. Demographics illustrate that a place can contain residents of different cultural identities. Depending upon the identities of the residents at the location where the renaming occurs, name changes will be opposed, accepted, or ignored.

Leslie Witz argues in Apartheid's Festival that the production of public pasts is “never quite so straightforward and easily adaptable to suit the political requirement of the day.”26 He contends that what South Africa has done to accommodate all narratives is to slide over conflicts to “make way for the present time of ‘national unity’.”27 As Apartheid's Festival was printed in 2003 and most name changes started in that year, the conflict over the renaming of streets had not fully evinced. But today, instead of sliding over contesting narratives, the mandate seems to be to identify and quash public markers of apartheid leaders. Witz outlines the discourse of the “rainbow” nation where multiculturalism reigned supreme, which allowed Mandela in 1996 to name Jan van Riebeeck as one of the founders of the new South African nation.28 In 1952, the ANC had condemned the apartheid state's proclamation of April 6 as a public holiday to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the landing of Jan van Riebeeck on April 6, 1652, at the Cape.29 Surprisingly, for the 2002 festival of the Day of the Vow, the ruling party gave its tacit support to Cape Town's commemorative celebrations. Witz states that the result was a noncelebration and the excision of Jan and Maria van Riebeeck from their own commemorative activities, as Capetonians opted instead for a competition to nominate their own heroes. The consensus was to commemorate Mark Shuttleworth, the first African in space.30

Witz points out that this excision from commemoration does not mean that “these events did not occur; rather, in a postcolonial context, these events have been relegated to a past that is not to be recalled.”31 In short, these events, the landing of van Riebeeck and the onset of oppression, are to be marginalized or consigned to the closet. Yet, the statues of Jan and Maria still stand at the top of Adderley Street overlooking Cape Town's main thoroughfare. Perhaps the warning of Cape Town's former mayor, Gerald Morkel, is instructive. Morkel argues that to seek to erase or obliterate “. . . that history is to turn our backs on our own biographies.”32

Turning toward the United States, John Bodnar opens his examination of monumental history with the debate centering on the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM). Various interests, he states, must be served in any attempt at public commemoration. He argues that monuments do not necessarily preserve the past, but rather address serious political matters in the present. The final design for the VVM was two long intersecting black granite walls that form a chevron—an artistic expression of grief rather than a celebration of national unity. After public protests and pleas for a design that might foreground patriotism and nationalism, the design committee added a “heroic soldiers” statue to the design for the overall site. Yet, on opening day, visitors' expressions of grief—placing hands on the names of loved ones and weeping; laying wreaths; placing love letters and yellowed photos at the base of the chevron (artifacts soon preserved in an archives to house the gathering artifacts)—rather than patriotism dominated their public use of the memorial space. Despite initial protestations about the need for patriotism, the reception of the monument represented the triumph of one set of interests (the need to grieve) over other possibilities.33 According to Bodnar, this reception of the memorial as a narrative of grief troubled proponents of a narrative of nationalism who perceived that the former theme predominated over the latter.

Thirty-two years after the 1982 unveiling of the VVM, Robert W. Doubek published his “inside” story of the struggle over the conflicting visions of the memorial's “purpose and meaning.” As director for the building of the monument, Doubek recounted opposing visions for the memorial that “ranged from justifying the war and rebuking the antiwar movement to reconciling political differences and healing the nation.”34 His story relates the need and the challenge to incorporate divisions within a nation. Located on the National Mall, the site of antiwar demonstrations, the VVM proclaims the intent of reconciliation, echoing that of the nearby Lincoln Memorial.35

Across the globe in South Africa, psychologists from the Universities of Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch, Garth Stevens and Leswin Laubscher, respectively, decry the “historical revisionism and erasures of many of the ordinary historical traces and impacts of apartheid . . . all in the service of creating a sanitised landscape of the new South Africa. . . .”36 I admit that I was taken aback by the sanitized conditions of Robben Island, an iconic national and World Heritage Site. Tourism can gloss over hard facts to avoid loss of visitors and subsequent funding, and I felt this dilemma impacted Robben Island. Given its history as a symbol of apartheid's brutality, I found disconcerting the spic-and-span walls and whitewashed façades of the once-dirty maximum security prison that housed African heroes.37 Yes, a trace of its horrid past remains, but the soul of the struggle fought on Die Eiland (Afrikaans: The Island; Xhosa: Siqithini) is marginalized.

Instead of revising the past, Achille Mbembe argues that we need to demythologize whiteness. He discusses the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, which began at the University of Cape Town in 2014 and spread across South African universities as students defaced and toppled campus colonial memorials. Mbembe asks, not why, but what took so long to topple these colonial monuments. He contends that “For memory to fulfill this function long after the Truth and Reconciliation paradigm has run out of steam, the demythologizing of certain versions of history must go hand in hand with the demythologizing of whiteness. . . .” Mbembe argues that “Whiteness is at its best when it turns into a myth. It is the most corrosive and the most lethal when it makes us believe that it is everywhere; that everything originates from it and it has no outside.”38

This discussion of memorialization hinges on the seminal work of Benedict Anderson, Maurice Halbwachs, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, among others.39 Halbwachs writes that history resembles a crowded cemetery where room must constantly be made for new tombstones. Since, he posits, remembrance is a reconstruction of the past “achieved with data borrowed from the present,” renaming is part of the metadata needed to achieve this reconstruction.40 Hobsbawm states renaming is a process that creates shared understanding by promoting a collective sense of continuity with a suitable and infrequently fictionalized past. Critics to renaming in South Africa have challenged the wisdom of the name changes. Not surprisingly, these protests have come from the white, mainly Afrikaner community, many of whom perceive the intent of name changes by the majority-rule government more as erasure and domination than revitalization and unification. Do concessions of requisite nationalism need to be made for all groups to accept the name changes? Perhaps.

Historian Christopher Saunders credits the absence of African names by the prior South African governments to the destructive nature of the conquest of the country and the extent of racism involved, as the conquerors tended to ignore the names blacks used for places.41 To redress this injury, between 1994 and 2003, the state redrew the provinces to expand the existing four (Cape Province, Orange Free State, Transvaal, and Natal) to nine provinces to allow for the inclusion of black African names. Cape Province was divided into three (Western Cape, Eastern Cape, and Northern Cape), the Orange Free State became the Free State, Natal was renamed KwaZulu-Natal, and the Transvaal was divided into Gauteng, Mpumalanga (initially Eastern Transvaal), Northwest Province, and Limpopo Province (initially Northern Province). This article is concerned with the newly named province of Gauteng (see Figure 2), Sesotho for “at the gold,” which is the industrial and mining heartland of South Africa and comprises what was the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging complex before being renamed Gauteng.43

Located in Northeastern South Africa, Gauteng is the smallest province in South Africa but the most densely populated, and Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, is located in Gauteng. The renaming of Pretoria to Tshwane, one of the four cases discussed in this article, remains a controversial issue. Home to the headquarters of banks, the Reserve Bank, and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Pretoria is an international city with a recognizable name. Critics of the renaming of Pretoria to Tshwane, after the indigenous people, charge that renaming will cause confusion and loss of revenue. Generating the most wealth in the country as it lies in the eastern part of the Witwatersrand, Gauteng Province has the highest income per capita and the highest literacy rate in South Africa, with 90 percent of its population living in metropolitan areas.

If name changes can be used as a barometer for hegemony, then it is worth the time to examine what processes go into name changing. Based on the literature, I argue that renaming is comprised of three aspects: selection by the builder; prescription for national remembrance; and context of interpretation of intent (i.e., commemoration, ownership, reparation, or dominance/erasure), which is based on the ideology of the reader and the setting of the name change. According to the reader's interpretation of the builder's intent, the reader accepts, rejects, or ignores the sites of renaming.

For purposes of elucidation, the following sites will represent the following categories of intent (see Figure 3) or perceived intent: 1) commemoration—Bramfischerville;44 2) ownership—Soweto street names; 3) reparation—Bram Fischer Drive; and, 4) in a denser discussion, domination/erasure—Pretoria/Tshwane. All of these sites are located within Gauteng Province. This examination acknowledges that overlap of intent is inevitable and that no pure intent occurs in geographic renaming.

Benedict Anderson's scholarship is useful to illuminate the crucial element of shared history in the construction of an “imagined community,” which allows disparate groups to envision themselves with a collective past.45 The methodology to measure the success of renaming in constructing a shared history is the response of the reader to the living text. This response, I contend, is based on the intent or perceived intent for the site renaming. I argue that the reader of the text will generally accept the renaming when she or he perceives the intent of commemoration, reparation, or ownership. Conversely, if this process conveys to the reader of the text the intent of domination or erasure, a rupture occurs in the shared understanding of the “imagined community” and the reader will likely reject, contest, or ignore the renaming, depending on the location of the name change.

In documenting the uneven responses to renaming in South Africa, the informal surveys of political analyst Mcebisi Ndletyana proved helpful and provided data on reader perception. Ndletyana assesses that his surveys reveal that “the cost of naming, which supposedly distracts financial resources from much-needed development in black neighborhoods, did not feature in the arguments advanced by black correspondents. They considered renaming a necessary corrective exercise.”46 In a brief survey of Randburg residents, I found that Afrikaners largely ignored, while Africans recognized, the renaming in Randburg of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd Drive to Afrikaner struggle advocate Bram Fischer Drive.47 I suggest that this uncontested renaming was due to the location, as Randburg is not an international metropole, like Pretoria, and the residents are equally divided between lower-middle-class whites and blacks.

In addition to these surveys, geographer E. R. Jenkins provided from the South Africa Geographical Names Council (SAGNC) an unpublished list of source languages for the number of names approved between 2000 and 2014.48 These data partially support my claim that reading of name changes depends on the location of the renaming and the ideology of the reader. Jenkins compares the number of source languages of approved names in the period 1989 (demise of apartheid) through 1999 as 46.2 percent African languages, 29.2 percent English, and 13.4 percent Afrikaans, with the number in the period 2000 to 2014 as 84.6 percent African, 6.9 percent English, and 3.2 percent Afrikaans. This rise in African language names in the later period, Jenkins states, was due to “the large number of existing settlements and new post offices that were registered for the first time and the changing of the names or spellings of many settlements.”49

In Table 1, I used data taken from the 2017 South African Department of Arts and Culture's Report on Standardization submitted to the United Nations. The report lists the approved names since the establishment of SAGC in 2000 according to province and languages. As the chart shows, a total of 1,393 names were approved in the nine provinces with the language breakdown: Afrikaans 33, English 79, and other African languages 1,281. Not surprisingly, Gauteng Province, being the wealthiest province with a large white population, listed the number of approved names as Afrikaans 5, English 26, and African languages 17. Of the nine provinces in South Africa, the SAGNC listed KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo as having the most approved names with an African source language, isiZulu and isiXhosa, respectively.51

Figure 4 lists the three aspects of renaming.

Selection by the Builder—South African Geographical Names Council (SAGNC)

As ruling party, the ANC instituted geographic name changes under the auspices of the SAGNC. The first aspect of name changing is driven by the builder of the collection, which is the state's appointee, in this case the SAGNC. The SAGNC as the archivist (i.e., builder of the collection) then codifies the rules of appraisal based on the second aspect of name changing, the state's prescription for national remembrance.

With the fall of apartheid, the National Place Name Committee (NPNC) incorporated black experts in the nine new official African languages and sought to erase racist names. Airport names changed to geographic names (e.g., D. F. Malan to Cape Town International) in a neutralization process that was crucial at the international recognition level. After 1994, the ANC-controlled government determined that the mandate of the NPNC, which had limited jurisdiction and power to install names, was too narrow. Based on recommendations in the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage of 1996, the state created a Working Forum on Geographical Names to advise the then-minister of arts, culture, science and technology on recasting the NPNC's mandate.52 The result was the South African Geographical Names Council Act No. 118 of 1998 that established the SAGNC, a consultative committee appointed by the national minister of arts, culture, science and technology, to replace the NPNC.

The SAGNC is responsible for naming all geographical features within South Africa. The council's mission is to promote reparation through symbolic measures with no restrictions on economic cost; to ensure that name changes occur with transformation, to promote nation-building objectives; and to include consultation with the people.53 The SAGNC deals with the names of provinces, towns, cities, airports, and natural features, while local names are the responsibility of the municipal councils.54

In 2003, each province had to establish a Geographical Names Committee (GNC) to process applications for name changes “for attention and recommendation to the SAGNC.”55 Juristic names (e.g., names of country, provinces) and features under the control of local authorities (e.g., streets, municipal buildings, parks, and cemeteries) fall outside the jurisdiction of the SAGNC and the GNCs. Although the SAGNC can facilitate name changes, the proposals for the local name changes must emanate from the community. Street renaming proposals are the responsibility of the local authority (i.e., the mayor). But, because only the ministry can make the final decisions on name changes, ultimately, the state (i.e., SAGNC) has the power to write and collect the text of the “living” archive of place naming.

Mia Swart posits that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) laid the context for geographic renaming in its stated aim of reconciliation and unity. In its 1998 report, the TRC proposed the use of memorials as a form of reparation to victims, similar to the VVM in Washington, DC.56 In this proposal, Swart argues that the TRC set a legal groundwork for the validity of name changes, laying the context for approved street names.57

Prescription for National Remembrance—Reconciliation

In majority-rule South Africa, the prescription for national remembrance has been reconciliation. This prescription allows for reconciliation of the national past with the national present through renaming of sites created with the intent of commemoration, reparation, and ownership. Renaming with the intent of domination of the present regime over the past runs counter to reconciliation and does not fill the prescription for national remembrance. To approve a name change, the SAGNC needs this appraisal codification to determine what is collectable. The revised government application allows all donors to nominate names, but only under strict guidelines. Denver Webb argues that the pace of transformation and the concept of reconciliation under Mandela's presidency were too one-sided, with blacks forgiving apartheid and whites retaining privilege. Mia Swart avers a new prescription may be needed that takes into account the complex history of South Africa.58

In 1990, the Republic of South Africa released Nelson Mandela, after twenty-seven years of imprisonment. Amid uncertainty, chaos, and a decade of political violence in Natal between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the new South Africa held its first democratic elections with Mandela on the ANC Party ticket receiving a large majority of votes.59 In the newly democratic South Africa and the honeymoon of the Mandela era, dreams flourished and hope sang in the hearts of many of the oppressed majority, while conversely, fear reigned in the minds of many of the white minority. To subsume and redirect the violence, distrust, and likely retribution between the formerly oppressed and the oppressors, Mandela channeled the discourse around unity and reconciliation. He instituted a law mandating the TRC, which validated memorials as a form of reparation. Furthermore, to acknowledge the indigenous forms of heritage and to transform existing heritage institutions, President Mandela, before retiring, signed the National Heritage Resource Act of 1999.60 The Heritage Act emphasizes the living heritage and cultural significance of previously marginalized peoples and argues for redress and economic sustainable development of marginalized heritage resources.

South Africa has an established state and community practice of public commemoration of founders and seminal events. Yet, before 1994 democratic governance, Afrikaners built 99 percent of all memorials in South Africa to commemorate the settler history.61 With majority rule, this dearth of representation and commemoration of Africans has created a push to document, redress, and honor the history of the silenced majority, as evidenced above in the work to “refigure the archive” and in the discussion of the current literature. With the focus on redress, the danger is that the intent of commemoration can shift to the intent of domination over the past, as African names replace Afrikaner names on geographic sites, risking the erasure of Afrikaner history.

The main debates in the memorialization phenomena include the need to address poverty, education, employment, payment of reparations, and AIDS education over heritage; and the need to situate, through excision or refiguring, extant monuments built by colonizers. Adhering to the spirit of the Public Holidays Act of 1994, which repealed past public holiday acts of the Republic of South Africa, the most notable change was the renaming of the Afrikaner public holiday of the Day of the Vow (December 16) to the Day of Reconciliation.

The SAGNC seeks to redress erasures, commemorate events and individuals in the liberation struggle, and reclaim ownership of land.62 These debates are problematic as they require choosing between collective memory and service delivery. When a monument can cost over a million South African rand (1 million R ~ 0.35 million USD in 1994), the decision is not hypothetical but based on hard economics. This conundrum has evolved into a phenomenon of museum and archives building and geographic name changes to inscribe what is to be remembered, how it is to be remembered, and what to do with the sites honoring past regimes.63

Albert Grundlingh addresses the processes through which cultural contracts are negotiated when a reversal of power structures has occurred.64 In the city of Pretoria, whose name is being contested, the Voortrekker Monument is either an eyesore or an inspiration, depending on what Grundlingh calls “ethnic historical consciousness.” A huge granite structure on a hill prominently overlooking Pretoria, the Voortrekker Monument is the physical embodiment of the imposing, brute power of apartheid or the bravery of the Afrikaner volk (people). Inaugurated on December 16, 1949, which in Afrikanerdom is the Day of the Vow and in Zulu memory is Ncome Day, the Voortrekker Monument celebrates the 1838 Battle at the Ncome, or Blood River, in which 3,000 Zulu warriors were killed and the Voortrekkers—Boers migrating with their slaves from the Cape Colony to escape British rule—suffered few losses. Seeing their victory as a sign from God instead of the power of their armament over Zulu spears, the Boers vowed to bring civilization to the black hordes. The centenary celebration of the 1838 “Great Trek” in 1938 included a reenactment of the Great Trek and was an unprecedented success symbolically “rooted in an ideal (heroic) rustic past.”65

With the takeover of the ANC, the monument, which was previously the property of the state, was privatized by the Voortrekker Monument Company. The ANC has reinscribed its own past by placing in juxtaposition to the Voortrekker the new heritage site of Freedom Park where the Freedom Charter was written in 1955. Then, in 1999, the Battle at the Ncome, or Blood River, site was renamed the Ncome-Blood River Heritage site. With the Voortrekker Monument on the western side of the Ncome River, the Ncome Museum on the east side of the river provides the Zulu version of the battle to allow visitors a balanced view of the events. Grundlingh asks if the monument can be considered as irrelevant in the “new” South Africa and concludes that by viewing the monument in terms of heritage, where its original meaning is largely lost, the monument functions as an innocuous focal point for Afrikaner culture. Conversely, historian Cynthia Kros argues that there is a danger in simply consigning the monument to Afrikaner culture. She quotes the Comaroffs in stating that by doing so, “we grant it an untouchable apartness that amounts to “‘sovereignty’.”66

Sabine Marschall offers that “Monuments and memorials not only facilitate mourning but also form a focal point for ritual actions . . . and a site for symbolic gestures. . . .”67 Monuments are a means of asserting new group values, restoring dignity and self-esteem, expressing identity, and recognizing achievement, all perceived as positive values. Through recognition of previously marginalized culture, monuments can contribute to the enhancement of self-esteem and thereby restore harmony in society. She asserts that by constituting a public, visible, lasting recognition, these commemorative sites affirm the group identity based on such trauma, help to overcome loss, and pave the way for reconciliation. Marschall frames these monuments and memorials as gestures of compensation that apply on two levels: first, as symbolic reparation to victims, and second, as contributions to the construction of a “desired past” as a means of compensating for the “real past.” I argue that when the intent of a name change denotes domination over or erasure of the past, the name change will likely be perceived as a negative value by the former ruling population and contested.

Since 1994, many locations have undergone name changes in majority-rule South Africa.68 Nearly fifteen years later, however, historian Denver Webb asserts that the pace of transformation of place names to rid the country of its colonial and apartheid past has been too slow. The cause for long delays is often “the routine objections from minority groups,” which serve as a constant reminder that “ours was a negotiated settlement in 1994 and not a revolutionary take-over.” In 2018, the minister of arts and culture approved, after a bitter dispute, the name change of Grahamstown to Makhanda. What followed was “the usual social media storm of outrage. Equally predictable, the reaction reflected the polarisation of South African society along racial and privilege lines.”69

Context of Interpretation of Intent—Reader Ideology and Setting of Name Change

Mbembe asserts that decolonization of public spaces must include a change of those colonial names whose function “has been to induce and normalize particular states of humiliation based on white supremacist presuppositions.”70 His assertion follows my argument that the context in which the new name is interpreted is nuanced by the reader's ideology (e.g., ANC, DA). I add that the setting of the name change (e.g., Pretoria versus Soweto) also informs the perceived risks to the reader's identity.

While the builder and the prescription are constants, the context of interpretation is a variable based on the reader's ideology and the location of the renaming. Based on the context of the reader's interpretation of the builder's intent in collecting these texts, new names will be read as a narrative that is either accepted, rejected, or ignored. I will discuss four cases on renaming in the new province of Gauteng. These four sites represent the four reader responses to name changes interpreted as intentions of commemoration, ownership, reparation, and dominance/erasure. As the context of interpretation of intent is the variable in the three aspects of name changing, this third aspect is used to tease out the reasons for the reception of a name change. Figure 4 provides an overview of the province of Gauteng and the four renaming sites I discuss. Gauteng is divided into five regions/municipalities: Johannesburg, Tshwane (Greater Pretoria), Ekurhuleni (the East Rand), the West Rand, and Sedibeng. I focus on the two Gauteng municipalities of the City of Johannesburg, which incorporates Bramfischerville, Soweto, and Randburg; and the City of Tshwane, which incorporates Pretoria/Tshwane.

The Gauteng provincial government dedicated R3.5 billion to economic projects, which Elizabeth Delmont states reflects the change in the city's economy from a place of production to a place of consumption.72 The majority of Africans in the municipality of the City of Johannesburg live in region 6-Doornkop/Soweto, which encompasses Bramfischerville and Soweto. The third-largest population of Africans is concentrated in Randburg, in the Central Region of the City of Johannesburg. Based on the demographics, I argue that the name changing in these areas (Bramfischerville, Soweto, and Randburg) was not contested, as the great majority of citizens are African. Compare these statistics with Pretoria/Tshwane in the municipality of the City of Tshwane, where the legacy of the Mentz Commission continues. Mandated by the Group Areas Act of 1950, the Mentz Committee, formed by Verwoerd in 1952, drew detailed plans for the reconfiguration of the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging (PWV) region to racially restructure the area (i.e., remove “black spots”).73

The South African program of reconciliation, inclusivity, and nation-building was designed to promote forms of commemoration for previously marginalized peoples or groups. The intent of renaming was in the main to fulfill this mandate.74 The communities advocating for name changes argue in favor of eliminating traces of white oppression and “contend that the cost of these changes is nothing in comparison to the cost that blacks suffered under colonialism and apartheid.” Conversely, opponents of name change are often white advantaged South Africans who are resisting the postcolonial challenge to their white history. They argue that name changes do not unify the people, are too expensive, and impede international marketing. Notably, they add a postscript that name changing is really a political game played by the ANC. In the current context of black political domination, Guyot and Seethal argue that these white residents are redirecting the discourse of name changing to affirm their presence and history.75 As discussed (see Figure 4), renaming is comprised of three aspects: selection by the builder, prescription for national remembrance, and context of interpretation of intent (i.e., commemoration, ownership, reparation, or dominance/erasure). The first two aspects are constants and set by the state, the third aspect is a variable based on the ideology of the reader.


Bramfischerville is a shanty town located outside of Alexandra and far from any workplaces. The town houses the Bram Fischer Multi-cultural Center, and all of the residents are black. No contestation was evinced by the naming of this location. Of note, Bramfischerville had no previous name but was chosen as a site for the building of small, boxlike, four-room standardized houses with outdoor toilets in response to the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) shortly after Mandela's inauguration.

Bramfischerville commemorates the life of Abram (“Bram”) Fischer (1908–1975). Fischer is best remembered, if remembered, as the advocate who defended anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, and others, during the Treason Trial. He later led the defense in the Rivonia Trial (1963–1964), which saved the defendants from the apartheid gallows. A scion of an Afrikaner family, Fischer's paternal grandfather was prime minister of the Orange Free State. Fischer was unique in that he sacrificed his privileged background and was one of the few Afrikaners who fought in the liberation struggle and the only one jailed for life. Mandela writes that Fischer was one of the bravest foes of apartheid.76 He was also an avowed communist which, in today's global climate, makes him a sensitive “hero” for South Africa. No contestation occurred at the naming of this shanty town.


According to RBA Developments, a property development company that specializes in quality housing for South Africans earning R6,000 to R25,000 monthly ($400 to $1,700), “Soweto is flourishing, new shopping centres, malls, office buildings and businesses are having a positive impact on the value of property in Soweto and its surrounding area.”77 The City of Johannesburg budgeted R40,000 for the renaming, which involved consultation with family members and invitations to the community to participate in the renaming process.78 The renaming of four streets in Soweto can be viewed as a case of ownership/tribute and was positively received by the community. These heroes of the 1976 Soweto Student Uprising lived in Soweto on the streets that now bear their names: Tsietsi Mashini, Lekgau Mathabathe, Wycliff Tobo, and Danny Kekana.

In 2004, Standards South Africa, a division of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), began a project to develop a South African National Standard (SANS) for South African addresses. During apartheid, the government did not assign street names but allocated house numbers per block in townships like Soweto. In 2012, I lived in the H Block of eSikhawini where, like Soweto, the township had only one entry/exit street to allow for effective police control. Today, municipalities in South Africa are assigning street names to townships to facilitate service deliveries, and the naming of Sowetan streets aids in this endeavor.79

The positive reception to the renaming was echoed in the words of a mayoral committee member for development, planning, and urban management, Ruby Mathang: “We see this as a fitting tribute to the memory of youth leaders who changed the face of South Africa and made an immense contribution to the liberation of our country.”80


Randburg, a municipality within the City of Johannesburg in Gauteng Province, also encompasses Soweto. A “whites only” area during apartheid, today this complex of suburbs is home to middle-class blacks and whites. When looking for lodgings, I was told by a friend that Randburg was reasonably safe. In June of 2008, Randburg exchanged Hendrik Verwoerd Drive for Bram Fischer Drive. Was the intent of the renaming to erase Verwoerd, the chief architect of apartheid, from public memory or was the purpose to celebrate a “caring advocate who despised the oppressive system?”81 To show the complexity of life in South Africa, Dr. Verwoerd's grandson worked for the TRC, evincing South Africa's deep belief in reconciliation. I argue that this renaming was an example of redress.

Ruth Fischer Rice, oldest daughter of Bram and Molly Fischer, believes that only the old guard of the ANC remembers her father. Most residents would view the renaming of Verwoerd Drive to Bram Fischer Drive, she stated, as just another name change. When asked if the renaming might spur people to ask who Bram Fischer was, she responded with a hopeful but uncertain smile.82 At the Randburg Inn, a block from Bram Fischer Drive, only one employee, Zalene Twala, a native of Soweto, knew the identity of Bram Fischer. The Afrikaners I interviewed alleged that they did not know of Bram Fischer or misidentified him. Antije Krog, an Afrikaner journalist, adds insight into the Afrikaner embarrassment of Bram Fischer. “He was so much braver than the rest of us, he paid so much more, his life seems to have touched the lives of so many people—even after his death.”83

Unlike the international metropolis of Pretoria, Randburg is a lower-middle-class complex of suburbs without global name recognition. Despite the mixture of racial ideologies, the exchange of one Afrikaner name for another evinced little impact, I argue, due largely to the location of the renaming. After receiving public comments, the name change was implemented without incident according to City of Johannesburg councilor Ruby Mathang, who supervised the work of the street-naming policy of the city. Mathang believes that “Street names are significant because they help us to celebrate aspects of our history, and to pay tribute to our heroes.”84 But to whose history and heroes does Mathang refer?

Pretoria/Tshwane—Domination or Erasure

Pretoria/Tshwane, the commercial heart of South Africa and its administrative capital, began in 1994, with the advent of democratic rule, to fulfill its vision as a world-class city.85 As Leslie Witz argues, the production of public pasts is never as straightforward and adaptable as the polity requires.86 Contestation is inevitable as competing narratives vie for the inscription on the state's memory. To embed the concept of a “rainbow” of people into the collective, narratives had to be suppressed or reinterpreted in South Africa's transition to democracy.87 While the first presidency centered on nation-building in the challenge to avoid civil war, President Mbkei followed by President Zuma turned the focus on “Africaness” based on color. This shift to race caused some white South Africans to question the intent of the SAGNC's renaming of Pretoria, a bastion of Afrikanerdom, which has the largest white population in sub-Saharan Africa, and where the primary language spoken is Afrikaans. Figure 6 illustrates the two heroes vying for the renaming.

Outside the Pretoria City Hall, across from the statues of Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, president of the old Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, and his father Andries, after whom Pretoria was named, now also stands the statue of Chief Tshwane. At a special ceremony on July 26, 2006, attended by the city's councilors and the Tshwane royal family, Absalom Ditshoke, a member of the mayoral committee, said: “[Chief] Tshwane represents our achievements as a city and symbolises our transformation, progress and evolution. Our plans are in place to make this not an average city, but a great city.” The 3.6m bronzed figure of Chief Tshwane cost the city 1 million rand.

According to oral tradition, Chief Tshwane used to rule the people of this area before the Voortrekkers settled. Chief Tshwane was one of the sons of Chief Mushi or Msi from KwaZulu-Natal. Chief Mushi moved to the region around 1652 and gave an area near the Apies River to his son. In 2005, SAGNC approved changing the name of the City of Pretoria to the City of Tshwane, in memory of the people who once lived in the area. Afrikaners in the city intensely contested the name change, and, as the minister of arts and culture has yet to approve the name change, the debate continues with no resolution in sight. The City of Pretoria/Tshwane is the center of the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Muncipality, the municipality name is uncontested. As shown in Figure 7, neither side is willing to give ground. The Tshwane people have waited long enough for recognition of what was taken from them. The Afrikaners have fought too hard for their independence to budge. The hub of this debate is the Mfecane (Zulu: scattering), “the myth of the depopulation of the interior” when the Afrikaners arrived in the Eastern cape on their Great Trek from Cape Town.89 According to the story, Africans fled to the mountains in the early 1800s to evade the warring Shaka Zulu, leaving their land vacant and open to Afrikaner occupation. Africans dispute this interpretation, as do many South African historians.90

The Pretoria/Tshwane name-changing debate dates back to March 2005 when the Tshwane Metropolitan Council submitted an application to the SAGNC, without a process of public consultation, to register Tshwane as a place name. On May 26, 2005, the SAGNC approved changing the name of Pretoria to Tshwane, which was already the name of the Metropolitan Municipality in which Pretoria and a number of surrounding towns are located. Although the SAGNC approved the name change, the minister of arts and culture had not yet done so. The matter was under consideration while the minister requested further research on the matter. Once the minister approved the name change, the name would be published in the Government Gazette, giving opportunity for public comment. The minister could then refer the public response back to the SAGNC, before presenting a recommendation before parliament, which would then vote on the change. Various public interest groups warned that the name change would be challenged in court should the minister approve the renaming.

Name changes act as a local microcosm of the national macrocosm, much as a leaf is part of the parent plant. Debates over name changes often mirror the present tensions in a country. After the uproar from Afrikaners accusing the ANC of denigrating their history, the minister demurred and the document was not signed, although a new minister was in place. In 2005, proponents of the name change sent out flyers announcing the name change—before it was official. Which side is in power often dictates the outcome of the debate. Blogs and Facebook debates show that South Africans care “what's in a name” if they feel it obliterates their history.

The Tshwane Metro Council advertised Tshwane as “Africa's leading capital city” because the SAGNC had approved the name change. This advertising led to further controversy, however, as the name of the city had not yet been changed officially, and the council was, at best, acting prematurely. Afrikaners, likely AfriForum, an Afrikaner nonprofit public interest group in Gauteng, lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The ASA ruled in its favor that such advertisements were deliberately misleading and should be withdrawn from all media. Despite the rulings of the ASA, Tshwane Metro Council failed to discontinue its “City of Tshwane” advertisements. As a result, the ASA requested that Tshwane Metro pay for advertisements in which it admits that it misled the public. Refusing to abide by the ASA's request, the Metro Council was banned consequently from placing any advertisements in the South African media that refer to Tshwane as the capital. ASA may sanction the Metro Council further to prevent it from placing any advertisements in the South African media, including council notices and employment vacancies. After the ruling, the Metro Council continued to place Tshwane advertisements, but placed them on council-owned advertising boards and bus stops throughout the municipal area. In August 2007, an internal memo was leaked to the media in which the Tshwane mayor sought advice from the premier of Gauteng on whether the municipality could be called the “City of Tshwane” instead of just “Tshwane.” This could increase confusion about the distinction between the City of Pretoria and the Municipality of Tshwane.

In August 2007, AfriForum successfully applied for an injunction in the High Court of Pretoria when it came to light that the Metropolitan Council intended to replace Pretoria road signs with Tshwane signs. Jumping on this breach of procedure, AfriForum fought to maintain Pretoria as the city's name. When all efforts to reach an acceptable agreement with the Tshwane Metropolitan Council failed, the case ended up in the North Gauteng High Court. In late March 2010, with the aim of reaching finality about the name change, Judge Ismail stated that, because of public interest in the matter, a ruling in the case would be postponed indefinitely. Ismail hoped that national dialogue would find solutions for the contentious issue of place name changes. But a solution continues to elude the courts. Today, confusion reigns as “some people say Pretoria refers to the city and Tshwane the municipal district, [while] the official site for the capital,, bids you ‘Welcome to the City of Tshwane’.”94 The name change from Pretoria to Tshwane deserves a closer look to see how it fits the geographical renaming response paradigm I have offered.

I theorize that, of the three aspects of renaming, the third aspect, context of interpretation of intent, is the variable in the equation that determines the reception of a name change based on the ideology of the reader and the setting of the name change. If AfriForum, the reader of the text, interpreted the SAGNC's intent in renaming Pretoria as dominance or erasure and not as commemoration, ownership, or reparation, the organization would reject, protest, and/or ignore Tshwane as the new name.

AfriForum both rejected and protested the name change, filing a contentious lawsuit against the Department of Arts and Culture. In 2016 and again in March 2019, the organization brought an “interdict against the City of Tshwane to prevent the City from removing the old names.”95 The City of Tshwane countered that the name changes were in line with its policies “to ensure that the City is inclusive and representative of all who live in it.” AfriForum alleged that the city had failed to follow proper public participation processes prior to changing the names. Under debate was whether the city center would remain Pretoria or change to Tshwane.96 In August 2017, the SAGNC reported that the Pretoria name change was referred back to City of Tshwane Metro for public participation.97 As of this writing, the name of Pretoria has not been officially changed to Tshwane.

I contend that at the base of the rejection of this name change is 1) AfriForum's interpretation of the SAGNC's intent for renaming as either ANC dominance or erasure of Afrikaner heritage (ideology), and 2) the setting of Pretoria, which has the greatest number of Afrikaner speakers (i.e., 48%) in Gauteng Province and is an internationally recognized metropolis (location).98 Afrikaner author Max du Preez describes AfriForum's ideology as “reactionary identity politics.” Arguably, had the name change occurred in an English- or African-populated, poorer section of Gauteng, and not an Afrikaner section, the renaming might have passed unchallenged.99

Motorists saw dueling signage on the highway leading to Pretoria in 2005 during the rise of the renaming controversy. “Road signs erected at the boundaries of the Tshwane Metropolitan area have been consistently defaced” with Tshwane replaced by Pretoria.100 Notably, the spoiled signage in Figure 8 reads “Pretoria/Marabastad,” which recalls the multicultural history of Pretoria. The old Maraba township consisted of a population of blacks, Indians, and coloreds (descendants of mixed white and black, and infrequently Indian, races), much like Cape Town's District Six, and contained the Asiatic Bazaar of Indian vendors. With the Group Areas Act of 1950, the central state removed the different ethnicities to separate locations around Pretoria, destroying a thriving multicultural community.101 The current Marabastad is a business community of local black African vendors near the center of Pretoria. Possibly the anonymous author of this “graffiti” is a vendor who fears tourism will be diverted if Pretoria is changed to the African name of Tshwane, or an AfriForum member.

Context of Interpretation of Intent—Ideology and Location

This is the third aspect of renaming. I argue that this variable determines the acceptance or rejection of a name change and that interpretation is informed by the reader's ideology and the location of the site to be renamed.


The City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality is situated in a fertile valley fifty kilometers north of Johannesburg. The estimated population is 2.4 million, with the city of Pretoria at approximately 1 million. The former official website for the City of Tshwane translated Tshwane as “we are the same.” Today, under the logo are the words “igniting excellence.” By naming the metropolitan city municipality after Tshwane, blacks asserted that they were in the area first. But, as of 2019, the municipal council consists of 214 members and the Democratic Alliance (DA), a largely Afrikaner party, holds the most seats with the ANC a close second.103

Demographics within the borders of the City of Tshwane show a population that is 72.65% black, 23.84% white, 1.99% colored, and 1.52% Indian or Asian. Pretoria has a negative connotation to many black South Africans, as “the capital of apartheid South Africa.” Pretoria remains one of the country's three capital cities: Pretoria (executive, administrative capital), Cape Town (legislative capital), and Bloemfontein (judicial capital).


As late as 2010, the City of Tshwane website unintentionally proclaimed the reason for the controversy surrounding the renaming of Pretoria:

Tshwane, the administrative capital and the birthplace of the new South African democracy, is home to a large diplomatic community.

Well over a hundred embassies and foreign missions are located here, making Tshwane the ideal base for international trade and for liaison with political decision makers from all over the world.105

As the administrative capital of South Africa, Tshwane/Pretoria also serves as the de facto national capital. Pretoria is contained within the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality. Pretoria, the city within the municipality, is referred to as Tshwane, as part of the contested, unresolved name change. The geographical identifier system in South Africa is Country > Province > Municipality > Suburb. In the resolution of the Pretoria/Tshwana controversy, this identifier translates as South Africa > Gauteng > City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality > City of Pretoria OR City of Tshwane.

Lacking a national address register, Serena Coetzee and Antony K. Cooper argue, the need for South Africa to standardize addresses to alleviate “the negative impact of the current lack of mandated authorities on unambiguous address specification and the benefits that address standardization would bring.”106 Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, this persuasive argument provided ammunition against the name change, citing problematic service delivery due to the international recognition of the name Pretoria over Tshwane. The GNC delegated the responsibility for allocating addresses to the municipalities, yet a property developer can choose to use a different name for the areas. Coetzee and Cooper define an address as a “code or description for the fixed location of a home, building or other entity.”107

I have argued that place naming can be read as text of the current governance in newly independent countries and that the location and the text combine to create a living archive. My study posits that the three aspects of renaming are collection by the builder, prescription for national remembrance, and context of interpretation of intent (i.e., commemoration, ownership, reparation, or dominance/erasure) based on the ideology of the reader and the setting of the name change. The first two aspects of renaming, collection by the builder and prescription for national remembrance, serve as constants in the equation. The variable that determines the acceptance or rejection of a name change is the third aspect of renaming—context of interpretation of intent. The conclusion I draw is that the intent or perceived intent of renaming is informed by the reader's ideology and the location of the name change, which results in its acceptance or rejection by the reader of the living text.

Over the past two decades, scores of locations have undergone name changes in South Africa.108 Identifying name changes as a metaphor for the challenges of forgetting and remembering the past, I have focused on four locations within Gauteng Province and the public reception of the renaming. My discussion on name changes through legal, geographical, and historical lenses seeks to add to the literature on memory and history by such scholars as Cecil Seethal and Sylvain Guyot, Mia Swart, and Karen Till.109

Do name changes mimic the present tensions in South Africa? Do name changes reveal the accepted, over the rejected, history of a country in transition? I have argued in the affirmative to these questions. While the name changes in Johannesburg set few if any ripples in the waters of unity and reconciliation, the tension and contestation evinced by the name change of the City of Pretoria to the City of Tshwane exemplifies the anxieties and identities in the imagined nation of postapartheid South Africa.

The variable aspect of name changing, the context of interpretation of intent, over the two constants of builder and prescription, provided the lens through which to view how a reader receives the text, which I have argued generally depends on the reader's ideology and the location of the name change. To support this claim, I analyzed the data the SAGNC provided to E. R. Jenkins, that is the SAGNC's unpublished list of 2000–2014 source languages for the number of names approved. From this resource, I posit that a reader's culture, discernible through language, affects the reception of a name change. Additionally, data from the SAGNC's Report on Standardization to the United Nations established the number of approved names per language according to location (see Table 1). I found that Gauteng (location), the wealthiest province with a large white population, has had minimal name changes, as the SAGNC stated many Afrikaners (language/culture) resist name changes, perceiving them as erasures of their heritage. Outside of Pretoria/Tshwane, in the three Johannesburg cases, the population consists of a large majority of black South Africans, as the locations were in the townships or in the largely African-populated city of Johannesburg proper. I found no evidence of contestation of the renamings in the media or in informal interviews.

Within a legal framework, Mia Swart compares South Africa's need to deapartheidization with Berlin's challenge to denazification after the end of the Cold War utilizing the tool of name change. Swart warns that “the conflict in opinion over street names also reflects[s] contested versions of South Africa's history.”110

In the Archival Platform, Enocent Msindo of Rhodes University created a guest blog entitled Naming the African: Questions of Identity, Tradition and History. He opens up the conundrum of an assumed overarching recognition of indigeneity and its role in identity politics, which plays heavily in the Tshwane/Pretoria debate and the renaming of other highly contested sites in South Africa.

The acceptance of an existing “objective” heritage depends on assumed over-arching recognition of indigeneity; indisputable “traditions”; historical geography; ethnic cultures, and other elements. Unfortunately, claims based on these alone are subjective, and for that reason, liable to contested debates and often dismissal as claims based on imagined identities; imagined traditions; imagined notions of heritage. . . .111

When historical claims are framed as subjective, Msindo posits, an ever-widening rupture in shared histories is created as territorial struggles based on ideology and race vie for name recognition and a place in the living text of the archive. Ultimately, memory can be used and abused in periods of transition by both the former oppressed and the oppressor to maintain their roles as victim or hero. In holding tight to these roles, citizens risk rupture in the formative state. The perceptions and anxieties of the apartheid ruling class during transition to democratic rule are important to observe. In doing so, we can learn how an oppressive regime, once it falls, looks to deal with defeat. In transition, both the oppressor and the oppressed must find ways to move forward. The SAGNC and its renaming process was a tool to consign apartheid and oppression to the past.

In the 2016 Constitutional Court case of City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality vs. AfriForum and Another, Judge Jafta paved the way forward for transformation in South Africa. AfriForum had applied for a restraining order to halt the City of Tshwane's removal of “the old street names in the Pretoria and bring back those that had been removed.” AfriForum cited the need of the courts to protect the constitutional right of the Afrikaner people to enjoy their culture and to avert the irreparable harm that could flow from the removal of the old street names. Jafta held that “an unquestionably transformative Constitution could not be expected to recognize cultural traditions rooted in the racist past. He contended that such an expectation is misplaced and that an oppressive racist history existing at the level of fact does not mean that it deserves any recognition in the Constitution.”112 Hear! Hear!


Tzvetan Todorov, “The Uses and Abuses of Memory,” in What Happens to History: The Renewal of Ethics in Contemporary Thought, ed. Howard Marchitello (New York: Routledge, 2001), 11–39.


Maoz Azaryahu, “Street Names and Political Identity: The Case of East Berlin,” Journal of Contemporary History 21, no. 4 (1986): 581–604,; Saul B. Cohen and Nurit Kliot, “Place Names in Israel's Ideological Struggles over Administered Territories,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, no. 4 (1992): 653–680,; R. Douglas K. Herman, “The Aloha State: Place-names and the Anti-conquest of Hawai'i,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89, no. 1 (1999): 76–102,; Elwyn Jenkins, Falling into Place: The Story of Modern South African Place Names (Cape Town: David Phillip, 2007); Barbara Meiring, “Toponymic Innovation and Social Change,” Nomina Africana 8, no. 1 (1994): 65–79; Brenda Yeoh, “Street Names in Colonial Singapore,” Geographical Review 82, no. 3 (1992): 313–22, DOI: 10.2307/215354.


Yeoh, “Street Names in Colonial Singapore,” 313–22; Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever,” in Refiguring the Archive, transcribed by Verne Harris (Cape Town: David Philip, 2002), 38–78.


Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, and Graeme Reid, Introduction, in Refiguring the Archive, 7–18, 7.


Achille Mbembe, “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive” (presentation, Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research [WISER], University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, May 2015), n.p.,


Mbembe, “Decolonizing Knowledge,” 3.


National Archives South Africa (NASA)—Cape Town Repository (KAB) 2/OBS Box 3-1-328. The Cape Town repository of the National Archives of South Africa houses many such documents on Africans who were deemed surplus labor and “endorsed out” from the Cape to be repatriated in their “homelands.”


Verne Sheldon Harris, personal email exchange with author, December 26 and 27, 2011. He attached his article, “Deconstructing the ‘Tattoo’,” presented at the Society of American Archivists' 2012 Annual Meeting.


Derrida, “Archive Fever,” 42.


Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University, 2008), 68.


Derrida, “Archive Fever,” 43.


Valmont Layne, “The District Six Museum: An Ordinary People's Place,” Public Historian 30, no. 1 (2008): 53–62, 59,


Jim Henderson, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Becky Branford, “City Names Mark Changing Times, BBC News, May 26, 2005,


Bill Nasson, “Commemorating South Africa's Boer War,” in Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space, ed. Daniel J. Walkowitz and Lisa Maya Knauer (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2004), 293.


I view the racial and class tensions in South Africa as split from Mandela's temporary homogenized whole into fractions. Viewing the national ideology of the Mandela era as creation of a mixture of distinct, disparate groups, under the Mbeki and Zuma presidencies, this mixture has gradually returned to its former separate states.


Mcebisi Ndletyana, “Changing Place Names in Post-apartheid South Africa: Accounting for the Unevenness,” Social Dynamics 38, no. 1 (2012): 87–103, 91,


Geoffrey Cubitt, History and Memory (New York: Palgrave, 2007).


Mia Swart, “Name Changes as Symbolic Reparation after Transition: The Examples of Germany and South Africa,” German Law Journal 9, no. 2 (2008): 105–21,


Maoz Azaryahu, “The Power of Commemorative Street Names,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 311, no. 14 (1996), Cited in Swart.


Swart, “Name Changes as Symbolic Reparation after Transition,” 112.


Karen E. Till, “Emplacing Memory through the City: The New Berlin” (lecture, “Spatial Turn in History” Symposium, German Historical Institute, February 19, 2004).


Zanelé Twala, interview with author, Soweto, November 14, 2009.


Sylvain Guyot and Cecil Seethal, “Identity of Place, Places of Identities: Change of Place Names in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” South African Geographical Journal 89, no. 1 (2007): 55–63,


Guyot and Seethal, “Identity of Place, Places of Identities,” 2.


Leslie Witz, Apartheid's Festival: Contesting South Africa's National Pasts (Bloomington: Indiana University, 2003), 246.


Witz, Apartheid's Festival, 250.


Jan van Riebeeck landed at the southern tip of South Africa in 1652, and Afrikaners proclaim him as the founder of the first white settlement in South Africa.


The Day of the Vow was a public holiday celebrated by the Afrikaner community to honor the Boer victory over the Zulus at Blood River on December 16, 1838. Before the battle, the Afrikaners made a covenant to celebrate December 16 as a Sabbath in return for God's help. The day was alternately known as Dingane's Day, whose Zulu forces the Afrikaners defeated. The day was known as Ncome Day by the Zulus as the battle was fought by the Ncome River. Upon South African majority rule in 1994, the name was changed to the Day of Reconciliation. Many Afrikaners continue to celebrate the date as part of their heritage.


Witz, Apartheid's Festival, 253.


Witz, Apartheid's Festival, 256.


Witz, Apartheid's Festival, 255.


John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1993).


Robert W. Doubek, Preface, in Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Publishers, 2015).


Doubek, Preface, Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 23.


Garth Stevens and Leswin Laubscher, “Editorial: Facing the Apartheid Archive,” Psychology in Society 40 (January 2010): 1–7.


Author perceptions from November 2009 visit to Robben Island.


Mbembe, “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive,” n.p.


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, rev. ed. 1991); Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, ed., trans. Lewis A. Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992); Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1983). See also Pierre Nora, “General Introduction: Between Memory and History,” in Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, vol. 1, ed. Pierre Nora and Lawrence D. Kritzman, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).


Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, trans. Francis J. Ditter Jr. and Vida Yazdi Ditter (New York: Harper Collins, 1980), especially 50–87; quote on 69.


Christopher Saunders, “The Transformation of Heritage in the New South Africa,” in History Making and Present Day Politics: The Meaning of Collective Memory in South Africa, ed. Hans Erik Stolten (Uppsala, Sweden: Nordisk Afrikainstitute, 2007), 186. Note that E. Jenkins states that in 1939, the National Place Name Committee (NPNC) used Bantu names in the spirit of “apartness.”


Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Gauteng,” 2009,


Alistair Boddy-Evans, “How South African Place Names Have Changed, Thought Co. (updated June 10, 2019), and Statoids, “Provinces of South Africa,”


Bramfischerville is alternately spelled Braamfischerville and Bram Fischerville. I interviewed Ruth Fischer Rice, Bram Fischer's daughter, at her home in November 2009. Ruth said that people regularly mixed up the spelling of her father's name, by adding an extra “a” to his first name and/or deleting the “c” in his last name. The orthography for this paper is Bramfischerville to honor the correct spelling of a South African hero.


Anderson, Imagined Communities, 15, cited in Gary Baines, “The Politics of Public History in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” in History Making and Present Day Politics, 173.


Ndletyana, “Changing Place Names in Post-apartheid South Africa,” 96.


Randford residents interviewed by author in November 2009. Interviews provided upon reasonable request.


Jenkins, Falling into Place, 9.


Jenkins, Falling into Place, 10.


Adapted from “Report of Geographical Names Division,” Eleventh United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, New York, August 8–17, 2017.


Prepared by Trueman Khubeka, Director, Geographical Names Division, Department of Arts and Culture, Eleventh United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, New York, August 8–17, 2017.


The SAGNC is an advisory body appointed by the minister of arts and culture in terms of the South African Geographical Names Act, 1998 (Act 118 of 1998). It replaced the National Place Names Committee (NPNC), which was appointed in 1940 by the then-minister of education, arts and science. Draft Policy: Naming of Public Place and Street Names, June 2009. Although the government is tripartite consisting of the ANC, the SACP, and COSATU, interviewee Ruth Fischer Rice states that the other two organizations defer to the ANC, which is also evident on the national website. See Department of Arts and Culture, Republic of South Africa,


See Schedule 5(b) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa for a complete list of local government competencies for further clarity,


See Western Cape Government, “Geographical Names,”


Saunders, “The Transformation of Heritage in the New South Africa,” 190.


Swart, “Name Changes as Symbolic Reparation after Transition, 105–21.


Mia Swart, “Name Changes Can Help Heal Past Injustice,” Business Day, April 4, 2012.


In 1994 alone, 1,600 deaths were recorded in KwaZulu-Natal Province. WRITENET, Kwazulu-Natal—Continued Violence and Displacement, July 1, 1996,


National Heritage Resources Act, 25/1999, Government Gazette,


Annette E. Coombes, History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2003). See also Elizabeth Delmont, “Re-envisioning Greater Johannesburg: South African Heritage Development in the First Decade of Democracy,” African Arts (Winter 2004), 30.


Also formerly called Day of the Covenant and Dingane's Day. See Public Holidays Act, 36/1994. Office of the President, No. 2088, December 7, 1994,


Since 1994, a number of museums and archives have been built to document apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work. See also SAGNCC for the long list of name changes since the agency's creation, See also


Albert Grundlingh, “A Cultural Conundrum?: Old Monuments and New Regimes,” in Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation, ed. Daniel J. Walkowitz and Lisa Maya Knauer (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2009), 157–77.


Grundlingh, “A Cultural Conundrum?,” 161.


Cynthia Kros, “Public History/Heritage: Translation, Transgression or More of the Same?,” African Studies 69, no. 1 (2010): 63–77, Kros covers the dilemma of what to do with these old (racist) heritage sites during the quest for reconciliation and unity. Kros convened the 1992 History Workshop conference titled “Myths, Monuments, Museums: New Premises?,” which focused on the Voortrekker Monument. Kros cites J. L. Comaroffs and J. Comaroff, Ethnicity, Inc. (Scottsville and Chicago: University of Chicago and UKZN Presses, 2009).


Sabine Marschall, “Gestures of Compensation: Post-apartheid Monuments and Memorials,” Transformation 55 (2004): 78–95, 82,


City of Johannesburg,


Denver Webb, “Change the Names to Rid SA of Its Colonial, Apartheid Past,” Mail & Guardian, September 21, 2018.


Mbembe, “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.”


Municipalities of South Africa, “Gauteng Municipalities,”


Elizabeth Delmont, “Re-envisioning Greater Johannesburg: South African Heritage Development in the First Decade of Democracy,” African Arts 37, no. 4 (2004): 30–35, 95,


Philip Bonner and Noor Nieftagodien, Alexandra: A History (Johannesburg: Wits University, 2001), 10.


Delmont, “Re-envisioning Greater Johannesburg,” 31.


Guyot and Seethal, “Identity of Place, Places of Identities,” 6.


Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994).


Welcome Outside, “New Park Opens in Bram Fischerville,”; City of Bram Fischerville, RBA New Homes. Today, the division between who owns property and who does not has created economic inequality in Soweto.


Serena Coetzee and Antony K. Cooper, “What Is an Address in South Africa?” (unpublished paper for the Department of Computer Science, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, 2007), 2. See also Bizcommunity, “Y'ello Signage Brings Street Names Back into Soweto,” March 4, 2004,


Joburg, “Play in Jo-Burg: City to Rename Streets after Student Heroes.”


Lucille Davie, “Apartheid Street Names Replaced,” AllAfrica (June 2, 2008),


Ruth Fischer Rice, interview with author in Noordhoek, South Africa, on October 27, 2009.


Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull (New York: Random House, 1999), 269–70.


IOL News/Politics, “Hendrik Verwoerd Drive Is No Longer” (June 14, 2007),


In 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections in which citizens of all races voted. The eleven administrative regions include Diepsloot, Midrand/Ivory Park, Sandton/Rosebank, Northcliff, Roodenpoort, Doornkop/Soweto, Alexandra, Central Region (Randburg), Johannesburg South, Diepkloof/Meadowlands, and Ennerdale/Orange Farm. Based on the 2001 census data obtained from City of Johannesburg Corporate GIS. Cited in Keith Beavon, Johannesburg: The Making and Shaping of the City (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2004), 264. 201 whites were counted in 2001 as living in Doornkop/Soweto and 652,341 Africans.


Witz, Apartheid's Festival, 246.


South Africans whom I interviewed used the term “rainbow” nation both as a prescriptive and as a duty to the belief in the new South Africa often in juxtaposition with the crimes of apartheid. Interview transcripts with Zalene Twala, MG, Raymond Suttner, Ruth Fischer Rice, and Arthur Chaskalson provided upon reasonable request.


Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Andries Pretorius,”


Carolyn Hamilton, ed., Mfecane Aftermath: Reconstructive Debates in Southern African History (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University, 1991), ix.


Norman Etherington, “The Great Trek in Relation to the Mfecane: A Reassessment,” South African Historical Journal 25, no. 1 (1991): 3–21,


Branford, “City Names Mark Changing Times.”


“Change the Names to Rid SA of Its Colonial, Apartheid Past,” Mail & Guardian (September 21, 2018),


Kennedy Mudzuli, “Battle for Tshwane's Soul,” IOL, Politics (March 4, 2015),


SA PeopleNews, “Is It Pretoria or Tshwane? And 22 Others You May Not Know” (April 25, 2016),


AfriForum, “AfriForum's East Rand Branches Oppose Street and Building Name Changes” (March 27, 2019),


Guyot and Seethal, “Identity of Place, Places of Identities,” 11.


South African Geographical Names Council, “Report on Standardisation of Geographical Names,” submitted to the Eleventh United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names (New York, August 2017), 12.


Branford, “City Names Mark Changing Times.” Also see


Max du Preez, “The Problem AfriForum Is Causing the DA,” News24 (May 15, 2018),


Wikiwand, “City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality,”


South African History Online, “Pretoria the Segregated City,”


Wikiwand, “City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality.” Today sells Pretoria city street signs.


Jonathan Shapiro has been the editorial cartoonist for the Sunday Times since 1998 and the Daily Maverick starting in 2017. Previously, he was editorial cartoonist for the Mail & Guardian (1994–2016), the Times (May 2009–2016), the Sowetan (1994–2005), the Cape Argus (1996–997), and the Cape Times, the Star, the Mercury, and the Pretoria News (2005–2008).


City of Tshwane,


Coetzee and Cooper, “What Is an Address in South Africa?,” 1.


Coetzee and Cooper, “What Is an Address in South Africa?,” 4.


Joburg, City of Johannesburg,


Seethal and Guyot, “Identity of Place, Places of Identities, 55–63; Mia Swart, “Name Changes as Symbolic Reparation after Transition, 105–21; Karen Till, “Emplacing Memory through the City: The New Berlin” (presentation, “Spatial Turn in History” Symposium at the German Historical Institute on February 19, 2004).


Swart, “Name Changes as Symbolic Reparation after Transition,” 119.


Constitutional Court of South Africa, Media Summary for CCT 175/15 City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality vs. AfriForum and Another (May 19, 2016)