Module Twenty Nine, Activity Three

Renaming places in South Africa

What’s in a name? Why are the names of cities, streets, parks, and bridges important? Why do people want to change names of places and structures? Why are people attached to certain names? This section looks at how South Africans have dealt with some of these issues as they transition to democracy and black-majority rule.

During apartheid, the South African government reserved certain areas for people based on their “skin pigmentation” or race. You read about these apartheid policies in Activity 2: History of South Africa. When the government began to change its structure to a democratic one, they also changed the way the cities, townships, and settlements were physically organized. Instead of having separate cities and towns for different races they created new boundaries for the government of cities and towns so that they would be under one local government structure or municipality—as they are called in South Africa. In total, the government combined together over 800 different municipalities into 284.

Restructuring cities and governments posed many challenges to South Africans. With the new South African constitution of 1996, local governments had to try to integrate poor areas with more advantaged areas. In Activity 2: History of South Africa you saw pictures of how the white areas in South Africa were privileged and how the “non-white” areas lacked resources. As city boundaries changed and more South Africans had a voice in their government, questions about naming and renaming cities, streets, and structures and keeping old monuments arose. Public history (including place names) is a sensitive subject. It includes questions of cost, community involvement, and finding agreement among a diverse group of people.

How Does it Work?:

Discussion Questions: Have you ever wondered who gets to decide the name of a place? Who changes the name of a city or street and how do they do it?

In South Africa, the national government has a governmental council that deals with requests for new names. The South African Geographic Names Council (SAGNC) was set up in 1998. The SAGNC acts as advisors to the minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, guides the change and standardization of official names, and helps provincial geographic names councils. It keeps an updated database of names in order to make all the spellings of names standard. Local municipalities must submit an application to the SAGNC if they want a new name or if they want to change the name of cities, landmarks, or streets.

You can visit the SAGNC website and learn more about this organization by going to On this website you can read newspaper articles on place names, look at maps of South Africa, and see the status of applications for new names.

The SAGNC officially approves local names, but new names and name changes must pass through local authorities or local and provincial governments first. Each city and province has a geographical names committee. For example, when the city of East London changed the name of the Vorster Bridge to the Biko Bridge in 1997, (at the 20th anniversary of the death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko who you learned about in the Activity 2: History of South Africa), the name change proposed by the city council had to pass through the municipal name-changing committee. These committees are supposed to consult with the community.

When the SAGNC officially began their work in 1998, they had a backlog of 57,000 names waiting for approval by a national council. This large number of applications shows the desire of local governments and communities to change names. But why do so many communities in South Africa want to change names?


Look at these two maps of the Eastern Cape Province. The second map depicts some of the changes in names of cities in that Province. What changes do you see? Why do you think they made these changes? Do you predict any changes in the future? These cities are also called different names in isiXhosa, the dominant African language in the Province. For example, in isiXhosa, East London is called iMonti, Port Elizabeth is called iBhayi, Grahamstown is called iRhini, and King William’s Town is called iQonce.

Eastern_Cape_Map pre name change
Eastern Cape Before Name Changes
Eastern_Cape_Map post name change
Eastern Cape After Some Name Changes

Cost and Benefits of Renaming:

Discussion Questions:

Why do you think South Africans would want to rename a city, street, or landmark? Why would they not want to do so? Why would Americans want to rename a city, street, or landmark? Can you think of examples in your city, town, or neighborhood of names that have been changed?

When a name is changed, the government must make new signs and maps and publicize the change. This can cost large amounts of money. Many people argue that in a country with problems such as poverty and HIV/AIDS, the government should not spend money on changing street signs.

In March, 2005, the city council of Pretoria proposed to officially change the name of their capital, Pretoria (named after Afrikaner Andries Pretorius), to the early African name of Tshwane (meaning “we are the same”). While retaining Pretoria as the name of the city center, the surrounding municipality took the name of Tshwane. When the South African Geographic Names Council approved the change, the next step was to start changing names on maps and street signs, then advertise internationally to make people aware of the change. It was estimated that the change would cost 1.5 billion Rand (approx. 240 million U.S. dollars).

Many opposed to the renaming argued that money would be better spent on improving public services, or alleviating poverty. Similarly, in the Eastern Cape, the premier (or head of the provincial government) did not put changing the province’s name on her agenda because, “issues such as poverty and corruption should enjoy preference.” In response to the report of Pretoria’s name change, Geraint McCarthy of Cape Town wrote to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), “One wonders in a country so full of diversity and forgiveness that our efforts are not put into ending poverty and ill-health, but to the waste of money simply for the sake of change.” Another South African in Pretoria, Dirk Reinecke, wrote to the BBC, “Africanising names is merely a political exercise, it has no benefit and it is money better spent. It also only reinforces the siege mentality of whites.”

On the other hand, many South Africans felt the cost was worth making the South African landscape reflect the culture and history of the majority of the people and remove offensive names. Names of Afrikaner nationalist heroes or apartheid government officials on streets, European or colonial names of cities, or old derogatory terms remind people of the oppression of the past. Paul Nantyula of Cape Town believed, “The emancipating effect of [the change of Pretoria’s name] on a community which endured 300 years of racial injustice is worth much much more than the 1.5 billion rand that is being spent on marketing it.” People like Nantyula believe that changing names can give people peace of mind and act as a form of paying people back for what they suffered under apartheid. Steven Savides (formerly of Pretoria) stated, “For development to be successful, it has to take into account emotional and psychological factors alongside the physical needs of a populace.”

The SAGNC explained on its website that standardizing place names is important to “affirming a country’s history and national identity, [and] heritage” and serves to “rediscover subjugated knowledge systems.” The council does not recommend changing names. They suggest it is “more desirable to preserve than destroy.”

Yet, the SAGNC says that replacing existing names with new names may be done for “political or cultural reasons.” For example, the picture below shows the names of three streets in Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape. These streets have new names. They were named after sport stars who came from Ginsberg. Naming streets after Nyakati, Bavuma, and Ringo Mpondo will help the community remember them.

street names

Another benefit of standardizing and changing names has to do with practical reasons. Tommy Ntsewa, chair of the SAGNC, explained in 2004 that the standardization of place names “will yield ‘significant economic and social benefits.’” He said it could restore national pride and patriotism, help the tourism industry grow, and also help improve services such as mail delivery. He said, “The standardization process is not only about the political process, but is part of improving spatial data and therefore the delivery of services…simply making life easier.” For example, if one place has two or more names, deciding on one name or the correct spelling of a name can help clarify where the place is.

Many places in South Africa actually have two names – European or colonial names and African, indigenous names. For example, while the name of King William’s Town appears on maps for that town in the Eastern Cape, many local Xhosa people refer to the place as iQonce. The large city of Durban was known as eThekwini to the isiZulu or isiXhosa speaking people. Under the new government, the city’s official name has been changed to eThekwini. Sometimes, places with dual names retain both names. A hyphen may be used, or the two names may be combined in other ways. For example, Setla-Kgobi Local Municipality of the North West Province takes its name from the combination of abbreviated forms of Setlakgole and Makgobistad. The province of KwaZulu-Natal also is a combination of a European name (the British name for the former colony of Natal) and an African name (KwaZulu, meaning the place of the Zulu).

Community Consultation and Finding a Consensus:

Today in South Africa, community consultation is an important part of government. The community has become the third leg of government, acting as a partner with elected officials and government offices. The national SAGNC requires that applications for name changes provide proof that community members had a say in the name change. The SAGNC has even held workshops to inform people about the process and take suggestions for new names.

Discussion Questions:

How do you think communities should decide which names are changed? How might white South Africans react to a proposal to change the name of their cities? How might black South Africans react?

As you might imagine, it can be very difficult to come to an agreement about renaming, naming, and public monuments. The following example illustrates how communities and the government in the Eastern Cape dealt with these issues when they wanted to put up monuments to Steve Biko (who you read about in Activity 2: History of South Africa).

In 1997, the Eastern Cape Department of Arts, Culture, and Sports unanimously approved plans to erect monuments to Steve Biko in East London and King William’s Town. In the same meeting they resolved to change the name of the John Vorster Bridge to the Biko Bridge. This had significance because Vorster was the Prime Minister of the apartheid government at the time when police detained Biko and at the time of the death of Biko at the hands of the security police.

In September 12, 1997, Nelson Mandela dedicated the statue of Steve Biko at East London’s City Hall, attended the naming ceremony of the Biko Bridge and dedicated another monument at Biko’s home in Ginsberg (near King William’s Town). But before the dedication of the monuments and the name change, many discussions took place about how to go about erecting the Biko statue.

Biko Statue
The Biko Statue

The Biko statue, positioned on the corner of the square lot, stands not far from another statue situated in the center. This statue depicts a cavalryman on a horse. It represents the service of a British colonial division during the first Anglo-Boer war, and remembers those that died in battle. The horse and rider stand atop a tall base with the names of the serviceman.

war statue
The War Statue
East London's city Hall
East London’s City Hall

At one time, just after the approval of the Biko statue, the city council considered removing the Anglo-Boer war statue to the East London Museum or shifting its position at the City Hall. They wanted to balance the display of South Africa’s history by focusing on the history of the majority of the people as opposed to that of the white minority. But, according to a study done by a local historical society, moving the statue would have damaged it “beyond repair.”

two city hall statuestwo city hall statues 2

The Two Statues at City Hall

A former mayor of East London recognized that damaging or destroying the statue could offend some residents of the city. He pointed out, “…at the City Hall you have that horse, which has got its own historical background which is one history that is treasured by the people who belong to it…” He explained, “So, we felt that instead of taking down those old statues, let us just add more because that is part of the history of the city, we must not destroy it. So, let us just add this one that is going to reflect more on the new era, but while retaining that one.” He also cited the two statues as a symbol of the unity of the people. He said, “you see that statue, that old horse, of people [who] were fighting against us and [you] see Steve Biko standing not far away there to show that at least out of the fights that we have we have managed to reconcile.” They allowed the statue to stay so that they did not destroy the symbol of the history of some South Africans and so that they could also help build unity among the people of East London.

On the other side were those who felt the government compromised too much. Xolela Mangcu (intellectual and former executive director of the Steve Biko Foundation) called for the use of indigenous African names in April 2004. He accused people in Eastern Cape governments of political cowardice in using neutral names like that of Buffalo City (the name of the amalgamated municipality of East London, King William’s Town and surrounding areas, created in 2000). Mangcu believed those politicians who did not work to erase European names feared they would appear as working against “the spirit of reconciliation.”

To learn more about the Biko statue and newly proposed name changes, see the newspaper articles in the appendix of this section and search South African Newspapers online or South African internet news services:



Naming and Renaming is just one example of the issues involved in municipal reform in South Africa and building a Rainbow Nation. Bringing a previously divided society together and reorganizing cities is difficult. Consulting the community and finding consensus among members of the community requires time and energy. Questions of cost and balancing the history of South Africa are involved. But the case of South Africa is not unique. Questions about place names and monuments are also discussed in our own communities and we can learn how to look at our own society as we explore the societies of other places and peoples.

Individual Activity:

Write about how you would feel if some people wanted to change the name of a place in your city. What places have significant names? What do they mean? What do you think about changing place names in South Africa?

Class Activity: Role-Play Discussion

Divided into small groups, the class can do the following activity. Each student should fill in the worksheet and hand it in individually:

Pretend you are the city council of East London in South Africa. 80 % of you are black Africans, 15 % of you are white, ­5 % of you are Coloured (mixed race).

Discuss and decide on these city issues in order (make notes as you go):

  1. Some people say the John Vorster Bridge, named after a former Prime Minister (1966-78) and President (1978-9) of apartheid South Africa, should be renamed. How do we decide if it should be renamed, and how do we decide what to call it?
  1. How will members of the community react?
  1. Should the statue of a British colonial soldier on a horse, who fought in the first South African war between the British and Dutch settlers of South Africa, remain at City Hall? List reasons why or why not.

_____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________

  1. Should a new statue of Steve Biko, an African who fought against apartheid and died while being interrogated in prison in 1977, be put up at City Hall? List reasons why or why not.

_____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________

Your Solutions: _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________

What really happened: _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________

What you think about what they did: _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________ _____________________________________________________________________

Appendix: Some Newspaper Articles about the Steve Biko statue

Council Agrees on Biko statue, Bridge Name

By Simpiwe Piliso
Municipal reporter

EAST LONDON – The city council last night agreed in principle to erect the Steve Biko statue in front of the city hall and change the name of the John Vorster bridge to Biko Bridge.

This decision, which was criticized last week by a group of Mdantsane residents, was made subject to “a written confirmation of agreement to the proposals being obtained from the Office of the President, the Biko family and the Premier of the Eastern Cape.”

During the meeting, a task team was appointed to organize the official unveiling of the statue and plaque on September 12, the 20th anniversary of Biko’s death in security police detention.

The council was also asked to consider granting the Freedom of the City to President Nelson Mandela on his first official visit to the city on the day of the unveiling.

Authority was granted to municipal finance director Lodi Venter, in consultation with municipal engineering services director Hamish Forrest, to transfer funds from capital contingencies to cover any expenditure associated with the unveiling.

The council suggested that the change of name of the John Vorster Bridge to Biko Bridge be referred to the municipal name change committee before a name change can take place.

Following the protest last week and in an attempt to reunite the city in the matter concerning the Steve Biko statue, ANC regional secretary Sindisile Maclean said the ANC would facilitate a meeting this week to discuss the issue.

“We want to hear the reservations from the concerned group. Our role will be to harmonise the situation and make sure that everybody is taken on board.”

Meanwhile, the future of the World War 1 memorial outside the city is not clear. Councillor Monde Dondashe suggested the memorial be moved to the East London Museum. He proposed Mr. Mandela be consulted on the relocation.

Councillor Car Burger said: “We have to tread very carefully on this sensitive issue as it could cause a lot of division within the East London community.”

“We are rushing very quickly on a very sensitive issue,” he said.

Mayor Lulamile Nazo said the relocation of the memorial, the erection of the Biko statue and changing the name of the bridge could not take place simultaneously “because we have to accommodate as many suggestions as possible.”

Town clerk Dave Ongley said deciding on the future of the war memorial would take some time because procedures had to [be] followed.

Initially, it was proposed that the Biko statue be erected near a corner in front of the city hall facing Oxford Street and that the war memorial be moved to the other corner.

Mr. Nazo said the relocation of the war memorial needed further investigation.

East London’s Daily Dispatch, 5 August 1997

Biko’s House, Grave to be Monuments

By Mamkeli Ngam

BISHO – The provincial Department of Arts, Culture and Sport had “unanimously resolved” to declare the house of the late Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko and the Ginsberg cemetery national monuments, MEC Sonwabile Mancotywa announced here yesterday.

He told a press briefing attended by King William’s Town mayor Enoch Tyilo and East London mayor Lulamile Nazo that the Ginsberg cemetery had been declared a Garden of Remembrance because it was also a “resting place for Biko’s mentors and elders.”

“The meeting today arrived at this decision without a single voice of dissent.”

“We also resolved to rename the John Vorster bridge after Steve Biko,” Mr Mancotywa said.

The Biko bridge linked the Ginsberg township to King William’s Town.

Mr. Mancotywa said the meeting laid to rest the “confusion” that might have arisen concerning the location of Mr. Biko’s statue in East London.

Last week, the East London Transitional Local Council announced that Mr. Biko’s statue was to be unveiled by President Nelson Mandela on September 12 in front of the city hall.

Some people from Mdantsane objected to the statue being erected in front of the offices of the East London council.

East London’s Daily Dispatch, 8 August 1997

Go on to Activity Four or select from one of the other activities in this module.