What’s in a city name?

Pretoria, South Africa, could soon become Tshwane

Many cities have changed names over the years. St. Petersburg was once Leningrad, Beijing was Peking. But in South Africa, with its long history of racially charged politics, such changes are all the more controversial, and tricky. Since the end of apartheid, many of its cities and buildings have been renamed, some more than once. The Johannesburg Airport, once Jan Smuts International, has been renamed a third time, to honour Oliver Tambo, a leading anti-apartheid crusader.

Its administrative capital, Pretoria, named for a white Afrikaner pioneer who helped crush the Zulus and establish a settler state, is now at the centre of considerable debate. The ruling African National Congress says it will decide by the end of the year whether to rename it “Tshwane,” after a monarch who ruled the area before colonization.

The pro-Afrikaner Freedom Front is vowing to fight the change. Pretoria is an appropriate historical nod, they contend, dismissing renaming efforts as an attempt by the ANC to shore up the black vote.

On top of racial tensions aggravated by the debate, there’s also confusion, since the metropolitan area that includes the city is already called Tshwane. Culture Minister Paul Mashatile, for one, has said he doesn’t even know what to call the capital.

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