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Name Changes Seen as Plot to Expunge Afrikaans


South Africa’s government is on a name-changing spree—and that’s sparking a fierce language war and fierce feelings.

South Africa was colonized by Dutch settlers from the 1600s until 1994, and as a result, the majority of the country’s places were named in Afrikaans, a Dutch-language dialect. Native African names of places were “expunged as a way of the merciless” colonial dispossession, says Yasin Kakande, an Africanist historian and author of Why We Are Coming.

Fast-forward to today: 133 towns that still carry colonial Dutch-Afrikaans names are in the firing line. Their names are being replaced with Indigenous language names as part of a process that began in 1994 when the Black government of South Africa gradually gave airports, dams, roads, schools, towns, and cities African Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho language names and discarded Dutch-Afrikaans names.

“Our independence as a Black African country is not final until our airports or streets are named in Indigenous African dialects and less with European Dutch language terms,” says Ban Dlomo, the Indigenous affairs director in the South African Culture Ministry.

Because of South Africa’s bitter colonial apartheid history, even street and subway names are fiercely contested territory, Kakande adds.

The 133 name changes that the government of South Africa fast-tracked in April (starting with 85) have angered nationalist groups of White South Africans.

White South Africans who speak Afrikaans are bitter. “It has gone too far, it’s a language erasure of us South Africans of European descent,” argues Glenda de Pruu, a campaigner with the Freedom Front Plus, a fiercely White Afrikaner political grouping that has had lawmakers in South Africa’s parliament since the advent of democracy in 1994.

For them, the name changes are a frontal attack to wipe out the remnants of Afrikaans spoken by nine million of the 60 million South African population. “Name changes are very foolish and economically damaging,” says de Pruu. “Hundreds of thousands of British and American tourists land in South Africa every year. They know English coastal cities like Port Elizabeth or Dutch-language cities like Bloemfontein. Change them to unrecognizable African names and you kill tourism.”

Some conservative White South Africans claim there is a so-called White genocide going on in South Africa. They cite 2023 statistics showing that 50 White rural South African farmers were murdered in 2022 by assailants who they claim were Black and motivated by racism. “These name changes feed into a climate of every anti-White action in South Africa,” says du Pruu. The government of South Africa dismisses that insinuation as nonsense and says farm attackers are simply hard-core criminals not motivated by race and actually, Black South Africans suffer more from crime.

However, South Africa’s Black government says name changes of towns and streets to Indigenous languages are a matter of principle—correcting historical wrongs.

“This is nonnegotiable and nonracist and a restoration of African-language names of our monuments,” Dlomo says.

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