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New Era, New Name for S. African Capital

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page A16

PRETORIA, South Africa -- The Dutch descendants who founded this city and made it their capital chose the name Pretoria to honor Andries Pretorius, a leader of the legendary Great Trek that took the white settlers deep into what they regarded as the forbidding heart of Africa. Even 150 years later, the name evokes a surge of nationalist pride among their heirs.

To many blacks, however, Pretoria will always be synonymous with a very different South Africa -- a place of passbooks and townships, of midnight raids by police and bloody confrontations whenever the country's racial majority demanded rights equal to those enjoyed by its ruling white minority.


Pretoria, founded by Dutch descendants 150 years ago, "is now in another nation," said a black man once arrested there. It is being renamed "Tshwane," meaning, "We are the same." (Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

On Monday, when the metropolitan council voted to replace the capital's name with an African one, Tshwane, the change brought a feeling of mild vindication to Moses Skhosana. As a teenager looking for work nearly 30 years ago, he was thrown in jail and viciously beaten for the simple act of being an unemployed black man in a city legally reserved for whites, he said.

"Pretoria is now in another nation," said Skhosana, 47, a slim, soft-spoken repairman for a government ministry, speaking a few blocks from where he was arrested in 1977. "We must try to use some new names."

According to advocates of the change, Tshwane means "we are the same" and is the pre-colonial name for the area, though the name's historic roots have been disputed by opponents.

Renaming streets, cities and countries has been a common way for African liberation movements, such as the one that overturned the racial segregationist policy known as apartheid here in 1994, to make a symbolic break from the past.

Yet in South Africa, blacks have taken a more gradual approach to changing colonial names. Many are still heavy with the guttural sounds of Afrikaans, the language of the Afrikaners, as the Dutch descendants here are called. Today, a majority of South African whites are Afrikaners, but they are a small minority of the overall population, which is about 75 percent black.

A decade after the dismantling of apartheid, Pretoria still has streets named after Hendrik Verwoerd and D.F. Malan, the late prime ministers regarded as the architects of the policy. Paul Kruger, a 19th-century Afrikaner hero, has a street, a road and an avenue named after him here. Pretorius, whose name also adorns one of the capital's main boulevards, was a commanding general of Afrikaner forces in the 1838 Battle of Blood River, so named because the defeated Zulu warriors died in such numbers that the river is said to have turned red with their blood.

In recent years, many black South Africans in the region have informally called the city Tshwane. There is evidence that local tribes called the lush river valley area Tshwane for decades before Pretorius and his followers began arriving in covered wagons, toting little more than bundles of dried food, flintlock guns and Bibles. And Tshwane already is the official name of the metropolitan area surrounding the capital.

"In the books that we read," said Andronicca Pila, 38, an English teacher who grew up in a nearby township, "when they talked about Pretoria, it was Tshwane."

For several years, city leaders, most of whom are members of the ruling party, the African National Congress, have been pushing for the name change. Now, with the recent council vote, they have come close to reaching their goal, though a few dozen blocks of gritty downtown commercial buildings are being allowed to retain the name Pretoria.

Ultimately, even that colonial remnant could disappear. William Baloyi, a spokesman for the city's mayor, said downtown might be renamed "Tshwane City Center."

The campaign is the latest sign of growing assertiveness by the African National Congress, which won 70 percent of the vote and control of every province in elections last year. In the first years after the fall of apartheid, President Nelson Mandela focused heavily on reassuring skittish whites that they had a place in the new South Africa. He preached forgiveness, had tea with the wife of apartheid leader Pieter W. Botha, and publicly embraced South Africa's rugby team, a bastion of Afrikaner pride.

Under Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, who was first elected in 1999, the emphasis has shifted to undoing the legacy of apartheid. Mbeki has called the debate over South Africa's dramatic racial imbalances the "national question." And although he has publicly steered clear of the controversy over the renaming of Pretoria, analysts here say the effort could not have come so far without at least his tacit blessing as head of the ANC.


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