How South African Names of Places Have Changed

A look at the towns and geographical names that have changed in South Africa

Southern tip of Cape Town, South Africa
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Since the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, a number of changes have been made to geographical names in the country. It can get a bit confusing, as mapmakers struggle to keep up, and road signs aren't immediately changed. In many instances, the 'new' names were existing ones used by parts of the population; others are new municipal entities. All name changes have to be approved by the South African Geographical Names Council, which is responsible for standardizing geographical names in South Africa.

Redivision of the Provinces in South Africa

One of the first major changes was the redivision of the country into eight provinces, rather than the existing four (Cape Province, Orange Free State, Transvaal, and Natal ). The Cape Province 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).

Gauteng, which is the industrial and mining heartland of South Africa, is a Sesotho word meaning "at the gold". Mpumalanga means "the east" or "the place where the sun rises," an apt name for South Africa's eastern-most province. (To pronounce the "Mp," imitate how the letters are said in the English word "jump.") Limpopo is also the name of the river forming the northern-most boundary of South Africa.

Renamed Towns in South Africa

Among the towns renamed were some named after leaders significant in Afrikaner history. So Pietersburg, Louis Trichard, and Potgietersrust became, respectively, Polokwane, Makhoda, and Mokopane (the name of a king). Warmbaths changed to Bela-Bela, a Sesotho word for hot spring.

Other changes include:

  • Musina (was Messina)
  • Mhlambanyatsi (Buffelspruit)
  • Marapyane (Skilpadfontein)
  • Mbhongo (Almansdrift)
  • Dzanani (Makhado township)
  • Mphephu (Dzanani township)
  • Modimolla (Nylstroom)
  • Mookgophong (Naboomspruit)
  • Sophiatown (was Triomf)

Names Given to New Geographical Entities

Several new municipal and megacity boundaries have been created. The City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality covers cities such as Pretoria, Centurion, Temba, and Hammanskraal. The Nelson Mandela Metropole covers the East London/Port Elizabeth area.

Colloquial City Names in South Africa

Cape Town is known as eKapa. Johannesburg is called eGoli, literally meaning "the place of gold." Durban is called eThekwini, which translates as "In the Bay" (although some controversy was caused when several eminent Zulu linguists claimed that the name actually means "the one-testicled one" referring to the shape of the bay).

Changes to Airport Names in South Africa

The names of all South African airports were changed from politician's names to simply the city or town they're located in. Cape Town International Airport needs no explanation; however, who but a local would know where DF Malan Airport was?

Criteria for Name Changes in South Africa

Legitimate grounds for changing a name, according to the South African Geographical Names Council, include offensive linguistic corruption of a name, a name that's offensive because of its associations, and when a name replaced an existing one people would like restored. Any government department, provincial government, local authority, the post office, property developer, or other body or person can apply for a name to be approved using the official form.

The South African government no longer seems to support its 'South African Geographical Names System' which was a useful source of information on name changes in SA.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "How South African Names of Places Have Changed." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, February 16). How South African Names of Places Have Changed. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "How South African Names of Places Have Changed." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).