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South Africa needs a new name, says Arts and Culture minister Nathi Mthethwa

In many parts of Africa, names have cultural importance, and the South African minister for Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa has indicated that the name South Africa has no significant discernible importance except a geographical location of the country.



The question of names has always been linked to cultures and identity. Across Africa, names in most cases are also linked to destiny or sometimes names stem from epidemics, or seasons, or situations surrounding the birth of a child. Names have a way of making one stand out or appear ordinary. Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo might not have intended to spark any conversation from the title of her novel, “We Need New Names” but there’s no deriding the fact that in the process of decolonisation we definitely need new names.

The South African Arts and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthethwa ignited debate on the need to search for an appropriate name for the country. The name South Africa denotes a geographical location, and tells no particular story of its diverse people. The name is narrow especially for a nation which so much cultural diversity. Neither does the name South Africa give inkling into the indigenous people of the country who have produced legends such as Shaka the King of the Zulu, there are a plethora of narratives a name can speak to. As Mthethwa said, the name does nothing other than give a geographical location of the country, something a compass can do perfectly.

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Now in this new post-apartheid and post-colonial regime, the country is redefining itself by changing names and removing  statues of colonial and apartheid proponents, and finally heeding to the words of renowned African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o , “decolonise Africa.”


South African teenagers listen to talks during a Youth Health Festival on Youth Day in Cape Town, South Africa 16 June 2016. Photo: ANP/EPA/Nic Bothma

During colonialism, the colonialists gave various regions various names in accordance with the function (which was mainly human and economic exploitation) those regions served to the colonialists. As countries gained independence, many changed the names of their countries from colonial names.

Zimbabwe: Southern Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes was changed to Zimbabwe, a name derived from the Shona name Dzimbadzamabwe, -imba (house), mambwe (rocks), Zimbabwe therefore means big house of stones.

Burkina Faso: Republic of Upper Volta was the name given to Burkina Faso due to its location from the Volta River. When Thomas Sankara took over power, one of the first things he did was to give the country a new name, Burkina Faso (land of the upright/honest) on 4 August 1984. Burkina stems from Mossi and it means honest people, while Faso comes from the Dyula language and means fatherland.

Botswana: Botswana was formerly called Bechuanaland Protectorate. Botswana refers to the people of the Tswana, one of the biggest ethnic group in the country.

Namibia: Namibia  derived its name from the Namib desert, which from the Nama language means a place where there is nothing.

Sudan: Sudan refers to the people of the area who were considered black people therefore in Arabic the area was known as bildad as-sudan translated as the land of the blacks.


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The list of names goes on, and as for South Africa, Mthethwa who is an executive member of the African National Congress (ANC) the name of the country will be debated during the party’s national policy conference at the end of the month.

Unlike countries that changed their names immediately after independence or during military rule, South Africa was late in doing that. Many are tilting towards Azania as a probable name for the country. Discussions on a new name are yet to begin and whether the public would be incorporated into giving suggestions, it’s not yet known. With a new name, hopefully a new South Africa that accepts its African brothers and sisters will emerge.