A sign warmly greets visitors with “Welcome to Mashishing,” a town where everything else indicates the name is Lydenburg.
Such geographic confusion occurs across South Africa, as old place names are replaced with new, Africanized ones.
“Officially, the name has been changed to Mashishing,” the town’s spokesman Puleng Mapheto said.
However, aside from a few nearby road signs, it’s hard to know that the name changed five years ago. The police station, the post office, schools, the museum and store ads all refer to Lydenburg.
The Voortrekkers, descended from the first Dutch settlers, founded the town in 1850 as they fled British rule. They named the town Lydenburg, or city of suffering, because their group had been decimated by malaria.
Mashishing is what the place was traditionally called in -Northern Sotho, meaning “long, green grass.”
White residents, very much in the minority, are hardly bothered to make the change.
“This place is called Lydenburg. I don’t know anything about Mashishing,” said an employee at a coffee shop, who declined to give her name.
Gerard van de Water, who owns an antique shop, acknowledged the new name, but lamented the change.
“The drive in this country is to do away with white men’s names, whatever it costs,” he said. “This place is no longer worthy to be called Lydenburg, anyway. Mashishing fits 100 percent with what the town is becoming, with all the potholes in the streets.”
“It’s like all towns in South Africa, they are being changed to black people’s names,” said Elzebe Brits, who runs a second-hand bookshop. “People are very confused. To get things more difficult, the municipality is called Thaba Chweu.”
“Even black people still call this place Lydenburg,” she said with a big smile.
Those whom reporters met did not seem particularly concerned.
“The problem is that Mashishing refers to the township, too,” Mosima Matlala said. “Well, we say both names, it depends on the context.”
As in many towns, some white residents feel the name was changed without sufficient public debate, said Jean-Pierre Celliers, curator of the Lydenburg Museum.
“We know that this area was already settled around 1650,” he said, which is not counting the “Lydenburg Heads,” seven terracotta figures found in the region dating from the sixth century.
“We have to redefine who has a right to have a heritage in this country,” Celliers said.
The name change debate is especially fierce in Pretoria, where the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has for now shelved efforts to dub the city Tshwane, the municipality’s name.
However, many other towns, mountains and rivers have been renamed in recent years. Three people in the Department of Arts and Culture are tasked with compiling the public’s requests for changes.
While some cities like Nelspruit and Piet Retief are, like Lydenburg, transforming in fits and starts into Mbombela and eMkhondo, other names are finally starting to take hold, especially in the northern Limpopo Province, where the process started earlier.
Naboomspruit is now Mookgophong, Potgietersrus is Mokopane, and the provincial capital, Pietersburg, is Polokwane.
Most signs have also changed, except at post offices in towns like Modimolle, 200km north of Johannesburg.
“For us, it is still called Nylstroom. They still have not entered the new name in the system,” one postal worker said.