The South African Geographical Names Council (SAGNC) backed a campaign to change the name of Pretoria — for decades the seat of white power under apartheid — to Tshwane, after an African king.
Under the plan, the name Pretoria will refer only to a small section of the city centre and will be considered a suburb of the broader municipality of Tshwane.
The final decision rests with the country’s Arts and Culture minister Pallo Jordan, who has signalled he is ready to approve the name change.
Mayor Smangaliso Mkhatshwa argues changing the name to “Tshwane”, which also means “we are the same”, will underscore South Africa’s break with apartheid in 1994.
Critics have accused the city’s leaders of failing to consult broadly about the name and say money spent on changing signs and maps would be better used helping the poor.
Pretoria, a city of two million people, was named by white Afrikaner settlers after Boer hero Pretorius in 1855.
But Pretoria is inextricably linked to the apartheid regime that ended 11 years ago when the African National Congress swept to power in elections.
Opponents claim scrapping Pretoria is an affront to Afrikaners who fought British colonial rule in South Africa and who claim their role as part of the “rainbow nation” born from the demise of apartheid.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has made a series of geographic name changes since apartheid ended 11 years ago.
The ANC maintains South Africans shouldn’t have to live in cities, towns and streets named after the people responsible for their racial oppression.
Last week President Thabo Mbeki weighed in to the debate, speaking out in favour of changing names to break with the colonial past.
In a speech to parliament in Cape Town, he singled out Grahamstown, named in 1812 after a British army colonel, John Graham, who was known for his brutal suppression of local Africans.
“He didn’t only fight the soldiers on the other side, but burnt their fields and killed their cattle, and starved them into submission; he killed them into submission,” Mr Mbeki said.
“Yet we have a town, Grahamstown, named after him. The question must arise: why do we celebrate a butcher?”