Pali Lehohla
Pali Lehohla

OPINION: Time to confront the still unsettled heritage concept in South Africa

By Dr Pali Lehohla Time of article published Jun 25, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG - That President Cyril Ramaphosa had the eloquent Khoisan praise singer, a heritage activist, Bradley van Sitters, ushering in the State of the Nation is significant considering South Africa’s 11-language policy excludes the Khoisan language.

It highlights the power of heritage and the struggle for recognition. Heritage and place names go hand-in-hand as South Africa defines itself post-apartheid. In 1992 using census results of Bophuthatswana to promote use of place names I had a rude awakening in Tampostad, Kwa Matlhako.

Place names play a critical defining role. In demarcation one looks to the different local administrative boundaries - Dikgoro - but as villages grow the Dikgoro get diluted by variable geometry whereby allegiance is not necessarily spatially contiguous, but follows lineage, which is not necessarily a spatially contiguous feature. Therein arise conflicts of sorts.

I had prepared the results, arranged for a meeting with the chief of Tampostad and his indunas. I had impressive visuals that would simplify communication and annotated sub-place names on the map of Tampostad. I arrived to a warm welcome.

Ready to start, I introduced the subject and intention of the presentation, which had to do with decision-making with regard to location of schools and clinics using spatial data. The Statistical Analysis Software had just made advancements on geographic information systems and its decision support system was quite advanced.

The presentation started. It was very engaging until the annotated names appeared. Then one of the elders politely voiced his concern, but the tone got less polite as he advanced his point: “What place name is that? Who named it? Why does it appear in the gazetteer?”

I provided answers that the name emanated from the community itself during preparations of census 1991. Of course they knew the name Basha ba e rata, meaning the youth like it. It was a new expansion occupied largely by the younger people.

From the tone of the council the residents of this new part of the settlement were rebellious and the name redefined their relationship with the older part of the village. The contentious nature of our discussion on the place name ended the meeting.

The councillor insisted that the name should be removed from the government records and only then could I address them. That was the last time I had a discussion with the BaMathlako authority.

Duty was now prevailing on focusing on the future of statistics in post-apartheid South Africa, but lessons from BaMathlako remained primary in my next life when I got assigned to lead the first national count in post-apartheid South Africa.

The place names were many, about 13000 in all, and they reflected the nature and ramifications of the struggle. It was BaMathlako deja vu.

Place names are about heritage, and population statistics reflect how charged and responsive citizenry is to this heritage.

In 1996 I was appointed to serve on the Geographical Names Authority of South Africa. The challenge was how we could process and approve roughly 1000 applications for name changes.

Technological advancements only address efficiencies and effectiveness of placement, recording, retrieval, use and reuse of place names, but fail to address the concerns of the councillor of BaMathlako - legitimacy of place names as an expression of power and protest.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him on or @PaliLehohla


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