News and photographic agency

A painful past: Neither Durban nor Johannesburg had traditional names before colonialism

By Hadebe Hadebe

Durban South Beach. 2009. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

There is a misconception which has been maintained as fact for many years, regarding the traditional names of places all over the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Places such as Richards Bay (Mandlanzini), Bluff (eSibubulundu), Durban (kwaKhangela), Stanger (kwaDukuza), PieterMaritzburg (UMgungundlovu), and eMpangeni, which is formerly known as (eMbangweni), etc.

The argument that these towns and cities bore African names before conquest is ahistorical and, at worst, massages the pains of the people who were forcibly removed from their lands – to make space for settlers. Because of these serious inaccuracies with the traditional names, South Africans have been forced to ascribe to European establishments like Durban, Estcourt or Ladysmith.

This article seeks to give context on the contentious matter of land expropriation without compensation (LEWC), while proving that the call is genuine in that it seeks to ensure that justice prevails. There are those who hold a view that black people may be unable to utilize the land effectively, and that the expropriation of land without compensation is a futile exercise. They are wrong and quite frankly, they are missing the point. What people yearn for is justice; not only jobs or farms.

Currently there is no conclusive evidence to confirm that, indeed, the places where the present towns stand were in fact built on sites where settlements of the same names once stood. Mexico City is a typical example of such developments. Mexico was built directly on top of another older city, which was built by locals, long before the arrival of the Spaniards. In their case, the local people called Aztecs (sometimes called the Mexicas) had established the city of Tenochtitlán, which is today buried under the present metropolis. Tenochtitlán and their civilization “eventually became the largest and most powerful in pre-Columbian America.”

Equally, Mexico City is a symbol of pain and destruction of a nation. In South Africa’s case, settlements were completely destroyed and people moved to far flung places and barren settlements. For example, there is a community of Swati people which comprised mainly the Shabalala and Hlatshwayo that was relocated from eastern Transvaal to mountainous Bergville and to live amongst AmaNgwane. 

The traditional warfare (impi yesigodi) in Bergville involving people of villages of Hoffental, Sandlwana and Dukuza directly and largely traces its origins from forced settlements. This Swati community continues to be ‘stateless’ within a democratic state after some communities were later moved to Estcourt. They are now nestled between AmaNgwe and AmaHlubi (who are both historically their cousins as well), and tensions remain high.

In other instances, people were not moved such long distances. For example the people of Cebekhulu outside eMpangeni were moved from areas close to the R34 road that links eMpangeni and Richards Bay. This was to create space for sugarcane plantations and white settlement in what today is called eMpangeni. Another example is that of the destruction of the AmaHlubi kingdom in areas bordering the Drakensberg mountains, particularly in the vicinity of Estcourt – Ladysmith. 

This is an early conquest that sought to entrench British imperialism through the Natal Colony. The same strategy was used to decimate the kingdom of the Ndebele a thousand kilometers away in Zimbabwe. In any way, the Hlubi people and other clans had occupied the area for many years.

They drew water from mainstreams such as Umtshezi, Umsuluzi, Mavunga, Mnambithi, Injasuthi and uThukela. The locals were forcibly uprooted and scattered to reach far flung places in the Eastern Cape and Zululand, which was still under the Zulu, Ndwandwe, Mthethwa and others. 

The English settlers did not want any trace that would show that people had lived in land that was later converted to farms, towns, nature reserves and mining areas. In the case of Estcourt, a town that was built by British immigrants, the evidence to show that people lived there was completely destroyed. The same goes for Ladysmith, Mooirivier, Newcastle, Bergville, Winterton, Harrismith and Utrecht.

Rustenburg was built on lands that were once occupied by the Bafokeng people, while lands where places like Witbank (MP), Krugersdorp and Springs (GP) and Vrede (FS) today were emptied to create space for farming and mining. The people in these areas were moved to places such as Soweto, KwaNdebele, Newcastle, Qwaqwa, Sebokeng, Kagiso, etc. Therefore, townships are nothing to be proud of, as they were created to dump people who had been forcefully removed from their original land.

As a result of the displacement, black people became desperate and ended up working in white people’s kitchens, gardens and factories, all around the urban centers that replaced their livelihood.

Displaced people in Alexandra. PIC: Mdu Ndzingi

The displacements in the Cape and Natal took place much earlier than in other places. That is the reason people would find it easier to say a place like Port Elizabeth or Cape Town was not occupied when Europeans invaded this part of the continent. It cannot be denied that large settlements existed in places where these towns were later built, but the towns are not a direct substitute to old establishments. If we canonize the white settlements with indigenous names and also arguing that the towns developed from pre-colonial sites, we would be ambushing history.

The cities and towns did not represent the upward developmental trajectory of pre-colonial settlements but a total destruction. This is the same mistake made by many post-colonial states in simply inheriting colonial cities and laws without any effort to reverse the damage caused by colonial policies.

Post-colonial Zimbabwe, for example, changed Salisbury to Harare and Fort Victoria to Masvingo but the country side, where the majority of poor Zimbabweans reside, remained intact. And even to this day, rural Zimbabwe is yet to be touched by the spills from independence.

An attempt to spin and swing the brutal process that led to the establishment of these cities and towns, by claiming that they bore African names before Europeans arrived, removing and killing indigenous peoples is an insult to the pain suffered by Africans. In a way this trivializes the acute loss and suffering of the people. Even the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and other founders of the Organization of African

Unity (OAU) missed this point. One key resolution of retaining colonial borders meant that justice was never ever going to be realized.

A town of Kuruman was built on land taken from the people of Chief Jantjie, who were later moved to the Bophutswana homeland. Thus, Kuruman brought sorrow and pain to a proud people of Seoding and their chief. Processes of restitutions don’t even touch the surface in restoring communities. Simply put, Kuruman is a manifestation of gross human rights violations and it doesn’t matter how we view it today.

The same goes for the N3 highway linking Durban and Johannesburg, which is built on land taken from our ancestors. For example, my family’s homestead in the 1800s was not far from Shell Ultra City garage near Estcourt in the KZN Midlands.

The community was moved to mountainous areas and townships to make space for farms and strategic projects that served white populations. The plan was to ensure that people could not sustain their livelihoods and that they would later return as cheap labour to serve under some white master.

Lastly, the perception that traditional names originally belonged to these colonial cities is ahistorical. What is clear is that colonialists were not interested to know what or who existed in any of the places they occupied. For example, there was never a place called Estcourt or Ladysmith in pre-colonial times. Umtshezi (Bushmens River) isn’t Estcourt but a river that runs from the Drakensberg Mountains through Estcourt. The same can be said about Mnambithi (Kliorivier); that it is not Ladysmith but a river.

There is not a single town in this country, which is of colonial creation, which was transformed from being a traditional village to a white settlement. It’s safe to say that many people lost their lives and many were forcefully displaced to create these towns.

Black people should never forget that history is written in the language of the victors. Hence Africans need to write theirs and must also expropriate cities as a form of reparation for the losses incurred. These cities must not only be given new names but efforts for land expropriations must be expedited to cancel out the colonial face in South Africa.

Siya yi banga le economy!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: