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Saturday, 2 March, 2002, 13:59 GMT
Renaming plans anger Afrikaners
protesters with placards
Protests against the name changes have already begun
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Barnaby Phillips
BBC South Africa correspondent

A dispute between white and black communities in a conservative farming region of South Africa is threatening to destroy the atmosphere of racial reconciliation which has been built in recent years.

The ANC government in Northern Province says it is changing place names which it feels are too closely identified with the apartheid era.

With the backing of the local legislature, its announced that henceforth Northern Province is to be known as Limpopo Province.

Afrikaners protest
Some Afrikaners feel they are being wiped out of the history books
Meanwhile, several of the leading towns in the province have also been given new names.

The capital, Pietersburg, is to be known as Polokwane. Warmbaths has become Bela-Bela, whilst Potgietersrus is now Mokopane.

The provincial premier, Ngoako Ramatlhodi, says the changes are to help black Africans have a greater sense of self-respect.

"Here where we are is Africa- we are using African names to affirm the self-worth of our people," he told me.

"We are using African languages recognised under the constitution. The idea is not to intimidate, to marginalise, or to humiliate anybody."

Changing history

Unfortunately, that is just how some white Afrikaners now feel. Johan Willemse is the local leader of the Afrikaner Freedom Front, and a man to whom Afrikaner history is sacred.

"We are getting scared. We are party of Africa, our language is only used in this part of the world, we don't have a homeland to go back to," argues Mr Willemse.

"God put us here, we have a duty to stay here and civilise this place, only now we find the government of the day wants to wipe the Afrikaners out of the history books, and we will not accept that" he says.

I don't think it is a good idea, because you cannot change history

Pietersburg resident
On the streets of Pietersburg, the protests have already begun. Groups of Afrikaners drive in slow motorcades, with the old, apartheid-era, flag hanging out of car windows.

Some hold up banners saying: "Pietersburg must stay Pietersburg".

A few years ago white right-wingers were considered a threat to South Africa's very stability. Now they appear a tiny frightened minority.

The name-changes don't seem to arouse anything like the same emotions amongst the majority black population.

Quite a few people whom we stopped at random in Pietersburg thought the whole exercise is a waste of money.

Important precedent

"There are so many people who don't have water or electrcity, so I think the government should think about those things first before spending money on names," said one black student.

Northern Province landscape
Afrikaner roots run deep in the Northern Province
"I don't think its a good idea because you cannot change history. Our history is Pietersburg" said a black woman.

But another black woman disagreed.

"I think it is a good idea and I think the name should change, so that everyone should know everything has changed - this is democracy now" she argued.

Whatever the merits of the course it has embarked on, Northern Province may well have started a trend in South Africa.

Already one other province, the Eastern Cape, has said it would like to change its name - others may follow.

But the resistance from Afrikaner people is likely to be strongest in the Northern Province, where their historical and cultural roots run so deep.

The BBC's Barnaby Phillips
"History is being rewritten"
See also:

24 Jul 00 | Africa
Megacities, new names
01 Mar 02 | Business
SA farmers demand industry reforms
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