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What's in a Name? A New S. Africa Alters Its Symbols

NO Nelson Mandela Boulevards exist in South Africa -- so far. Major airports remain named after apartheid leaders. And statues and pantheons of the ANC's former oppressors still stand, such as Pretoria's monolithic Voortrekker Monument.

But that is changing. South Africa's democratic government is slowly redefining the symbols of a new nation, assigning names more representative of the black majority while not alienating the old white order.

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With the threat of civil war by white minority racists receding, the African National Congress-led administration, which swept to power in April's first all-race elections, has virtual free reign to overhaul reminders of 300 years of white domination. But it is stepping lightly, citing financial constraints and sensitivity in the push toward national reconciliation.

Changes have been subtle. In the spirit of national unity, two national anthems are now sung side-by-side -- the Afrikaner ''Die Stem'' trademark of the old rule and the ANC liberation hymn ''Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika.''

This applies also to sports, a hotbed of white racism. But no consensus has been formed on adopting new emblems.

Officials of South African cricket -- once deemed the epitome of British colonialism -- have actively pursued changing the national team name from the Springboks (a South African gazelle) to the Proteas, the national flower untainted by apartheid associations. But the more Afrikaner-dominated rugby is adapting more slowly to the changing times, going only so far as to place a row of proteas underneath the springbok emblem.

Little flap over flag

A political furor had accompanied the design of the new flag, but from the moment it was raised during the elections it has been calmly adopted nationwide.

The green, yellow, white, black, red, and blue banner proliferates on bumper stickers and outnumbers the old flag even at white-dominated sports events. A market survey by the Pretoria News -- the primary newspaper of the country's capital, a bastion of white conservatism -- found that eight out of 10 respondents appreciated the new flag. ''The flag that looked like a beach towel but united the nation,'' wrote the progressive Weekly Mail and Guardian national newspaper.

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Government officials realize the emotional weight the Voortrekker Monument carries with many Afrikaners. The monument celebrates the major Afrikaner trek from the Cape to settle. ''It's bad enough they changed the flag. But we will never let them touch this place,'' said one recent visitor who spoke to journalists but refused to give his name. ''You could say it is sacred.''

Displaying sensitivity, the new government resisted the temptation to replace apartheid names with those of liberation-struggle personalities when it renamed 12 dams and water schemes. For example, the Hendrik Verwoerd Dam in central South Africa became the Gariep Dam, a Khoi ethnic group term for the Orange River area. Other dams were neutrally bestowed with indigenous words for animals.

Museums are slowly shifting to better document the lives of the 5-to-1 black majority long ignored in history books. Johannesburg's Afrikaner museum conveniently underwent renovations last year. When it reopened after the elections, it was redesigned, relocated, and renamed. MuseumAfrica now has exhibits on the struggle against white rule and displays of black migrant hostels and squatter shacks.

MuseumAfrica is filled daily with poor inner-city or township blacks, many of them visiting a museum for the first time.

''We've been waiting for this for a long time. Good!'' wrote Mokete Motseki in the guest book. Echoed Abbey Ntswana: ''Today is my second day. I feel like I can come every day.''

But bitter debate still boils over language. The interim Constitution enshrines 11 official languages -- nine black traditional ones, English, and Afrikaans. A row erupted over suggestions that the state South African Broadcasting Corporation scale down television programs in Afrikaans.

President Mandela's estranged wife, the Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology Winnie Mandela, added her voice to the controversy by calling on state-run South African Airways to replace the use of Afrikaans on board with one of the nine black languages.

Khekhethi Makhudu, an ANC language commission coordinator, said the conflict over the matter reflected remaining white dominance. ''Despite our attainment of democracy as a nation, the majority of indigenous people remain disempowered and literally voiceless,'' he said.

Afrikaners not pleased

Similarly charged debate surrounded the renaming of the country's most densely populated area, the PWV (Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging province), which embraces the industrial heartland of Johannesburg and Pretoria. The final choice announced several weeks ago was Gauteng -- the Sotho word for ''place of gold.''

White legislators of the former ruling National Party and the right-wing Freedom Front opposed the choice during parliamentary debate, saying it was an attack on Afrikaner culture and evidence of the majority ANC ramming its views through.

The ANC's Ignatius Jacobs argued that Gauteng -- based on various words for gold, including the Afrikaans ''goud'' -- was coined by Sotho-speakers almost from the time the metal was discovered in the 1880s. It thus was a ''high arch'' uniting pre- and post-apartheid eras.

Leading newspapers welcomed the move, including Johannesburg's The Star.

''We feel sure the people of this province will recognize, as some of their leaders did not, that it is right to adopt an indigenous name. That it shows a will to pack away the cultural arrogance of the past, even if practically we cannot all learn each other's languages and customs,'' said an editorial.

Another edition, however, was less tolerant when Land Affairs Minister Derek Hanekom suggested that Kruger National Park, one of the country's prime tourist spots, undergo name-changing too.

The editorial writer argued that the name was an internationally recognized brand worth millions of dollars of tourist revenue each year: ''The name Kruger Park has nothing to do with apartheid, and retaining it has everything to do with history and plain economic good sense.''

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