[African Languages]

Meanings of place names in South Africa

New 2006/07: Added a list of place name meanings from South African Geographical Names System database.

"New" name "Old" name Explanation/meaning
Tshwane* (Pretoria, or Pretoria and surrounds) Tshwane is, quite simply, the African name for the Apies** River which runs through the city, as well as the name used for the Pretoria area. Although there is no doubt that this is the original name of the area, the actual origin of the name is unclear and still a subject of debate, as there does not seem to be conclusive evidence for any of the explanations given. Thus the precise origin may well now sadly be "lost to history".

Perhaps the most plausible explanation so far, however, is described in this talk by Prof. LJ Louwrens. According to this, the name "Tshwane" comes from the Setswana word "tshwana" meaning "black cow". During a time of drought, a black cow was used as a central part of a rainmaking ceremony whereby water was fetched from the (not yet so-named) Tshwane river and sprinkled on the cow. The cow was then allowed to graze freely, and, it was believed, rain would fall wherever the cow grazed. The story goes that the drought was broken in this way, and the river thereafter was named "Tshwane", derived from "tshwana" and meaning "place of the black cow". When the city of Pretoria began to develop around the Apies river, the name Tshwane was carried over to the city.

Another explanation that has been put forth is that the river was named in honour of Tshwane, the son of Chief Mushi, who settled in the area about a century before the arrival of the Voortrekkers in the early 1800s. From tshwane.gov.za/faq.cfm: "Chief Mushi and his tribe had moved from Zululand and first settled at Mokgapane (Mooiplaas, east of Pretoria). He later moved from Mooiplaas to what is now the Pretoria area, on the banks of the Tshwane River, named after his son Tshwane (today called the Apies River). Tshwane is the authentic African name for Pretoria."

A third explanation commonly put forth, that is promoted in particular by the city municipality, is that "tshwane" means "we are the same" or "we are one because we live together". Although the word is similar to a Setswana word of which the stem has roughly that meaning, this explanation is unlikely, and is probably promoted only for its "feel-good" political value. In fact, as a reader pointed out, "tshwane" would actually mean "we are not the same": "You're right. Tshwane, if anything, would mean NOT THE SAME in Setswana. A fuller sentence would be 'ga re tshwane' meaning we're not the same." - Sam

Another reader to the site has submitted the following: "the closest meaning for the word Tshwane is the word Tshwaana or Tshwaane which is a word to refer to colour for the colour white. When a bull is pure white it is called Tshweu and when it is a cow it becomes Tshwana or Tshwaana"

NOTE: The "h" of "Tshwane" is not really pronounced, it indicates aspiration, so for non-mother tongue speakers, a closer approximation is to pronounce the name as if it was spelled "Tswane". (In Tshivenda, it is in fact spelled "Tswane".)

Pretoria was founded in 1855, and is named after Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius.

The Pretoria name change has been the subject of much discussion and debate; Chris Roper has some insightful and humorous commentary on the issue: 'Pretoria' reflects an evil past. To quote: "... there's no arguing the fact that many of our place names reflect an evil past. Whether Andries Pretorius was evil or not doesn't matter - we turned the word Pretoria into a byword for oppression, so it needs to change." One argument against the name change is the huge estimated cost (over R1.5bn); there are no doubt far more useful ways to spend the money, e.g. better schools and libraries for the poor areas of Pretoria.

* The name of Pretoria has not yet been officially changed to "Tshwane"; the name change was scheduled to occur in October 2005 but appears to have been delayed. When/if the name change takes place, the name "Pretoria" will subsequently refer only to the city center.

** The word "apies" is an Afrikaans word meaning "small monkeys". Although "Tshwane" superficially resembles the Setswana word "Tshwene" (meaning baboon), the name "Tshwane" is not derived from this and does not mean "ape(s)" or "monkey(s)", contrary to misinformation that is going around. The confusion probably originates from the translation of the name "Apies Rivier" vs. the name "Tshwane" also referring to the river.

Polokwane Pietersburg Some sources say that Polokwane means "little storage space", other sources (such as this one) say it means "place of safety", while another source simply states that it is the name of a river near Pietersburg.

From Ben Goslin: "The verb "boloka = preserve, save, put away with care, bury, store, file, keep in safety, protect, observe a law or custom". A deverbative noun is formed from this verb stem in Class 9, thus n-bolok-o > poloko + diminutive -ana/ane > Polokwane. The capital indicate the name of a place. I don't recall the source, but in the vicinity of Pietersburg there is place called "Bewaarkloof" which would share the same significance in meaning. It seems as if the name Polokwane could be an equivalent of this Afrikaans name. There is a river near Pietersburg known as Umbhulungwane which is the Northern Ndebele equivalent of Polokwane. So it might be that Sindebele is the source language. Note that the diminutive -ana/-ane, apart from expressing 'small size' may also express 'endearment". The variant -ane normally occurs in proper names. Polokwane could have the following meaning "cherished, beloved (place) of safety". I hope this will shed some light, or cause more confusion as to the source."

Phuti Kgatla doesn't agree: "A person who said Polokwane means a "little storage space" was actually referring to Seshego Township, Seshego is a silo: "a pit or airtight structure in which green crops are stored" for future use especially when there is famine. As for place of safety I think someone was taking chances, place of safety would be Polokong which does not necessarily mean place of safety but place of rest or burial(grave yard). Polokwane just like most of our surnames Kgatla, Semenya, Mamabolo Matlala does not have a descriptive meanings. Most places in Pedi were named after their chiefs, rivers and mountains, e.g Modimolle in which the whole area was named after the little mountain. ... In conluction, I'm not disputing that there were names that had meaning however not all had clear cut meaning. For now Polokwane has no meaning."

Makhado Louis Trichardt A reader writes: "King Makhado Ramabulana was the King of Vhavenda from 1864 to 1895. King Makhado's palace was at Swongozwi in Makhado. King Makhado fought and won all the battles against colonialists.He was nicknamed "The Lion of the North". King Makhado and King Mphephu's (Makhado's son) contribution in the struggle for justice, freedom and equality has been acknowledged by former President Nelson Mandela and President Mbeki.

King Mphephu was defeated by colonialists in 1898. The Ramabulana Royal House was removed from Makhado and resettled at Dzanani (22 km north of Makhado)in 1914. The Vhavenda whose villages were in Makhado were also forcibly removed and relocated to Kutama and Sinthumule." - Pfanani
Dzanani (township) Makhado A reader writes: "Dzanani means a place of quarrels"
Mphephu (township) Dzanani  
Musina Messina A reader writes: "Musina is a Tshivenda word for copper. Vhavenda people mined iron and gold in Mapungubwe and Thulamela. They also thought that they had discovered iron in Musina. But to their dismay they found something they were not necessarily looking for (copper). They called this product musina meaning spoiler. They later learnt that copper could be used for something else. Because copper was in abundance in the area, the area was referred to as Musina. When colonialists conquered Venda they corrupted the name Musina into Messina." - Pfanani

Another Venda-speaking reader also wrote that Musina simply means "copper".

Another reader writes: "I was told whilst on a tour of the area that the name Musina, misspelt Messina, much like Mafeking Mafikeng meant The Spoiler, this from the fact that the ancient coppersmiths were finding that their copper was being adulterated by iron ore of which I believe there is a lot in the area." - Ian

Mhlambanyatsi Buffelspruit  
Marapyane Skilpadfontein  
Mbhongo Allemansdrift
The following information was submitted by a reader: "Mbhongo was a Ndebele Chief of Manala clan who took the clan out of Walmansthal, north of Pretoria at the turn of the 20th century. There are two chiefs who were given the name which gives Mbhongo I and Mbhongo II. The latter is the father of the current leader King Makhosoke II."
Mokopane Potgietersrust Mokopane was the name of a king.
Mogale (Municipality) - "Mogale" means "the brave one"; according to the municipality it is the name of Kgosi Mogale (King Mogale) who ruled over the area around 1800. Note that the Magaliesburg was named after this chief. Mogale municipality "represents the towns of Krugersdorp, Kagiso, Muldersdrift, Munsieville, Tarlton, Hekpoort, Magaliesburg, Azaadville, as well as the industrial areas including Chamdor, Factoria and Boltonia" [source].
Bela-Bela Warmbaths "Belabela" is a Sesotho word simply meaning "hot spring" (or "bubble bubble", in reference to the hot water springs in this area).
eThekwini * Durban * Not a changed name; This means "in the bay" (although an alternate theory exists as to the origin of this name).
Modimolle Nylstroom From 'DumÍlang', SABC 1986: "The word literally means "the forefather's spirit has eaten" (Modimo o lle). According to tradition, it often happened that someone would climb the mountain, only to disappear without trace. The Basotho attributed such disappearances to an ancestral spirit that ate (killed) the unfortunate."
iGoli / eGoli * Johannesburg * Not a changed name; an affectionate nickname for Johannesburg, meaning "place of gold".
Umhlanga - Means "place of reeds" or "bed of reeds" in Zulu, referring to the beds of reeds growing along the Ohlanga river north of Umhlanga Rocks.


"New" name "Old" name Explanation/meaning
Gauteng Part of the old Transvaal This means "at the gold". This is a Sotho word, and is the locative form (suffix "-eng") of the word "gauta" ("gold").
KwaZulu-Natal Natal "KwaZulu" means "place of the Zulu people". "Natal" is Portuguese for "Christmas", and was given by the Portuguese sailors who reached the bay of what is now Durban on Christmas Day of 1497.
Mpumalanga Part of the old Transvaal This means 'place where the sun rises'.

For more details, see this site: Brief history of the name of the Province, Mpumalanga


"New" name "Old" name Explanation/meaning
Sefogane Treur  
Mhlambanyatsi Slabhojet  

Names of South African Cities, Towns and Townships:

Alexandra "The land on which Alexandra is situated was originally part of a farm owned by a Mr. Papenfus. In 1904, he endeavoured to establish a white residential township on a portion of his farm, which he named after his wife, Alexandra. ... In 1912, Alexandra was proclaimed a 'native township'." Alexandra is situated near Sandton, in Johannesburg. Source: http://www.alexandra.co.za/ (A very nice website about Alexandra and the Alexandra Renewal Project).
Amanzimtoti Amanzimtoti means "sweet water" or "The water is sweet".
Cape Town The name was given by Portuguese sailors, who called it "Cidade do Cabo" ("Cape Town" in English).
Durban "In 1835, Port Natal was renamed Durban after the then Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Benjamin Durban" [source]
Gugulethu One of the main townships in Cape Town, with an estimated population of about two million, the name means "our pride".
Johannesburg The true origin of the name Johannesburg is not known [source].
Khayelitsha Khayelitsha means "new home".
Langa "The sun". "Langa Township was named after chief of the Hlubi tribe, Langalibale who was imprisoned on Robin Island in 1875 for resisting the local government in Natal."
Mamelodi Full name "Mamelodi ya Tshwane". From 'DumÍlang', SABC 1986: "Mamelodi is the name of the township on the outskirts of Pretoria, but is, according to tradition, the name that was given to Paul Kruger. The full name bestowed on him by the blacks was in fact Mamelodi'a Tshwane, which literally means "the whistler of the Apies river"."
Nyanga Nyanga means "the moon".
Phalaborwa The people who originally settled here had moved to this area (on the border of the Kruger National Park) from further south, and the name means "better than the south".
Soshanguve Like many of the townships/locations/ghettos in Gauteng, Soshanguve contains a broad mix of people of varying ethnic groups. This is because Gauteng has always attracted poor people from all over the country who come in search of jobs. The name Soshanguve reflects this mix, being formed from Sotho, Shangaan, Nguni (isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiNdebele, SiSwati) and Venda. However, in more recent years a more broadly encompassing explanation has been suggested: Sotho, Shangaan, Afrikaans, Nguni, Venda, and English.
Soweto This township lies South West of Johannesburg, and the name is formed from the first letters of "South Western Township". The name was proposed by a Concita Stanissis of Sunnyside Pretoria in August 1961, who proposed either "Soweto" or "Towesa" as the name; here is a copy of the letter, which now hangs in the offices of the Gauteng Housing Department.

Note that Soweto does not really "exist", as such, but actually consists of a number of smaller townships, such as Diepkloof, Naledi and Senoane.

Soweto is home to approximately four million people.

Soweto in Pictures Photography by Jurgen Schadeberg.

Tzaneen The name Tzaneen probably comes from "Dzanani". According to a reader:

"I was told that the name comes from Dzudzanani which means "living together in harmony". The ancient capital of the Venda Kingdom was in Dzudzanani before King Muzhedzi Ramabulana (King Thohoyandou's son) moved it to Makhado (former Louis Trichardt) in the late 1700s or early 1800s. Makhado is 30 km south-west of Dzudzanani. Dzudzanani was later referred to as Dzanani (the "Dzu" part of it was discarded).

When colonialists conquered Venda in 1898 King Mphephu Tshilamulela's palace was at mount Swongozwi (Hanglip) in Makhado. King Mphephu was King Makhado's son. The Royal Family was forcibly relocated to Dzudzanani (Dzanani) after Makhado was declared a "white area" under the 1913 Land Act." - Pfanani

Another reader also writes: "I was told that the name Tzaneen came from the name Dzanani. This was the place where the vha-Venda lived many years ago; it is said that the whole area from Limpopo (Vhembe) river to the now called Olifants river was occupied by vha Venda to the side of Madzivhanombe (around Giyani). Near Tzaneen is Bolobedu (where some Venda-origin people are still staying)"

An alternate and most probably incorrect explanation is also floating around, namely: ".. the name Tzaneen originated from the Sepedi word tsaneng, which loosely translated means "the place where people gather."" (Source).


Kalafong hospital Can be translated as "place of medical treatment", or thus more loosely as "place of healing".
Mahlambandlopfu (Mahlambandlovu) Name of the presidential residence at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Means "dawn" ('the time when the elephants wash': -hlamba means "wash", "ndlopfu"/"ndlovu" means "elephant").
Pumulani Plaza (Toll gate outside Pretoria); Pumulani means "rest" in Zulu and Ndebele.

Lodges and guest houses:

Khayalethu Guest house (Pretoria) Means "our home" in the Nguni languages.
Pumulani Farm; Guest house Means "rest" in the Nguni languages.

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