We are used to calling the country “South Africa”, but this is likely what causes millions of Americans to think that Africa is one country. As frustrating as that may be, it is probably forgivable, as they are also faced with terms such as South Vietnam, South Korea and South Sudan, all of which have political reasons for having the word South in the name. So they just mentally discard the “south” and proceed unwittingly into hapless illogic. This is how this author, a native of South Africa, ended up being blamed by a M.Sc. Physicist in New York for the excesses of Idi Amin in Uganda.
So what has South Africa been called in the past?
We can start with the Portuguese, who at first called the Cape the Cape of Storms. That was improved to Cape of Good Hope by their own king. And that is where the name stayed for a very long time, later becoming simply “The Cape”. Everyone on earth, with the possible exception of Americans, knew innately which Cape was implied by the single word “Cape”. It was THE cape; the cape that defined the word “Cape”. It was the geographic point about which Western civilization revolved. Whoever possessed it controlled the Sea Route to the East, and thereby the world economy.
What about the broader territory of South Africa?
Let us go back in time just a little to the Portuguese in the late 1500s and early 1600s, before the Dutch settled the Cape. Here is what they said:
Drawing a line from the southern borders of Congo across the continent eastward, there remains to the southward that great portion of Africa, to which the barbarous inhabitants have given no name, but was called by the Persians Kaffraria, and the inhabitants Kaffirs, which signifies a rude people without law or government; and our late geographers call it Ethiopia Inferior. Above this, on the east, runs for above two hundred leagues that coast which we call Zanguebar; but the Arabians and Persians give this name to all the coast as far as the Cape of Good Hope. Above Zanguebar as far as Point Guardafui and the mouth of the Red Sea is that which the Arabs call Aiam or Aiana, inhabited by the same Arabs, and the inland by heathen blacks.
This is from Asia Portuguesa (Tome 1 – Part 1 – Chapter VIII) by Manuel de Faria e Sousa (1590-1649) as translated from the Spanish by Captain John Stevens and published in London 1695. The text was reproduced by George McCall Theal in his Records of South-Eastern Africa Vol.1, page 11. “Zanguebar” is obviously what we now know as “Zanzibar”. We know the Arabs progressed as far south as Mozambique. To the south, beyond the very dangerous Cape Correntes on the Tropic of Capricorn in Mozambique, the territory was unknown to them.
So, before the Dutch settled the Cape, all of South Africa was part of Ethiopia Inferior for the Portuguese, Zanzibar in the minds of the Arabs, and Kaffraria in the mind of the Persians. We should note that this spelling is a European abstraction of the term “Kufr” or “Kufar” used by Moslems for an “Unbveliever”. On 11 September 2001 it was used by hordes of celebrating Palestinians to refer to Americans– and no, CNN did not fake the footage; it came from Reuters. Confused Americans can view this Youtube clip to hear themselves referred to as “Kafirs” in an American accent within the United States.
The Dutch had no name for the territory as a whole, though they made extensive use of Portuguese maps. It was these maps that the early commanders at the Cape used to send explorers into the interior to find the legendary Land of Monomotapa. My own ancestor, Peter van Meerhof was among these men.
When was the name “South Africa” first used?
I recently found the following interesting bit of information in a book on the centennial of the town of Uitenhage in the East Cape. I cannot vouch for the fact that it was the first use of the term, but it is the oldest formal government document that I have ever seen to contain the term “South Africa” in formal reference to the country. The document in question is the proclamation of the new district of Uitenhage by the Batavian Republic Governor of the Cape, J.W. Janssens. It was being split off from the larger “Graaff-Reinet Colonie” in view of the depredations by the amaXhosa and Southeast Cape Khoekhoe, including the Gonaqua or “Gonnas”. It was obvious that a new district, focused on the problems originating from the Eastern Frontier, was required in the wake of the disastrous Third Frontier War described in AmaBhulu.
The very capable Captain Ludwig Alberti of the 5th Waldecker Battalion was given the task of determining a suitable place for a drostdy (magisterial offices and seat of local government). Waldeck was one of the large collection of German states in Napoleonic times. Eventually Alberti chose the spot now known as Uitenhage on the Swartkops River. He was, at the time, the commander of Fort Frederick at what would later become Port Elizabeth. The government purchased the spot from the very tough widow Bettie Scheepers, widow of the author’s ancestral cousin, Gert Scheepers, who had been killed in the Third Frontier War. [Note in warning: this last link perpetuates the institutionalised British fallacy that Coenraad de Buys had anything to do with Cungwa’s/Conga’s people in the 3rd Frontier War; as the step-father of their enemy, Ngqika, he actually fought them.]
The document closes with: “Thus done in South-Africa at the Cape of Good Hope, 25 April 1804 — The Governor and General and Chief, J.W. Janssens”. I have yet to find an earlier document bearing the name “Zuid-Africa” or “South Africa”.
At the time “South Africa” extended from the Cape to the Fish River and then inland to the Tarka east of Cradock and then northward, but still excluded most of the present Northern Cape.
Of course, Vasco da Gama saw the coast of Africa off the Kathlamba Mountains at Christmas 1497, and named the region the Land of Natal, thereby respecting Christmas. So, Natal got its name 518 years ago.