Discovering the real Azania

Names being one of my special interests, I decided to look into the background of the name Azania and briefly summarize the results.

A number of smaller political parties in South Africa use the name Azania as part of their name.  (AZAPO, PAC of Azania etc).  Supporters of these parties would prefer to see South Africa’s name replaced with Azania.  Some folk allege that the name South Africa is somehow “colonial” despite the fact that it is a purely descriptive geographical term referring to our southerly position on the continent.  Unlike names such as Rhodesia, Verwoerdburg and Kaffraria (a historical name given by the British to a part of the Eastern Cape), the name contains nothing potentially offensive.

Frankly I don’t think any name should be changed needlessly, as it wastes money which could be spent on more useful stuff, such as job creation and building homes.

But Azania would in any case be an inaccurate name and has never at any time in history or even prehistory referred to any part of Southern Africa.

What Azania is not.

Azania has nothing to do with the word azan which is the Muslim call to prayer and stems from the Arabic word for “invitation”.

Azania doesn’t originate from the word San, the word most widely used to describe the earliest inhabitants of South Africa.

Coincidentally, Azania contains the letters ZA which is the “official” abbreviation for South Africa and short for Zuid-Afrika, the Dutch name for the country as it was before Dutch was replaced by Afrikaans as an official language.  There are other parts of the world with the initials SA, such as South Australia and South America.  To avoid confusion with these geographical entities South Africa is also referred to as RSA (Republic of South Africa), which brings to my mind the catchy tune from YMCA and has an upbeat ring to it.

If Azania ever reappeared on modern maps it could never be known as AZ as this would confuse it with the official abbreviation for the state of Arizona as well as Azerbaijan, leading to a lot of chaos from A-Z.

Azania was one of several names proposed, considered but not accepted for Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan.

Azania as described in the first to fifth centuries AD….

The name Azania originates from ancient Greek and was translated from the Arabic word ajam.  In ancient times this name was given to the eastern African coast around Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and northern Tanzania.  These ancient Azanians traded with the Arabs of Yemen and the surrounding regions in pre-Islam times.  The southernmost port of trade was called Rhapda.  Archaelogist Dr Felix Chami from Dar-es-Salaam University believes this long vanished city was near the Indian Ocean near the Rufiji River mouth, in present day Tanzania.

The original Azania on the coast of East Africa


Roman coins have been discovered on Pemba Island, just north of the presumed site of Rhapta.

Full and detailed descriptions of the people and the leadership of Azania are found in a document called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.  Those who are interested can go here to find out more…

The name is linked to za, the name by which the Indian Ocean was known to people living on the east coast of Africa at the time.

The Chinese were also familiar with the area and referred to it as Zesan in writings from the third century AD.
Prehistoric Azania

The name Azania has also been given to an ancient, long-gone continent which consisted of central Madagascar, southern India, parts of eastern Somalia and Ethiopia, and Yemen.  This continent collided with East Africa about 640 million years ago forming the mountain ranges of East Africa.  Thereafter, around 550 million years ago Neoproterozoic India collided with the amalgamated Azania / Congo continent and formed the Malagasy mountain system.  (There are many similarities between the Semien Mountains of Ethiopia and the mountains of Madagascar as can be seen below).

Semien Mountains, Ethiopia
sambriano river northern madagascar resembles drakensberg
Mountains of Madagascar

Alternate names….

As stated before, this blog isn’t in support of a change to the status quo but merely a theoretical discussion on the merits of alternative names more appropriate to this part of the world than Azania…

How about Sania, Khoisania or KwaSan?  The San are the original settlers in South Africa and it would historically just to give a name to honour the people of whom so few are left and whose traditional lifestyle is rapidly disappearing.  Their remarkable depictions of daily life are slowly fading away on rocks and caves throughout the region.  The San are descendants of the hunter-gatherers who inhabited the region undisturbed for many thousands of generations before the arrival of other peoples, such as the Khoikhoi who arrived about 2000 years ago and brought cattle.  South Africa is indeed considered to be the very cradle of mankind – the place where human life as we know it first began and where Mrs Ples was discovered in 1947 by Dr Robert Broom.


Gariep is a very descriptive and apt name for the country as it refers to the longest river in South Africa, which flows through the heart of the land and contains the nation’s largest dam, bringing life to huge swathes of barren lands which would otherwise be a wasteland.  (The river, also known as the Orange, is called the Senqu River for the first few hundred kilometres of its length during which it hops and skips through the deep rocky valleys of Lesotho).

Water being symbolic of life, KwaGariep, Gariep or Gariepia would be an excellent name to unite South Africans around.  (Unfortunately it sounds very similar to the Afrikaans name for flu, griep, which is somewhat less appealing…)

The case for rejuvenating Gondwanaland…

Gondwanaland was one of the two ancient supercontinents (the other one being Laurasia) of which South Africa formed but a small part.  The name Gondwanaland doesn’t really have a South African context as it was coined by the Austrian scientist Eduard Suess from the Gondwana region of northern India, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit for “forest of the Gonds”.

We are somewhere where south central Gondwanaland existed some 2oo million years ago…

But the Drakensberg mountains have been referred to not only as the Roof of South Africa but also as the roof of Gondwanaland.  About 180 million years ago at the height of the Cenozoic era a mantle plume began to bulge under the continental surface of Southern Gondwana.  The slow but steady process of building the mountain range as we know it today, had begun.

Over the next twenty million years thick layers of basaltic rock gradually built up to a depth of around 1.5 kilometres in some places.  Gradually in nature’s time the softer layers of rock wore away leaving a lofty mountain range which forms the Great Escarpment as well as the border between South Africa and Lesotho.  Thus was born the Drakensberg (also known as uKhahlamba) at this time of great continental upheaval and change.

The Drakensberg-uKhahlamba: Roof of Southern Africa

Names help to build a brand or identity and are just as symbolic as flags, anthems and the other identifying features which form a whole and make a country what it is.

To me, New Zealand  (Aotearoa / Land of the Long White Cloud) is an excellent example of a nation which has taken the best elements from its assorted cultural building stones and woven them into a magical combination.  One of my favourite examples of this happy union is the haka competitions held at Kiwi schools. You can’t beat that beat!  I think were I not South African I’d have chosen to be a Kiwi.

In conclusion however, South Africa is so well known and despite the occasional lacklustre performances from our sports teams and the same tired promises from superannuated politicians, the scenery, the flowers and above all the people are what makes us great and we are proud to bear the name South African.  And the name has been around much longer than Coca-Cola!

Published by: envirozentinel63

Diagnosed with asperger syndrome. Keen runner and writer who wants to share the ups and downs of all my many experiences and maybe reach out to someone who needs encouragement.

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