History of the NSSA

The Names Society of Southern Africa was founded in 1981. Prior to that there had been a number of notable contributions to the study of names and naming in South Africa, starting with Charles Pettman’s 1931 publication South African Place Names. 1931 was also the year the renowned Afrikaans linguist and onomastician Professor G.S. (“Oom Gawie”) Nienaber published his first book, entitled Die Afrikaanse Beweging, but names scholars would have to wait until 1954 for his first onomastic publication, the book Afrikaanse Familiename (‘Afrikaaans surnames’). Oom Gawie is widely and correctly regarded as the first major onomastic scholar of South Africa, but in fact his major contribution to South African onomastics came towards the end of his career, with the publication of the three volume series Toponymica Hottentotica, with Dr Peter E. Raper as co-author. This massive research came to nearly two thousand published pages, and appeared between 1977 and 1980.

Any history of the Names Society of Southern Africa, no matter how, needs to mention the contribution of Peter Raper. In 1970 Peter Raper began his 23 year career  in the Onomastic Research Unit of the Human Sciences Research Council, and, appropriately enough, the same year he published an article in the international journal ONOMA entitled “The South African Centre of Onomastic Sciences”. In 1971 he produced his doctoral thesis on the names of regions in South Africa and South West Africa, and by the end of 1976, Raper had published thirty-three articles on onomastic topics – thirty-three in a mere six years.

On the 24th September 1981, a group of 20 academics met in Pretoria to found the Names Society of Southern Africa. In her introduction to the Raper festschrift, Lucie Möller makes him directly responsible for this: “In 1981 [Peter Raper] visited the USA and made contact with [a number of] names scholars …. On his return he founded the Names Society of Southern Africa (NSA) and was elected its Vice-Chairman.” [2002:iv]

Raper and Möller were both at that meeting, and the “Presensielys van die Stigtingsvergadering van die Onomastiese Vereniging” (’list of those present at the founding meeting of the Onomastic Society’) records the names of 18 more academics interested in names and naming. “Oom Gawie” was of course there, as well as his  brother PJ Nienaber (“Oom Petrus”),  and various professors of linguistics, of Afrikaans , and English. TJR Botha (“Oom Theuns”) from Durban, author of the 1977 book Watername in Natal (an analysis of Zulu names for rivers, streams and other bodies of water in KwaZulu-Natal), was elected the first President (or Chairman as he was at the time) of the NSA.  Professor Botha returned to the University of Natal after the founding meeting in Pretoria, and some weeks later started the Durban branch of the NSA. Current NSA President, Adrian Koopman, was at that founding meeting in Durban.

The new society immediately started plans for a first congress, and this was held the following year (1982) at the University of Natal in Durban. The journal Nomina Africana took considerably longer to organize, and the first volume only appeared in 1987. It contained the papers read at the first congress five years previously. Curiously enough, the papers read at the second congress, held in Pretoria in 1983, appeared earlier, in a separate 1986 publication of the Human Sciences Research Council simply titled Names 1983. And the papers read at the third congress, held in Windhoek in 1985, appeared even earlier, in a special volume of the journal Logos, with the cover date 1985.

NSA Office bearers, as recorded in the inside cover pages of Nomina Africana:

1987: Chairman: Prof TJR Botha
Vice-Chairman: Dr PE Raper
Secretary-treasurer: Dr RK Belcher
Other members: Prof JGH Combrink, Prof W Branford, Prof LC Eksteen, Prof PJ Nienaber.

In 1988 Dr Lucie Möller joined the team as Editorial Secretary, and by 1989 she had become the joint Secretary-Treasurer, a role she would fulfill with great dedication for many years. In 1989 Dr Peter E. Raper took over the leadership of the NSA from TJR Botha, and in the process became the first President (as opposed to ‘chairman’). Professor Johan Jacobs became Vice-president in that same year. Three other people elected that year, who were also to serve the NSA for many many years, and all of whom are still active in onomastics in 2011, were Dr Barbara (“Babs”) Meiring, who became Editorial Secretary, and professors Elwyn Jenkins and Bertie Neethling.

In 1991, the names of various chairpersons of regional branches of the NSA were mentioned in Nomina Africana, and these were Professor J Combrink (University of Stellenbosch), Mr A Koopman (Pietermaritzburg), Prof SA Swanepoel (PU-CHO), Prof Johan Lubbe (UOVS), Prof Bertie Neethling (UWC) and Brigadier Jan Picard (Pretoria). In 1995 Prof Bob Herbert opened a branch at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The executive board of the NSA remained virtually unchanged for a number of years, until in 1998 professor Adrian Koopman replaced Johan Jacobs as Vice-President of the NSA, and replaced Babs Meiring as the Editorial Secretary. The next changes took place four years later, when Adrian Koopman took over the Editorship of Nomina Africana, and Noleen Turner took over as Editorial Secretary. Dr Lucie Möller finally stepped down as Secretary-Treasurer, after fifteen years or so of sterling service to the Names Society, and John Hilton took over this vital portfolio.

At the congress held at Ithala Game Reserve in 2006, Dr Peter E Raper stepped down as President of the Names Society and Adrian Koopman was elected in his place, with Professor Bertie Neethling and Luis Abrahamo of Mozambique both being elected as Vice-Presidents.

Members of the Names Society of Southern Africa have not just served on the executive board of the NSA, attended and presented papers at NSA Congresses, and submitted articles to Nomina Africana. In line with one of the earliest stated goals of the NSA, namely “to establish contact with other academic, professional and technical groups connected with onomastics”, they have been active in a number of bodies involved in names and naming.
These include:
- The National Place Names Committee of South Africa, replaced in the 1990s by the South African Geographical Names Council, and nine provincial geographical names committees;
- The International Council of Onomastic Sciences (ICOS). Besides a number of members attending the triennial congresses of this world-wide body of onomastic scholars, Adrian Koopman was elected to the Executive Board of ICOS in 2005 and became a co-Vice-President in 2008;
- The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN). Dr Peter E Raper served for a number of years as the chairman of this standing committee of the United Nations;
- Toponymical Training Courses: UNGEGN has run such courses in various parts of the world for several years, and Dr Raper and other NSA members have run a number of such courses in South Africa and other southern African countries since the early 1990s, under the umbrella of the Africa South Division of UNGEGN (which covers Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe).

In addition, members of the Names Society have:
- Been involved in the setting up and teaching of onomastic courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels at universities in South Africa and other southern African countries, as well as in the supervision of a considerable number of postgraduate dissertations and theses on onomastic topics;
- Advised various bodies such as NGOs, municipalities and universities in setting up names policies; and
- Published a number of books on onomastic topics, as well as articles in international journals such as Onoma and Names. There can be no question that over the thirty years of its existence, the Names Society has succeeded in achieving the aims and goals set out by its founder members in 1981.