From Cape Town to Pretoria (or Tshwane, if you prefer), street name changes are once more up for debate. Few issues raise the national temperature quite like the prospect of new signage in the streets. It’s like Bertrand Russell put it, “Change is indubitable, progress is a matter of controversy.”
And while Ramokgopa and Mashatile deliberate on opening up the process to further consultation, Ramokgopa has vowed to forge ahead with proposed name changes to 27 streets in the capital city. It remains unclear exactly which streets are up for renaming, but Ramokgopa has been at pains to stress Afrikaans names were not being unfairly targeted in the process. “Afrikaners are not hated or the object of contempt but it is a fact that all the streets in the city are named after Afrikaners,” he said during his State of the City speech. “It will never be argued that Afrikaners did not play a role but the city must represent everyone’s past,” he added.
At its core changing street names is a “vehicle for commemoration”. It is a form of symbolic reparation for human rights abuse. It also serves to construct a politicised version of history. In a fractured society changing names can also be considered as a mechanism of transitional justice. As a form of symbolic reparation street names can assist in restoring dignity and public recognition to victims. Lest we forget, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended the renaming of geographical features as a form of symbolic reparations to address South Africa’s unjust past. Though we may believe government officials have nothing better to do than sit around and make up strange new difficult to pronounce names for places, these changes do serve a greater function in a society undergoing transformation but it is also a process prone to scoring political points.
Name changes in South Africa have been largely restricted to street naming, the correction of spelling errors of the names of cities and towns, five rectifying incorrect (or “corrupted”) transcriptions of indigenous names during colonialism, and the introduction of names seeking to legitimise the new political regime. It does however serve vital functions in a society recovering from the horrors of its past.
Nowhere has the propensity for politicisation of proposed street name changes been so evident as it has in Durban. An initial phase of street renaming, more than five years ago, saw nine street names changed. A second phase saw a whopping 99 names changed in the eThekwini municipality. Durbanites with varying degrees of playfulness and seriousness blame city manager Mike Sutcliffe for the enthusiastic embrace of name changing, but at one point in 2007 the changes drew the ire of KwaZulu-Natal residents and opposition parties alike. Many perceived the proposed street name changes as an attempt by the ruling party to rinse history clean of the contribution of liberation movements that did not bear the insignia of the ANC. One proposal to rename the Mangosuthu Highway, named after Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, after ANC activist Griffiths Mxenge led to one IFP official warning that there would be “blood, and a lot of it” if the ANC proceeded with the change.
In November last year the eThekwini municipality was ordered to remove signage of nine renamed streets by the Supreme Court of Appeal. The Democratic Alliance had taken the ANC-led council to court, complaining that there had not been public participation in the process. The Supreme Court in turn found the council had indeed not complied with its own policy but last month, after referring the proposed changes for further public participation, the council won enough support for the changes to enact the new names once more.
In 2010 after the city of Cape Town decided to revisit the possibility of changing street names,Western Cape Premier Helen Zille warned the renaming process could “blow the city apart”, as in Durban, and would have to be managed carefully. At the time, Zille said the problem with the process of deciding name changes lay in its creation of polarisation and conflict instead of unity.
After rethinking the process, or as the City of Cape Town puts it, “Council suspended the process for the purposes of further public consultation on the recommendations”, the reality of street name changes are about to dawn on Cape Town. Public comment has recently been invited into 31 naming proposals that are due to be approved and implemented by the council.
It is one of the ironies of democracies that the rights and interests of the minorities must be protected but the caution with which topological name changes have been made has drawn criticism from some quarters who feel the slow process of name changes is indicative of the slow process of socio-economic transformation in the country. Radical black consciousness writer Andile Mngxitama however feels that the attention given to name changes deflects from the reality of black South Africans. “Shouldn’t name changing reflect a changed reality for our people? Will black live improved existences? Will townships cease to be abandoned place? Will blacks not be left to rot in squatter camps?” he asks. “Name changes operate at the level of elite ego battles, but has no resonance with any serious transformation.”
Seventeen years into democracy, South Africa continues to suffer from historically-induced social and linguistic inequalities. The Geographical Names Act of 1998 is not only a law of this country but an essential part of transformation. It is a legislative process intended to redress historical imbalances and thus contribute towards eradicating a history fraught with oppression and forge, instead, a national identity to which all South Africans can ascribe. DM