Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Renaming things: Symbolic or shambolic?

When it comes to renaming things, government suddenly gets goal-oriented. In fact, I’m surprised we’re allowed to choose our own names and aren’t given a pre-approved list of politically correct suggestions.

But what’s in a name? A lot, if we go through three recent events.

The first involves one Supra Mahumapelo, the ANC’s North West chairperson, who feels the province’s name should be more than a direction on the map. Personally, some names just make driving easier. The alternative put forward is Moses Kotane, an ANC and Communist Party stalwart. This may please the 72% of provincial ANC voters but what about the 291 529 residents who aren’t? Not that anyone, I assume, would object to the honouring of a great chap who fought for freedoms we’re all enjoying but the ANC has a tendency to dominate the historical narrative when it comes to celebrating struggle heroes. But more about those tendencies later.

Given that 65 794 of the North West votes were for explicitly Christian political parties (UCDP, ACA and ACDP) perhaps just “Moses” will do.

Mpho Matheolane laments the state of the North West’s management, “ravaged by rampant corruption, from Brits to Mafikeng, its supposed public officials are outdoing themselves and surely Kotane, wherever his soul resides, would turn down such name-tarnishing prospects”. I agree. And on that note, if I one day strike fame by finding the cure for narcissism or stupidity, please spare my family the public humiliation of renaming some dirty corner café after me. Don’t put my face on a R10 note either. The thought of my printed smile being stuffed into some lady’s heavy bosom or — worse — smelly socks, is unsettling. No statues either, I don’t fancy being a public lavatory for perching birds.

Call me overly patient but I will bear the indignity of these names until authentic change arrives, which trumps the priority list over putting out tenders for new signboards. Which I suspect will be done by a company owned by a cousin or boyfriend of the person pushing the agenda for new names. Ka-ching!

The second story happened last month when my employer finally shed its European legacy and changed its letterhead to King Dinuzulu Hospital Complex.

Rallying against imperial powers, history remembers him as a youthful king ruling until his death, aged 45, in 1913, and the first king to join the ANC. Prime minister Louis Botha, apparently his good buddy, granted him an early release from political imprisonment but placed him under house arrest in the Transvaal. Bittersweet, their statues stand alongside each other in Durban.

Ratepayers seemed happy to do away with King George V, a lousy, selfish guy who in 1914 denied an African delegation a request that their stolen land be fairly redistributed. KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize remarked: “In the post-colonial dispensation institutions should [not] honour colonial masters when we have our own heroes who made meaningful contributions for our people.”

But how do we do justice to the kaleidoscope of cultures infused into the fabric of society, which all intersect at shared and ambiguous historical narratives? There are some caveats, written elsewhere, and I’ll summarise briefly.

Firstly, be fair. As Mangosuthu Buthulezi lamented, the ANC is selective about who it chooses to remember. Is renaming about balancing history, or excuses for political branding? The story of our struggle for a free country should not be owned by any one organisation, sector or ideology.

Secondly, prioritise. These red herrings distract us from the sorry excuses of non-delivery of essential services. Hungry beggars don’t give a damn whether they’re suffering on Moore Rd or Che Guevara Rd (how a Cuban revolutionary-cum-fashion-icon made the Durban list is probably an untold laughable story). Ideological interventions are significant but in our young democracy what are we sacrificing just to change an address?

Thirdly, acknowledge complexity. If we are to reclaim our sense of history, initiatives must go beyond renaming. Paradoxically renaming can be psychologically disruptive to our attachment to places that are significant to our life story — irrespective of whether those places are named after colonial bastards. Questions of who we are linked to where we are.

For example giving the middle finger to Hendrik Verwoerd should be an uncomplicated process given the post-apartheid rainbow nation rhetoric. Not so. The DA in Gauteng was scolded by the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) for renaming Dr Verwoerd Laerskool to Meyerton Laerskool, despite 88% of parents wanting change.

With just 1.63% of the national vote, the dying FF+ may be nailing its political coffin shut by trying to preserve its ultra-conservative brand identity by helping save the legacy of apartheid’s chief architect.

But have we been applying our minds intelligently and creatively to reclaim our narratives, while acknowledging the hard facts that we are emerging from an oppressed society, shaped and contoured in endless ways by the apparent villains of the story?

Perhaps, firstly, deepen community consultation. If we don’t solidify social contracts, people protest or vandalise new structures. Secondly, focus on new infrastructure. Relics of the past, properly positioned, can serve as reminders of where we’ve come from and deepen our complex life stories and political narrative. Thirdly, get creative. How else can we honour heroes?

Throwing away the villains into history’s dustbin risks suppressing our past and masquerading as a society that has reconciled its shadow aspects of national identity. Yet, material change can help transform consciousness, and keeping those villains in prominent spaces is also risky, as it may impede Steve Biko’s goal of mental liberation. The delicate political, emotional, moral, historical and practical implications of renaming must be balanced with the necessity of remembering. Both processes can be incredibly cathartic.

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  • 7 Responses to “Renaming things: Symbolic or shambolic?”

    1. Momma Cyndi #

      My problem is WHAT they rename. Its hard not being able to get around my own home city.

      Renaming John Vorster Avenue is understandable but they didn’t rename it, John Vorster is still John Vorster. Instead, they renamed Church Street, Charles Avenue and Duncan Street. Now whilst I’m sure there was a rather nefarious guy called Duncan somewhere in history and I’m not big on formal religion, one has to wonder what was so very insulting about those innocuous names?

      As for the state of some of the things they rename .. tjo .. it’s more of an insult than an honour. Rather fix it first and THEN rename it.

      February 22, 2013 at 6:15 pm
    2. The main problem I have had with some of the Durban street name changes is that they went and changed the geographic descriptors. For example Point road, Brickfield Road and Ridge Drive. Just seemed pointless.

      February 23, 2013 at 10:45 am
    3. Still beating this dead horse?! LOL
      I fail to see how retaining the despicable memories of the architects of apartheid, considered one of the greatest evils unleashed on humanity, with street names and statues etc. can be “cathartic”. Maybe to someone still fearfully shackled by the generations of apartheid indoctrination or still yearning for the old days bru!

      February 24, 2013 at 10:50 am
    4. @Dave Harris:
      A little perspective from you would be welcome. Take a moment to consider that it wasn’t the architects of Apartheid who invented the North West province, but the ANC themselves. For your further enlightenment, you may want to consider that the architects of Apartheid only recognised four provinces. In short, the fearful shackling of generations of Apartheid indoctrination is nowhere nearly as evil as the kind of indoctrination that would make someone like you applaud the decisions of blatant sanctimonious liars and thieves.

      February 24, 2013 at 7:50 pm
    5. Heinrich #

      If I were the king, I would simply say : No human names for anything, with the possible exception of public toilets.

      February 25, 2013 at 12:51 pm
    6. Graham #

      @Dave Harris:
      Please explain how the name ‘North West’ helps retain “the despicable memories of the architects of apartheid”.

      February 25, 2013 at 3:21 pm
    7. Heinrich #

      Graham : You have to be a qualified racist to fully understand. Let me try to explain :

      “North” is where the hated whites came from.

      “West” refers to the decadent western civilization

      So “North-West” is as bad as you can get..

      February 25, 2013 at 8:58 pm

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