All this controversy around honoring former Apartheid president FW de Klerk by renaming one of Cape Town’s busiest streets after him got me thinking.
The act of public naming is a profound act in our society – which is why it generates so much controversy.
It is symbolic. Naming is not merely of a practical function to help identify an object of interest, it also serves a necessary social purpose.
In this case, it serves to remove history from the tombs of academia and museums, and place it right smack into our everyday lives. It seeks to remind us of our past lest we continue to fall prey to repeating the same mistakes and atrocities over and over again. (Although, in truth, Marikana has also shown us how little we remember about Sharpeville).
It is absolutely true, as the journalist Terry Bell pointed out, that De Klerk was a despicable figure in South African history. He deserves no honor and what he stands for should be relegated to the dustbin of our oppressive past.
The City of Cape Town’s act of renaming the section of the N1 Freeway that is right now called Table Bay Boulevard merely serves to show how the current city government has few qualms about de Klerk’s obscenely racist politics, his support for apartheid death squads, and his general hatred of the quest for justice and equality.
Why is that the case? It is not only because the Democratic Alliance is a white dominated party that is unwilling to take the necessary steps to transform our society. Nor is it simply because Cape Town under the Democratic Alliance’s helm has become more segregated and exclusionary and its politics more reactionary and violent than ever.
It is also because the same holds true for South African society as a whole. Neoliberalism, a class project of both the ANC and DA that is buttressed by white capital, has maintained and in some cases even deepened exploitation of most South Africans.
Therefore, the important question to ask right here and right now is whether or not apartheid is truly behind us.
In my estimation, the following still exists:
1) South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of a range of key social factors such as income, land ownership, crime, and mobility.
2) It also remains segregated by both race and class even if a handful of blacks are able to make it out of the townships.
3) In practice, a different political and legal system is applied to poor blacks when compared to the rest of the population even if officially this is no longer the case.
4) Massacres of black workers and assassinations of community organisers and trade union members continue to take place with impunity for police, hitmen, and the politicians and bosses who give them their orders.
5) Rural South Africa remains under the despotic control of unelected chiefs who gained powerthrough apartheid’s system of indirect rule. The ANC is attempting to deepen this rather than democratise this despotic political system.
Therefore, in many of the ways that count, (i.e. the socioeconomic manifestations in everyday life for the poor majority) we still live in an materially apartheid state. This is in spite of major victories such as legal deracilization, the repeal of the pass laws, the fact that blacks can now vote and the rise of a liberation movement into political power.
While the importance of these changes should not be understated, they do not constitute a structural change in the character of our society.
If then wholesale oppression and exploitation of the majority of people living in South Africa remain, what better way to express that reality than by renaming one of Cape Town’s busiest roads after the person who negotiated a transition away from legal apartheid while ensuring it remains in effect in all the ways that truly matter to poor blacks?
I therefore propose that the remaining of Table Bay Boulevard go ahead but that we use it to remind everyone just how little has changed, in part, because of this man. At the entrances to Table Bay Boulevard, we should demand (or place ourselves) a large plaque which speaks to all the atrocities this man is responsible for, the racist politics he expounds, and the reformulation of his apartheid project post-1994 through wide-scale evictions, police killings and worker exploitation.
Only when our society is truly transformed can renaming our streets after those martyrs and movements who fought and continue to fight against oppression and exploitation be an honest reflection of our country. Until then, FW de Klerk Boulevard is an apt name for a road in a society that continues to oppress and exploit its people.