Do we really need new street names?

The renaming of a popular Cape Town road after Apartheid's last president, FW de Klerk, opens the debate about memorials in postapartheid South Africa.

Hillary Clinton and South Africa's last apartheid president, FW de Klerk in 2012 (Wiki Commons).

It is interesting to note how much of the debate about the renaming of Table Bay Boulevard on the edge of downtown Cape Town after apartheid’s last president, F.W. de Klerk, has invoked ideas of memory and amnesia. How can we remember particular role players in relation to South Africa’s transition to democracy? It’s an important question. Memory can be associated with ideas of inscription and re-inscription, since it implies that the act of recollection is also one of forgetting. And that makes it profoundly political. Indeed, from this perspective, we can see that the controversy surrounding the renaming of Table Bay Boulevard reflects a strange series of turns in contemporary South African political memory.

For example, if you will recall, a few years ago the eThiwkini municipality (how Durban in Kwazulu-Natal is officially known now) initiated a process of renaming a number of roads. One of the more controversial proposed names was that of Andrew Zondo, a young man who in the 1980’s planted a bomb in a shopping centre out of frustration at the brutality of the apartheid state. Four innocent people were killed and many were badly injured. Zondo was tried and eventually executed for his crime.

At the time, the Democratic Alliance (which governs in Cape Town) fought tooth and nail against the name changes in Durban. In court battles, and public statements, they marshalled many of the arguments—about cost, about the ANC bulldozing the proposal through and the moral standing of Andrew Zondo—critics (here, here and here) have raised against the renaming of Table Bay Boulevard. The Zondo case therefore marked a signal moment in contemporary South Africa’s contestation of public memory precisely because it highlighted the heated, complex political dynamics at play in the negotiation of forms of public honour.

Strangely, it seems prescient that it is a main arterial road in Cape Town that has been renamed, quite swiftly, and under dubious circumstances if opposition parties are to be believed, since it affirms strongly held views about the ruling DA being inconsiderate of the province’s black and coloured majority. Many were moved to ask, ‘how the can we honour the last apartheid president, a man who very recently declared on CNN, “I haven’t apologised for the original concept” of apartheid?’

But if you will recall, in 1994, while the ANC cleaned up in the national elections, the National Party claimed a majority in the Western Cape. This was a bitter pill to swallow. As Sean Jacobs (in a 2001 article) shows, the reasons for this are complex. The Western Cape was an important hotbed of anti-apartheid political activism. Many post-apartheid political figures, like Trevor Manuel, Cheryl Carrolus and Alan Boesak cut their political teeth in the city’s coloured townships and its African townships produced leaders like Oscar Mpetha while Chris Hani spent some of his formative years here. Indeed, like Andrew Zondo, Robbie Waterwich, Colleen Williams and Ashley Kriel feature among the many black South Africans who also took up arms against the apartheid government. 

Evidently, it was the National Party’s ‘swart gevaar’ political campaign, which played on the perils of immanent black rule, and the charismatic figure of F.W. de Klerk, that swung the vote. ‘Coloured voters’ (who make up the majority in the province) had effectively lent support to the party and representatives that they had actively struggled against during apartheid. (The plurality of coloureds now vote DA. Most whites vote DA too while Africans overwhelmingly vote ANC).

21 years later, the City of Cape Town is going ahead with the renaming, and it’s causing uproar.

One reason for the controversy is that post-apartheid memories are a product of the negotiated settlement, of compromise and complicity. Which means to say, all memories are valid in the context of the greater human tragedy of the bitter past. This flows through the TRC process, and indeed, is enshrined in South Africa’s heritage policy.

There was also no cleansing of the public sphere, no washing away of public memories, after the fall of apartheid. That is in part why Cecil John Rhodes continues to ‘salute’ in the Company Gardens in Cape Town, and the Voortrekker Monument, a monolith to Afrikaner nationalism, still stands proudly in Pretoria. The place of material representations of the colonial and apartheid past have been rendered the subject of continued negotiation, as markers of difficult pasts that cannot easily be abandoned.

This political spirit of parity of memory has also led to some strange juxtapositions, such as the Mandela-Rhodes Place, and the eponymously named fellowship. Freedom Park—a post-apartheid monument aimed at promoting nation-building and reconciliation—stands opposite the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria for example. It has a monumental Wall of Names. In 2007, an Afrikaner rights group, Afriforum and self-proclaimed Afrikaner rights activist, Steve Hofmeyr, campaigned for the inscription of former SADF soldiers who died in the ‘Border Wars’ in Namibia and Angola to be inscribed on the Wall together with soldiers who fought for the country’s liberation from apartheid. 

Indeed such a policy forces us to continuously remember. And indeed, in the case Table Bay Boulevard it appeared that perhaps mainstream political memory had lapsed. For indeed it has come to light that there is already a road named after F.W. de Klerk in Wesbank, a poor coloured township on the outskirts of the City. The street name was assigned 15 years ago when the province was ruled by the ANC. The residents of Wesbank do not appear to have been incensed by the name.

I am strongly against the renaming. I don’t think F.W. de Klerk is worthy of the honour. But I find it difficult to also let go of the idea that the proposal raises a bitter, yet poignant irony about post-apartheid political memory, about its contradictions and complexities, and the struggle against forgetting that is so visceral and present for so many.

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