S. Africa putting freedom on map

The Baltimore Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Hendrik Verwoerd Drive is headed for the dustbin. The busy road, named after a key architect of the apartheid laws that oppressed South Africa's black majority for decades, is likely to get a name more in step with the times: Nkululeko Drive, the Zulu word for "freedom."

Hans Langa, 60, a black street trader who was 12 when Verwoerd became prime minister in 1958, couldn't be happier.

"It's our freedom, you see. Things must be changed from the past for the new system," Langa said. "The name Verwoerd is no longer in this world. It's an offensive name."

A dozen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is in a renaming boom. Having broken the shackles of minority rule, the black-led government is rolling back the white domination still evident on the map.

The process is often contentious, with proposed changes stirring deep emotions. To many black South Africans, and a number of whites, age-old injustice is being cured at last. But many whites, especially Afrikaners descended from 17th-century Dutch settlers, feel the changes are an attempt to erase their heritage and a part of South African history that, however ugly, should not be overwritten.

So far, 833 cities, towns, airports, rivers and mountains have had new appellations granted by the national government. That does not include countless street name changes. The most recent high-profile switch saw Johannesburg's international airport - until 1994 named after the Afrikaner general and political leader Jan Smuts - recast as O.R. Tambo International, after the longtime head of the African National Congress, which led the struggle against white rule.

Much more renaming is expected. A recommendation to change the capital Pretoria to Tshwane, as the metro area is known, awaits action by the government minister in charge of renaming. King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulus wants Natal dropped from the province name KwaZulu-Natal. Some say Johannesburg and Cape Town deserve indigenous tags, and Azania has been suggested to replace South Africa.

While critics say ANC politicians too often push the changes through without open debate, the government says the new names have emerged from community-wide deliberations.

It is not just "offensive" names that are fair game for changing, said Sandile Memela, a spokesman for the Department of Arts and Culture, but any that cause painful reminders - in other words, any imposed by the English or Afrikaner settlers who controlled South Africa by the late 1800s.

"For quite a significant segment of the population, [the names] make people remember they are a conquered people, their land was taken from them, they continue not to enjoy the wealth that comes from that, and their heritage is sidelined," Memela said.

Resistance to the scale and method of the changes is being led by the Democratic Alliance, the ANC's official opposition in parliament. It is the party of many white South Africans, who make up about 10 percent of the country's population of 47 million people.

If the name-changing continues for years, "it would keep on dividing us even more, and that's not what we want," said Desiree van der Walt. "The Democratic Alliance strongly believes we have got to share this country, all of us who live here. We must understand where we come from."

Clearly offensive names such as Verwoerd ought to be scrapped, she said, as long as they're not simply replaced with ANC heroes. Afrikaners feel threatened because "it's always their names, their buildings, their language. It seems to be only an Afrikaans thing."

For now, she said, English names such as George, East London and Grahamstown seem safe. By the same token, she noted that no new names honor the Khoisan hunter-gatherers who predated Zulus, Afrikaners and all others here.

Another objection is the cost of changing signs and maps. When Pietersburg became Polokwane in 2003, it cost a reported $12 million. Van der Walt said the money would be better spent on public services.

"Dignity to us means you would have a job, you could have a house, clean water," she said. "Dignity to us is not based purely on a name. We strongly believe we should look at the real needs of the people first."

That is a "very patronizing argument," countered Phakamani Mthembu of the Department of Arts and Culture. In his view, names matter deeply.

"We are thinking beings, spiritual beings," he said. "You can't deal with people by saying you must give them food and shelter. It's animals that can be done that way."

Moreover, he said, whites have been "advantaged" by the renaming blitz, since more than 200 of the 833 new names are English or Afrikaans. However, the vast majority grace new communities and lack the emotional punch of centuries-old town names.

Renaming has commonly followed independence from colonial rule. Zimbabwe's capital went from Salisbury to Harare, Mozambique's from Lourenco Marques to Maputo. South Africa's white settlers, especially the Afrikaners but also the English, were prodigious namers, covering the landscape with their own language. Names commemorated battles (Blood River), royalty (George, for King George III) and leaders (Pretoria, for Andries Pretorius).

"It was to be expected that the names would change," said Tim du Plessis, editor of the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport. But he said he'd hoped it would be done in a limited, systematic way over a period of, say, five years. Instead, "it's happening on an ad hoc basis; it's not contributing to social cohesion."

As an example of a troubling change, he points to Lydenburg, a town named by Afrikaners trekking north in 1849. The name means "town of suffering" and refers to a malaria outbreak that devastated the travelers.

"There is no colonial connotation," du Plessis said.

Beyond that, the pro-Lydenburg camp believed that a compromise like that made elsewhere in South Africa had been reached: The town would remain Lydenburg, while the surroundings would be called Mashishing.

But in September, the minister for arts and culture, Pallo Jordan, approved a proposal to do away with Lydenburg and rename the town Mashishing.

Du Plessis also takes issue with the expected renaming of Potchefstroom, a city of 300,000 that he said was "an uninhabited piece of land" when settler Hendrik Potgieter and fellow voortrekkers arrived in 1838. In July, the city council proposed changing the city's name to Tlokwe, which officials say was used by African inhabitants before Potgieter. That proposal has yet to reach Jordan's office.

"It's understandable there will be some emotional attachment to Potchefstroom from the people who feel that, historically, this name speaks to them, to their identity," said Itumeleng Mosala, manager of the mayor's office and local head of the ANC. "But on the other hand, you have people who feel their dignity was taken away through land dispossession and subjugation."

Potchefstroom is also changing street names. Potgieter Street is now Dr. Nelson Mandela Drive. Tom Street is Steven Biko Street, after the Black Consciousness Movement leader killed by apartheid security forces in 1977.

And then there's Peter Mokaba Street. The Democratic Alliance calls the change offensive to whites, because Mokaba enthusiastically chanted "kill the Boer, kill the farmer" during the anti-apartheid struggle. ("Boer" refers to Afrikaners.)

But according to Mosala, "Peter Mokaba stands as a hero to a lot of our people because of the heroic struggle he engaged in as a leader of the ANC Youth League. To the white people he might appear as a villain. To the African people he's a hero. It's not like it was only him who sang that song."

In Johannesburg's Randburg section, the proposed change from Verwoerd to Nkululeko Drive - expected to become final after a period for public comment ends this month - has proved less contentious. The same is true of a move to change Hans Strijdom Drive to Malibongwe, which means praise. Strijdom was Verwoerd's predecessor as prime minister. "Praise" was a slogan in the 1956 Women's March against discriminatory laws enacted under Strijdom.

Verwoerd's government produced the Separate Universities Act of 1959 and a law giving police the power to detain activists for 90 days without trial. As minister of native affairs in the 1950s, he designed the Bantu Education Act, which gave blacks an intentionally inferior education. He was assassinated in 1966.

Yet a difference of opinion is visible along racial lines.

Nkululeko Drive "symbolizes the fact that we've moved on and are free," said Yolisa Dumezweni, walking to her office on Verwoerd Drive. Her colleague Steven Dudene agreed, but questioned the timing.

"It's a step in the right direction," he said. "But ... I think South Africa at this stage needs to concentrate on things like education, housing, job creation. I'm all for the name changes, but not now."

Among whites who were interviewed, Xonica Cronje's views were typical.

"I think it's stupid. Why change a name that's been there for, like, 500 years?" she said from behind the counter at Randburg Signs. "They say it's offensive. I think it's stupid, because [apartheid's implementation] happened so many years ago. It's just a name."

Rudi du Plooy, a city councilman and member of the Christian Front party, issued a statement decrying "an agenda that has as [its] sole purpose to bulldoze and annihilate the history of the Afrikaner and to make them feel like second-rate citizens."

scottmcalvert@gmail.com

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