Is there any chance we can approach the name-change process with a bit more creativity and imagination?
The phenomenon of changes to street names, as well as renaming of urban jurisdictions and key landmarks, is gathering momentum and may be with us for some time still. It is part of a process in which black populations are making urban spaces less alienating. Through this process they (/we) are recreating their relationship to the world around them (/us). While not denying the friction that flares up and the possibility of political mishandling of the process, the new names increase our sense of being in Africa and help to make us more in touch with ourselves as a country.
In the end, names touch on (as the urban specialist might say) the highly contested but critical questions of space, place and identity - and their interrelationship.
But can we do the thing in a way that we gets much more value out of the process? For example, can we not use the name-change process as a springboard for getting communities to engage, interact and dialogue with each other?
Ask any individual what their name means to them and where it comes from, and – more than likely – you will immediately find yourself on a deep level of discussion. Scale this up, and you can see the potential for engagement between communities and between generations. What could we achieve if we didn’t just put the new signage up and carry on as if nothing has happened – if we instead continued to talk about these names, why they are important, and how the renaming links to the future we are trying to build? Of course, an inclusive discussion would look at pre-existing names also (and, by the way, the majority of street names will remain unchanged), at which of these names are important to certain communities and the nature of affirmation received by such communities from certain "old" names.
Of course it is difficult to get effective and meaningful inter-community discussion going in a land where different population groups still live parallel lives in cities and towns. It is also tricky because – in the lead-up to adoption of the new names – adversarialism, negativity and mobilization of ethnic fears have been the order of the day, especially in major cities. But when the dust has settled in a particular town or city, can we not use television and radio, particularly community orientated broadcasting stations, to openly share the stories, past experiences and hopes for the future that are associated with these names?
I have also wondered why towns don’t do more to tell the rest of South Africa that they have undergone a name change. Until I worked in the southern part of Limpopo in the last two years, I had no idea that Naboomspuit had become Mookgopong, Potgietersrus had become Makopane and Nylstroom had become Modimolle. My reasoning is: why adopt a new name if you are not proud enough to want to broadcast it from the rooftops? Why don’t the towns invest a little money and get the message out provincially or nationally?
Furthermore, small towns should be far more creative in selecting names. Focusing only on honouring a handful of struggle titans in the renaming process – as some towns have done – is devoid of imagination. It also leads to strange results. For example, until recently when the Johannesburg International Airport was named after him, Oliver Tambo – the man whose extraordinary leadership was key to keeping the struggle ethically and tactically on track – was almost completely neglected in the renaming process. And Miriam Makeba has received the short end of the stick: she is acknowledged only through a side street in Newtown – completely underplaying her telling impact in terms of communicating the moods, feelings and aspirations of the anti-apartheid cause to a world audience in the exile years.
There are 285 municipalities (each with numerous roads and streets, including the ones in local residential areas) in South Africa. As names are reviewed, there are numerous opportunities for ensuring we salute more equitably and effectively the hard-core political stalwarts of the struggle. There is equally sufficient scope for acknowledging various other categories of people who contributed to the birth of freedom, boosted community resilience and/or inspired people through their achievements despite the odds.
Maybe – just maybe – we can use the renaming process to salvage a sense of shared history from the ruins of the past. That is, provided we keep open the lines of communication on why these name changes are important, what the new names mean and why they might play a role in healing the nation.