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Naming dichotomy, with Neil Fraser
04 August 2008

The proposal to rename the whole of the R24 - running across the city from east to west - will necessitate the changing of 18 street names. Two of these names have great historical significance.

Neil FraserAN advertisement in The Star of Thursday, 31 July contained proposed name changes for three Gauteng hospitals and the criteria used for the proposals. Pretoria Academic Hospital becomes Stephen Bantu Biko Academic Hospital; Coronation Hospital becomes Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital and Johannesburg Hospital (still known as the Joburg Gen or just The Gen) will be Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital.

Sometimes name changing is resisted because of emotional or political reasons but in other instances, such as the one this Citichat is devoted to, present major dichotomies that must be carefully weighed up.

Back in 2007, I wrote that "Name changes are nothing new, they happen for a variety of reasons, sometimes to reflect a change in community; to honour politicians or local heroes or replace the names of those who have disgraced themselves or fallen from favour; streets are often renamed to recognise international cause celebres, and so on.

"But the most widespread changes take place following political regime changes sometimes brought about by war or conflict. This has been the situation through a large part of the African continent following the gaining of independence by various countries previously under colonial control ... Sometimes the motivation is language based ... Some name changes are strictly commercial."

In our case, throughout the country, a number of name changes have taken place, generally with only minimal although heated protests because the name changes themselves have been sensible, well motivated and often relating to changing names that are totally unacceptable if not hurtful to the majority of our population. Such situations should and will continue to happen.

There is, of course, legislation that is supposed to provide direction at all three levels of government. Policy in Johannesburg was originally approved in December 2001 and then amended in 2004 and again in June 2008. The policy starts with a quotation from the South African Geographical Names Council (SAGNC): "For as long as there has been culture, people have placed a meaning by naming every event they have encountered, be it the birth of a child, climatic conditions, initiation rites, battles, death, or any other event that seems vital to their daily existence,. It has been a way of giving life meaning, a way of claiming territory, a way of honouring leaders, a way of giving direction or location, a way of celebrating important events and mourning disastrous events."

Our Joburg policy then suggests that, "The naming of streets and public places after memorable events is a way of etching the country's history, both pleasant and not, in people's memory." I wonder if it doesn't miss one further category. Street naming was also a convenient way of demarcation in the early days of the establishment of a city or town and, as time has passed, the name has become historically significant. But more of that later.

Joburg's policy provides some excellent principles to be adhered to in the naming and renaming process, for example, "Names should, as far as possible, be after themes, such as flora and fauna, colours, geographical features, historical events, et cetera. Only in rare cases should peoples' names be used," and "The renaming of streets and public places should only be done where there is a demonstrable need motivated as per the provisions of this policy, so as to curb unnecessary expense."

It further provides criteria for selecting names, for example, "Naming after living people should be avoided and only be done in exceptional cases;" "Names should promote a sense of ownership and the character of the area;" "Names should be in keeping with the theme of an area such that they have local relevance;" and "Changes of names for public buildings, facilities and public open spaces shall only be approved when they do not violate historical or common usage names;" et cetera.

In regard specifically to renaming, the following, inter alia, are offered: "to assist in the prioritising of streets and public places to be renamed a strong motivation is to be provided in cases where a name change is proposed;" "where the existing name is considered offensive;" "where the existing name is meaningless or historically irrelevant;" "where the name change is desirable to promote the goodwill of people now living in the new South Africa;" and "where the change in name will assist in building a sense of ownership and community and redefining society change."

Albertina Sisulu Road
So where is all this going?

Well, the Gauteng provincial government has renamed parts of the R24, Albertina Sisulu Road. However, as the R24 continues as a municipal road from Bruma in the east, through the inner city to Roodepoort in the west, the City's intention, I imagine developed under pressure from its political "Big Brother", is that the full extent of this roadway is to be renamed Albertina Sisulu Road. That will mean renaming some 18 streets, two of which are among our most historic names and arguably provide part of the historic distinctiveness of the city. Those are Market Street and Main Reef Road.

The Star of 20 September 1926 reads, "Lest we forget where the market originally was, the busy street running on the southern side of the Town Hall will remind us." Market Street ran along the southern boundary of the city's market square. Pop in to the ground floor of 90 Market Street and you can see photographs of the huge area, the largest in any South African town, thronged with people of all races. This was the market place for fresh produce until 1913, when the Newtown Market came into operation.

Local government has steadily eaten away at what would otherwise have been the real green lung in the city, now lost to the Legislature (City Hall) and City Library. In fact, Market Street is the only reference left to remind us of where this great trading space was located; change the name and all reference to the historic market will be completely obliterated! The street is incidentally about to undergo radical change as it is remodelled to accommodate the Bus Rapid Transit system, including a number of the gigantic stations that have to be accommodated. "Trench City" is going to be the understatement of the year!

Main Reef Road, of course, strikes right to the raison d'etre for Johannesburg itself - gold mining. Anna Smith, in her book Johannesburg Street Names, devotes two pages to the naming of this street. "The origin of this artery, which runs from one end of the Witwatersrand to the other, can be traced to the wheel tracks of the pioneers, cut by their ox wagons, mail-coaches, and other conveyances, when, in 1886, the incredible truth had been published that the gold-beds were more or less continuous over scores of miles, according to Environs of the Golden City and Pretoria."

In June 1896, representatives of various mining companies discussed the question of making a main road from Boksburg to Krugersdorp, 28 miles (about 45 kilometres) in length. The Chamber of Mines, according to its Eighth Annual Report, contributed £200 of the £250 required for the survey. The name used was the Witwatersrand Main Road, and it was emphasised that it would follow the line of the Reef, as it was intended for the transportation of supplies to the mines.

On 21 July 1897, the Standard and Diggers' News followed up earlier references to this road in a leader under the heading, "Main Reef Road" and expressed the hope that "the Volksraad would assent to the construction of a road along the Main Reef from Roodepoort to Boksburg".

Smith quotes an article from The South African Financial Record of 3 March 1898, which recorded the construction of the road which was started as "relief work" employing about 300 unemployed persons at "'ninepence per hour' or 'thirty five shillings per week (half-day only on Saturday). Being merely relief work, when a man has earned 10 pounds he will, if necessary, have to make way for any other who is in need."

The Standard and Diggers' News of 29 March 1898 reported that work was proceeding apace. Construction was held up with the outbreak of war in 1899. In 1904, the road was vested in the relevant municipalities. The Star of 16 June 1928 recorded that "32 years ago the mining companies themselves formed a private trust to construct the hard thoroughfare which was officially christened ‘the Main Reef Road or Witwatersrand Road'".

The Rand Daily Mail of 20 September 1906, in a section called People and Places - by Old Stager (maybe a forerunner of Citichat!) recorded "that the term 'Main Reef' may have been first used by Sam Fox, and from this the name of the road derived".

Comment in The Star of 3 July, "Name-change process not open", by Sonwabile Mancotywa, the chief executive officer of the National Heritage Council of South Africa, brought a welcome voice of reason to the naming debate.

Mancotywa suggested that we had at least progressed from debating the necessity of change to the choice of name to be honoured or erased. I think he is correct, though I suspect that there remain many hard-liners who haven't yet accepted the necessity for change - as he rightly points out with such people it isn't the process they are fighting, it is the actual names being "imposed" on them. Nevertheless, they are in the minority and, over time, will be overtaken by what is right.

But he succinctly spells out the fundamental issue that lies behind our name-changing: "The choice of names that were either selected or omitted for public entities is indicative of South Africa's ghastly past. Africans were largely excluded and some names were downright offensive towards them. The few African place-names selected were misspelt and thus distorted of their meaning. This simply added further insult. It showed total lack of respect for the humanity of Africans. That was not surprising, as apartheid rested on the idea that Africans were sub-human.

"Name-changes therefore seek to restore that dignity by affirming that Africans too, like any peoples anywhere in the world, have a history and historical figures that need recognition. They are not invisible or without any past to speak of. Whites are part of this society and its history. Addressing the injury of Africans, therefore, ought to not make Africans insensitive to the anxieties of their white counterparts.

"After all, we have committed ourselves to building a united and non-racial society, where each individual and community counts equally."

But, in this case, the roads don't relate to our ghastly past but to our very real history. So this is a very difficult one and clearly very, very sensitive. Albertina Sisulu, known affectionately as MaSisulu, is an icon of the struggle. The widow of the late, loved, Walter Sisulu, she endured unbelievable persecution at great cost to her family and to herself - her husband was imprisoned for a quarter-of-a-century, her two sons and a daughter were detained (the latter, Lindiwe, is our current minister of housing).

MaSisulu herself was detained and held in solitary confinement for seven weeks in 1963, she then received a five-year banning order confining her to her location and prohibiting her attendance at gatherings of more than two persons. In 1969, she again received a five-year banning order confining her to her home at nights and weekends and, in 1979, she received a two-year banning order. She was again banned from 1982 to 1983, whereafter she was arrested and held without bail for six months - her charge was "for singing ANC songs at the funeral of a woman leader of the movement" - for which she subsequently was sentenced to four years in jail but was released on bail pending an appeal.

She was arrested and detained again in 1984 on a charge of high treason as one of the leaders of the mass mobilisation of the United Democratic Front. She played a number of prominent roles in the ANC's Women's League; was a leader of the campaign to boycott Bantu Education; was one of the leaders of the national demonstration of 20 000 women in Pretoria in 1956 protesting the extension of pass laws to African women; and was one of the leaders of the 1958 demonstrations against pass laws, for which she was jailed.

There could be few people more deserving of recognition on every possible level than MaSisulu and, thankfully, she has been recognised in many ways already. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that she was honoured as one of three persons to receive the first Constitution Hill Trust Awards, one of I'm sure many such awards; there is an Albertina Sisulu Centre in Orlando West and the Walter and Albertina Sisulu Recreation Centre in Randburg. I believe that there is to be a new public artwork in Braamfontein to pay tribute to this remarkable couple.

Am I saying that this is sufficient recognition? Not at all! I am saying that there is a great dichotomy to be faced in this particular renaming as it will lose forever two other significant, historic and relevant names relative to the city's heritage.

The Vienna Memorandum on World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture - Managing the Historic Urban Landscape adopted by Unesco doesn't directly deal with name changing but has some sensible approaches from which we could interpolate, ie "the future of our historic landscape calls for mutual understanding between policy makers, urban planners, city developers, architects, conservationists, property owners, investors and concerned citizens, working together to preserve the urban heritage while considering the modernisation and development of society in a culturally and historic sensitive manner, strengthening identity and social cohesion.

"Taking into account the emotional connection between human beings and their environment, their sense of place, it is fundamental to guarantee an urban environmental quality of living to contribute to the economic success of a city and to its social and cultural vitality."

I believe that the proposal has been approved by the mayoral committee but still has to be presented for public consideration so you need to make up your mind and be part of the debate.

Ciao, Neil

Saturday, 9 August
Celebrate Women's Day with the South African Ballet Theatre

Share a special morning with friends of the South African Ballet Theatre on the morning of Women's Day.

The audience will watch a little bit of ballet class followed by a short performance of different excerpts from the likes of La Traviata, which will be playing at the Civic Theatre, in honour of Women's Day.

Veronica Paeper will give a short talk about La Traviata, which she has choreographed. Having been the principal dancer for PACOFS, PACT and CAPAB, Paeper extended her creative skills and love for ballet to include choreography and added considerably to CAPAB's repertoire.

Park at the National School of Arts parking ground in Hoofd Street, Braamfontein.  Meet Gill Sagar and David Forrest at the Hoofd Street entrance to the Civic Theatre before 10am. Bookings and payment for this event must be made in advance and early with Edgar Moagi at the South African Ballet Theatre on 011 877 6898. Tickets are R50 each.

Nuns, nurses and some very fine buildings: walking tour
As a fitting tribute to women, this Women's Day walk through the grounds of the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, part of which was the Kenridge Hospital. In the grounds stands Marian House, a fine arts and crafts building, now 80 years old.  It was adapted and extended for the Convent of the Sisters of the Holy Family when it built the Kenridge.

Johannesburg's oldest order of nuns, the women provided nursing care as well as schools for the mining town from the early mining days. The Kenridge Hospital itself is a fine building with a very beautiful chapel; a closer look will also be taken at the first site occupied by man. Tea will be served under Flo's oak tree, courtesy of Wits Donald Gordon Medical Clinic.

The cost is R95 and booking is at Computicket. Meet Val Hammerton and William Martinson at 2pm and park at Marian House (enter via Winchester Road to 27 Eton Road). For information telephone Eira Bond on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349.

Saturday, 16 August
Melville Koppies
Melville Koppies is holding its annual general meeting. Sue Krige will bring a group to do a presentation, "The Sophiatown experience in conjunction with the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre". St Joseph's Home and Sophiatown border on part of Melville Koppies West, so we are all linked in the past and present.

The meeting will be held at the lecture hut, Melville Koppies Central, at 2pm. Park in Kafue Road, Emmarentia.

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Last Updated on 04 August 2008