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Nyar, Annsilla  (2007) New names, old wounds. The Mercury : -.

The recent saga over Durban’s name changes threatens to open old wounds in a province which remains scarred by political battle-lines.

But the perils of the name change debate go far beyond its inflammatory and potentially divisive effects. It is a flouting of the democratic process itself and the rights of the citizenry to be engaged and present in the political processes which define and shape our lives.

Not so, argues the Ethekwini municipality. The matter was taken to council and the city undertook to advertise the proposed name changes in the print media. The public was given the opportunity to raise objections to the name changes.

But this is a weak justification of an inherently flawed process. Given the emotive and highly controversial nature of the proposed name changes, the council ought well to have anticipated the levels of public participation demanded by such an initiative, particularly so for constituents who have long been excluded from political decision making. Rather than being limited to the print media, the name change proposals should have been carried out in public sessions at which all the political parties were present to ensure broad representivity. What ought to have been implemented in the full glare of publicity, utilizing all forms of media and communication, was instead confined to one limited form of media advertisement. For all intents and purposes, people have been sidelined and excluded from the formal negotiations around the name change proposals.

The proposed name changes ignore the variety of political persuasions in the province, and most flagrantly within the context of historical ANC-IFP divisions in the province. The predominance of the ANC at the expense of political opposition is evident. Hence the anger unleashed at the May Day march in Durban. Violence erupted in Umlazi where the council has proposed to change the Mangosuthu Highway to Moses Mabhida Highway after the former SACP secretary general. Zulu nationalist sensibilities have also been inflamed by the proposed renaming of the Princess Magogo Stadium after the late Dumisani Makhaye, former KZN Minister of Housing.

One proposed name change which has particularly roused deep anger is the renaming of Kingsway Road in Amanzimtoti after Andrew Zondo, the young MK operative who was hanged by the apartheid regime for planting a bomb in a Toti shopping center in 1985. The bombing caused five deaths, including that of 3 children, and numerous serious injuries. It can hardly be assumed that, even in the spirit of reconciliation and nation-building, such a name change would not meet with a difficult and even painful reception.

Many of the name changes are not so much objectionable but rather lacking suitability or meaning. One contentious name change proposal is that of the Ethekwini municipality itself to Kwakhangela municipality. Other popular streets and places in Durban include the changing of Musgrave Road to Walter Sisulu Road, Davenport Road to Helen Joseph Road and Botanic Gardens Road to Steve Biko Road. Some name changes smack of arbitrariness, such as the proposed change of Moore Road to Che Guevara Road or Kensington Road being renamed as Fidel Castro Road. These name changes hardly provide a road map to future generations who wish to travel through our past. Indeed the past is far more extensive and complex than any name change to a street or suburb could ever hope to capture. There should be a broader meaning and sentiment attached to the name change proposals, which is clearly lacking in the list put forward by council.

But whether intended or unintended, the name change issue has had the effect of continuing and renewing old socio-political fault- lines. It has awakened anger and resentment, and threatens to deepen already existing divisions in a highly polarized social context. What could conceivably have been a celebration of our diversity and differences and a chance to transcend the complex political and socio-economic relations between and among the people of this province, has been deferred in favour of narrow political interests.

But the name change debate has also done something else: it has exposed the emptiness of the myth of the ‘rainbow nation’. It has quickly devalued the symbolic capital invested in the various reconciliation initiatives embarked on by both the state and civil society actors, as embodied in the notion of the ‘miracle’ transition toward ‘the rainbow nation’. Far from convincing the citizenry that they have a place in the new democratic dispensation, the name changes have served to grimly underline the fact that majority politicking rules.

One issue which has become sidelined in the furore over the name changes is that of cost. Taxpayers will bear the brunt of the costs of the name changes to the city. It assumes particular seriousness within the context of the recently passed R17, 4 billion provincial budget which approves substantial increases in rates, electricity and water.

The name changing issue raises serious questions about municipal governance. Municipalities are functioning polities in their own right. They are not just about service delivery to its taxpayers. Effective political representation is a central tenet of municipal governance. As a formal representative of people, and as a site of constant struggle between competing political interests, the state must strive to reflect the inclusiveness which is supposed to characterize the country at a political level. We have to critically assess the legitimacy of the current dispensation and the extent to which it reflects a healthy relationship between citizens and state.

The issue of renaming remains an open and vexed one. Certainly it would be odd if something as sensitive as the name change proposals would meet with universal approval and acceptance from a mixed and highly diverse constituency. It would be even odder if the council’s choice of names had been infallible and made no mistakes as it undertook to create a new category of politically correct names for streets and places in the city. But in this case, the actions of the council have been hopelessly insensitive and undemocratic to boot.

It is rare when the opportunity arises when people can be called upon to self consciously craft and construct an identity for a particular place, or rather have a direct say in that construction. In this case the opportunity has been lost.

Annsilla Nyar is a research fellow at the Center for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu Natal. She can be reached at

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