Na'eem Jeenah
Na'eem Jeenah

Let those street signs be praised!

(I swear I was composing this in my head before I read Matthew Buckland’s post “Name changes: ‘Cost argument’ is nonsense”.)

I was driving home from Pretoria (sorry, Tshwane) last night, just before midnight. I followed the N1 south after Midrand, took the overpass that curves frighteningly (when it’s around midnight and you want to get home ASAP and you are returning from a four-hour-long meeting, it is a frightening curve) to the right.

I know this road well enough. After a while, I would pass the Rivonia Road offramp, then the William Nicol offramp, then I would approach the Hans Strijdom Drive offramp where I would leave the highway. I don’t need to read the road signs but, of course, I do. I suppose it’s a comfort measure or something. Actually, I don’t really read the signs; my eyes just see them and they register something in my brain. I’m not sure what gets registered but, clearly, my brain does some kind of processing.

I passed Rivonia, then I passed William Nicol and, unbeknownst to me, my brain was waiting for the sign that said “Hans Strijdom Dr”. Actually, my brain was just waiting for that combination of four-letters-eight-letters-two-letters. As I passed the next sign board that indicated the street name at the next offramp, my brain momentarily panicked. (It’s easy for my brain to panic at midnight, driving from Tshwane, after a four-hour meeting.) I jerked upright. I was pretty sure I didn’t see my familiar combination of letters. Instead, I thought I saw a strange combination of lots-of-letters-two-letters.

Had I missed the offramp? Was I going to have to take Beyers Naude and double back? (Oom Bey, by the way, is one of those “white” anti-apartheid activists who was honoured by a street name. (He got lucky; a double honour, he also got a garden named after him.) Beyers Naude Drive, for those who don’t know, used to be called DF Malan Drive not too long ago. But, I digress …

I was immediately fully awake, conscious, alert and ready for whatever the road signs might throw at me. Then I saw the next sign. “Aah,” I said, relaxing. That was followed by an “Aha!”. I remember now. I read an announcement about this in the local knock-and-drop. The new sign was not the familiar four-letters-eight-letters-two-letters, but a spanking-new, bright blue 10-letters-two-letters combination: “Malibongwe Dr”.

As I turned on to Hans … sorry, Malibongwe, my eyes scanned for the signs on the street corners. All of them save one had been changed. My head felt light, my chest puffed up with some pride. Malibongwe! It even sounds better than “Hans Strijdom”. Malibongwe!

Of course, besides the nicer sound, the significance of the name also added to my light-headedness. The word was made famous by the Women’s March of August 9 1956, to the Union Buildings. “Igama lamakhosikazi, Malibongwe!” I sang it all the way home. Fortunately, I was alone in the car and could lie to myself that I actually sing well, which notion everyone who has heard me sing rejects.

I had known that the street name was going to be changed. And I had known that it would happen in early October. But seeing it on the signboards, in print, evoked an exceptional feeling. My smile broadened when I remembered that another street a few blocks up from Malibongwe was also to have its name changed at the same time: Hendrik Verwoerd Drive has been renamed to Bram Fischer Drive; from the name of an Afrikaner racist to the name of an Afrikaner struggler for justice.

I was tempted to drive up those few blocks just to admire the street signs. But it was almost 12, my wife was likely waiting for me and, because my cellphone battery was dead, I couldn’t even call to tell her I would be delayed a little longer because I had suddenly developed a fascination with street signs. So I went home, and slept happy.

  • Riaan Wolmarans

    An excellent post, Na’eem — made me smile on an otherwise dreary Saturday morning at work … It’s indeed a wonderful feeling to see such changes taking place.

  • Ndumiso Ngcobo

    Na’eem, you have reminded me why it is that I love reading blogs and why I blog.

    Without the personal anecdotes (self-indulgence, say the purists), articles become just that. It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only insane person in the world.

  • Grant W

    While there is certainly a valid arguement for changing the names of streets bearing apartheid architect’s names such as Malan and Verwoerd, I still fail to understand the validity or moral justification for changes to cities or towns that have no bearing to apartheid. That simply implies one culture trying to smother another that has brought so much, the forgotten good as well as the much publicised bad, to our country. It is wiping out and rewriting our history, sometimes for the better but sometimes, I believe for the worse.

    So change the street names depicting the evil men who oppressed others, change the name of Triomf back to Sophiatown, change Soweto which is actually an apartheid name and would have been first on my list, change all derogatory names you like and use my tax money with the greatest of pleasure – I truly mean that.

    Where the line perhaps should be drawn is a city like Pretoria becoming Tswane or changing the names of Johannesburg or Durban or Port Elizabeth or Cape Town. These are not apartheid names, these cities stood long before apartheid was introduced in 1948. They represent the good aspects of what European settlers added to our country and should be kept to acknowledge that contribution.

    Change with reason, sensitivity and logic and nobody will mind. Change to cause friction and erase a culture and needless anger will follow.

  • http://M&GThoughtLeaderGarbage Anna

    Ditto Grant W, although I must admit Na’eem’s last sentence had me wondering if the people who had no homes and didn’t always go to sleep “happy” would feel the same.

  • Kananelo Sexwale

    Na’eem, thanks for a brilliant piece that I have several times since it was written without leaving comment. I am glad you slept happy knowing that the psychological wounds inflicted on us are being addressed one by one. I agree with Grant on some points, and believe Soweto should be up next…

    I hope you glanced at Anna’s comment and ignored it with the contempt it deserves. Talk about pointless!

    “Igama lamakhosikazi, Malibongwe!” Verwoerd finally got the petition served personally, hey?

  • http://n/a Paul

    Changing the names of “Racist” Afrikaaners who did more for this country than the ANC will ever! What a load of nonsense! History is History, changing names won’t change it. If you want a road called Malibongwe, build another one! But then again anything that is white is wrong and racist…