Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller

Getting it wrong 101: Durban name changes

When Schabir Shaik eventually recovers from his terrible (let’s hope it’s not terminal, eh?) illness and re-enters Durban social life, he won’t find quite the same place he left. A lot has happened during his brutal 28-month stint in that private ward.

For one thing, it’s been raining for months on end, not only aggravating the general temper of locals used to better conditions but also adding, as has been the case in Joburg, a string of serious potholes across all major roads. And then there are the wholesale street name changes, which have jolted many with a massive, almost physiological lifestyle shock. A lot of locals (from IFP members to suburban whites) are pissed off. On my recent trip down south I saw flickers of political light in eyes that had never previously possessed a glimmer.

Initially, there were some stunning possible name changes on the cards, including Broadway becoming Swapo, Kensington Drive transmogrifying into Fidel Castro Street and Moore Road into Che Guevara Road. In the end Fidel didn’t get the nod, but, fantastically, Che actually did — as did Swapo. Very strangely, given the generally revolutionary tenor of the new street names, Richard Walne, the Pietermaritzburg born and recently deceased musician, cracked the nod in what many locals claim is another sign of a process that has been whimsically and single-handedly driven by Mike Sutcliffe, the city manager. To the Jozi visitor it feels like there is a particularly negative zeitgeist emerging amongst Sharks fans, and much of it centres on one combination or another of pot holes and Sutcliffe.

I phoned Durban historian and Vega lecturer Steve Kotze to mull it over. Apart from highlighting the increased tension among various groups over the issue, and the relative ease with which Pietermaritzburg conducted the same process, Kotze also pointed out the failures of orthography that had occurred.

“The name that’s really odd is the former West Street (named after Martin West, the first lieutenant governor of the colony in 1845). It was re-named Dr Pixley kaSeme Street, but he really went by the name Pixley kaIsaka Seme. This name used the old, pre-colonial form — as in Pixley, son of Isaka Seme. City Hall simply contracted it by leaving out his father’s first name, and now it doesn’t make sense in either the old traditional orthography or any new one either!”

A commonly expressed idea currently, and not only in Durban, is the direct relationship between street name changes and roadworks, specifically pot holes and broken traffic lights. Several times in my Durban weekend I heard something like, “I wouldn’t mind so much if they were keeping the roads fixed and if every second traffic light wasn’t broken.”

It’s easy to see how people latch onto the comparison. It’s bad enough that your wheels are often in danger of coming off in a pot hole and that you have to negotiate continually fraught four-way-traffic-light-stops (a process which many Durbanites have still clearly failed to deal with conceptually), but now some locals have to do it in a suddenly changed and completely alien street name environment. Ouch.

Even given that for a significant portion of locals — those who have always used indigenous, colloquial street names — nothing much is changing at all, it’s hard to quibble with the emotional distress of the residents who have lost their geographic and cultural footing. Still, the hole in this particular anti-street-name-change argument is surely that South Africa’s problem very often isn’t money. Rather, most of our issues centre on capacity and ability. We already have one of the world’s highest annual budgets for education, for example, which supports one of the world’s worst literacy levels. Trevor points this out every year at budget time. More money isn’t going to get us very far … we need the skills, resources, planning ability and attitudes to translate existing budgets into a nationally effective infrastructure and social network.

Ne?

Are our roads washing away because of the massive rains we’ve had? Or because we don’t have the money to fix them? Or because we don’t have the right skills to maintain them in periods of heavy, persistent rain, such as global warming is increasingly throwing up? Often the budget argument is simply a red herring. Across the country provincial budgets go unspent because of our inability to put the cash to work effectively. So, when it comes to name changes, frequently South Africa can actually afford the cost. And when it comes to the dodgy roads and broken traffic lights, it’s our collective skills that are being put to the test, not our national wallet.

Even so, the eThekwini approach to the process seems custom-designed to initiate mass heart failure among key local groups, especially whites and IFP members (who marched alone in protest at the name changes and who didn’t mention pot holes much). It’s also clear that it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. A similar process has doddled along comfortably in Joburg. Likewise, Pietermaritzburg has been “changed” in a largely smooth and benign process over recent years. A centre point to the success in both these regions seems to be the incremental approach — a few names at a time, year on year. The incremental shift doesn’t feel like a massive change, but over a few years it’s surprising how quickly we’re all (young, old, black, white, English, Afrikaans, Indian, so-called coloured) driving down Beyers Naude not DF Malan, or Malibongwe Drive instead of that sinister National Party oke.

Ultimately, there are few other interpretations to Durban’s approach than that Sutcliffe and Co are possessed by a very forceful political agenda. Given the strength of the political mandate, one has to ask why they didn’t go for the jugular, for the city itself. Durban is named after Benjamin D’urban, governor of the Cape and largely unsavoury colonial figure. Together with Harry Smith D’urban cut a very aggressive swathe through the country. Even worse, together with Smith, he was deeply involved in the devious and brutal murder of the Xhosa paramount, Hintsa. Wouldn’t it have been easier and strategically more sound then for the eThekwini authorities to have renamed the city and only changed a basketful of names that honoured clear mass murderers (such as Lord Chelmsford), while leaving the bulk alone? A few years back getting rid of Durban would have appeared a dramatic step, but the actual strategy ended up being a whole lot more radical, and more confrontational. The end result is much social tension — it’s thick in the air and, if you come from Jozi, you can taste it. It’s got a familiar South African tang.

Some locals enjoy the spray-can vandalism of the new road names, and it’s hard to see how the entire process won’t harden attitudes across the board, including those of black people who previously hadn’t thought much about street names or the attitudes of some locals to history, culture, conquest and colonisation.

Could the eThekwini municipality have got it more wrong? Probably not, unless their intention was to make a lot of people angry and socially and racially paranoid.

So there you go, Schabir. Sparks are flying in the land of the Sharks. Do your exercises, beat that illness, get out into the world — it’s getting really interesting.