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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.


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.


  • Andrew Miller is a poet, freelance writer, satirist and brand consultant. He is the co-owner and co-founder of the Unity Gallery, a business-orientated art space based in the Joburg CBD. Miller is the author of the poetry anthology Hintsa's Ghost and Getting Up: Thoughts on Falling. Visit him at


  1. Peter Win Peter Win 14 March 2009

    Since the Durban municiplaity is being so pro-active about name changes, to the detriment of other, no doubt less important duties, how about naming some streets: “Pothole Place” or “ANC Disgrace” or even “Sutcliffe’s Shame” ?

  2. Nad Ko Nad Ko 14 March 2009

    To compare is a natural thing for people to do. Despite their many faults and injustices I just have to compare the present regime with the previous NP one. The Durban municipality then delivered good services although not to all the people they should have. They respected history,as they realized that by changing street names the history connected to a name cannot be changed. The police (no metro police then) maintained law and order and the service could be relied upon. Despite their shortcomings of in many respects the present ANC council compares very poorly indeed.
    No potholes in streets, no sewerage contaminated beaches, No drunkenness, muggings , rapes in broad daylight. You could walk on the streets and the beach even after dark in safety.
    We have to endure the total opposite today.
    Your tax was properly spent and did not disappear into the deep pockets of some or other official or councillor.

  3. Dave Harris Dave Harris 14 March 2009

    Removing the old names, the remaining vestiges of apartheid, is an immensely cathartic experience for the previously oppressed. Potholes and physical defects can be fixed and mended in time, but the physiological shame of using the very names of the oppressors, thieves and mass murderers of the apartheid regime is the height of insult. All around the previously colonized world you can see the slow but sure change, the cities take longer but it will happen. The name Durban, will also be relegated to the dustbin of history.

  4. Nicky Nicky 15 March 2009

    @ Dave Harris:
    Er, Dave, please tell me who were the ‘thieves, oppressors and mass murderers of the apartheid regime’, who called themselves Broadway, Northway, Ridgeway, Greenmeadow, Seaview, et al? As opposed to the murderer and thief called Che Guevara??

  5. Dave Harris Dave Harris 15 March 2009

    Nicky, show some initiative for heavens sake! First re-read the article above, then do your own research. Let me help you out with some quick ones:
    Smith Street – Captain Thomas Charlton Smith – Did he perhaps fight against or even have the moral courage to speak out against the oppression of the Africans in Natal?
    Jan Smuts Highway – Wasn’t this guy a white supremacist who was instrumental in establishing and supporting a racially segregation?
    Queen Street – Was is not the queen that authorized the colonization and plunder of most of the world!

    FYI: Nelson Mandela referred to Che Guevara as “an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom” Most of the world shares Mandela’s view.

  6. Nad Ko Nad Ko 15 March 2009

    Mr Harris, I think you are misinformed. Are you by any chance related to Mr Sutcliffe?.
    The English street names and statues also presented humiliation to the Afrikaners, but it was respected as part of history, they never considered changing street names or take statues down or vandalized them. Where in Durban did you see progress?, or service delivery?.
    Let me only give you one example of the regress that Durban was subjected to from 1994 – i.e. The Japanese gardens: once the pride of Durban, now totally neglected by your wonderful council even -the brass taps and water feature pumps were stolen or broken. Nothing is left except for a little dam with very dirty and polluted water.
    Do you call that progress?.

  7. Dave Harris Dave Harris 15 March 2009

    @Nad Ko
    Mr Ko, I am not related to this Mr Sutcliffe neither do I or anyone I know derive any financial benefit from the changing of the guard …er, I mean street signs. I’m bewildered by your response by let me humor you anyway be responding.

    Did not the English and Afrikaners both benefit immensely from colonialism, oppression and apartheid for many generations…actually HUNDREDS of years?

    As for the desecration of Japanese Gardens, I have to agree this is a sheer outrage and abomination! We should seize the city funds that are diverted to wasteful social handout programs and apply it to restoring this symbol of colonial grandeur. How about we take to the streets to protest this “Save Japanese Gardens” initiative.

  8. karin morrow karin morrow 15 March 2009

    Durban’s public bus transport company has collapsed { probably into one of those giant potholes }; but hey isn’t it nice to know that the council has its priorities right….transform AT ALL COSTS.

  9. japes japes 16 March 2009

    Oh Dave. You may not be related to Sutcliffe by blood but you sure are by blind, name calling ideology. The point is that ignoring the objections and deliberately targeting “white” and “Zulu” names is divisive and a waste of resources. Sure names will change, even South Africa may evaporate. But it also sends clear messages.

    One message is that we don’t care about minorities; political power is everything and stuff the people. Why do I say, stuff the people. I do some work in “Durban” for various housing trusts, foundations etc. The overriding message from the council is apathy, incompetence and political corruption. If Sutcliffe spent 10% of the time on housing and services as he does on street renaming, a lot more people would be happier. Seriously, the shack dwellers do not know who Arafat was and naming a street after him does not ease the lot. Go and ask before waffling.

    The other message is that just like those received through the ages by moderates and minorities alike in Germany, many countries in Africa (Zim, Somalia, Sudan etc), Cambodia etc. Get out. Now. Hier kom kak. This message is the one that has, and is still, fuelled migration throughout the world.

  10. thirdworld child thirdworld child 16 March 2009

    Is naming a street after a murderer – Andrew Zondo – a cathartic experience for the previously disadvantaged?

    Durban has become a grotty city, one I avoid going to unless I have to travel there for work. Which is a shame because I was born there, in the same hospital Shabir suffered so much in.

  11. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 16 March 2009

    Andrew –

    As a bourgeois poet and counter revolutionary brand consultant, you naturally cannot share the city planners’ thinking here.

    Slow incremental change is not the way for Marxist Mr Sutcliffe: Revolution is The Thing. (Just be grateful the name changing has been bloodless.)

    Potholes, like banks and traffic lights, are selfish features of decadent capitalism and will disappear automatically under the proletariat.

    Also – dummy! – the council would have confused everyone who knows the old place if they had changed the name Durban.

    This way they are only confused once they get here.

  12. Dave Harris Dave Harris 16 March 2009

    Remember folks we are living in an African country ruled by Africans. For some among us, the instance on hanging onto the vestiges of colonialism is pushing your luck! Calling people Marxist and suddenly screaming for the potholes to be fixed are disingenuous. Its the same gall displayed by the apartheid regime when they insisted on teaching African kids in Afrikaans – the straw that broke the camels back.

  13. Grant Walliser Grant Walliser 16 March 2009

    Well the messages are very contradictory indeed. On the one hand we have the Apartheid Museum, the Hector Peterson Memorial, Robben Island and all the other tourist attractions that highlight the horror of apartheid in technicolour. The sensitive souls who purportedly seem unable to travel down a road called DF Malan seem fine with wandering around a more vivid reminder in the form of a museum.

    One therefore has to ask what this name changing is all about really. Since we are not trying to erase history and seem hellbent on ‘never forgetting’ to borrow a term, it can only then represent an oppression regression; a form of revenge, against history and against those who made history, on their surviving spawn. Not exactly nation-building stuff really.

    So why change names of people who lived in a different time with different views? Why not simply name the new things one builds after those we revere by today’s standards and go forward? If it is so hurtful to remember, lets rip down that wretched apartheid museum and never speak the A-word again.

  14. Nad Ko Nad Ko 17 March 2009

    Mr Whelan & Harris -( Your real names?) I am totally astounded that there still exist people that are so naive and totally out of phase with the actual facts as yourselves. Were it not for the colonial power’s industrious drive, nothing worth the while would have existed to abuse, pilfer or destroy. Look at the world today Mr Whelan? and admit the obvious – that Communism is not exactly the most revered or practical ideology when you want to iradicate poverty and uplift the people.
    Even China realized that communism was not the economic solution to it’s ills.
    To quote: Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor, and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other” (Oscar Ameriger)

  15. brent brent 17 March 2009

    Dave Harris, “FYI: Nelson Mandela referred to Che Guevara as “an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom” Most of the world shares Mandela’s view”.

    That is becuase most of the world does not know the truth. From Che’s diary he admits, even glories in kiling over 150 people – he was the prosecutor + judge + executioner. At least Mandela had a public trial and now world glory where as Che’s victims have vanished from history. There is little difference betwen Che and our own Dr Death, E. De Kok, at least the latter can clain to have been following orders, Che was the ‘Order Giver’ plus killer.


  16. Yahya Yahya 17 March 2009

    it’s all cosmetic. not even fun to witness, very sad to actually consider the money that goes into such useless debate. if we really had control of our city, there’d be no issue with all this. we’d have changed the really offensive names in 1994. and lived with the others as quaint relics of our past. what we have now is a lot of changes, that simply don’t fit. because in reality, our economy and the social problems are worse than those we ever experienced. the names won’t change that.

  17. Gerry Gerry 17 March 2009

    amen Brother Brant – the airbruished graphic designed “myth” of Che is much trendier than the reality – he was a bloodthirsty murderer, intent on revolution for the sake of it, not much better than an over-pumped nightclub bouncer.

    The REAL Che is a very, very scary and terrible man.

  18. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 17 March 2009

    Nad Ko –

    Thank you for your comment – and, yes, it is my real name.

    My post was intended ironically and irony is a notoriously tricky form to handle – but, apologies to you, because it is my fault for temporarily forgetting that a writer can never blame a reader for mistaking his meaning.

    I must hope that I have not similarly misled Andrew Miller, or I am really in trouble!

  19. ian ian 17 March 2009

    Very well put Grant!

  20. Dave Harris Dave Harris 17 March 2009

    Aah, so its not the potholes after all, its to preserve your history I see! Why is is so hard to understand that apartheid was a crime against humanity.

    The museums are there as a reminder to future generations of the atrotocities committed during the apartheid regime. Changing the street names is the cathartic process of replacing the names of the criminals with more uplifting, inspirational ones. If there are some names that you vehemently disagree with, then by all means you are free to protest it. However, as night follows day, the street names WILL change. Its best to do it now than to burden our future generations with this sad legacy.

    I can see by some of the responses that some of us still choose to deny the evils of colonialism and apartheid. Well, all I can say is that you should brace yourself – you’re in for a rough ride in the new South Africa!

  21. ian ian 18 March 2009

    Your argument falls short when you say ‘replacing the names of criminals with more inspirational, uplifting ones.’ Far to many changes are neither inspirational, uplifting or relevant to SA. It seems a case of change at all costs with minimal thought process.

    You say some of us choose to deny evils of colonialism and apartheid – yet isn’t this cathartic process you harp on about attempting to do the very same thing – removing all trace of this sad legacy to pretend it didn’t happen? You can’t erase history, nor should you attempt it, erasing the past doesn’t lead to a happy future.

  22. Camilla Hudson Camilla Hudson 28 August 2010

    As a recent visitor (American) to Durban and many other parts of South Africa after the World Cup, I found Durban to be a fantastic city. (I live in Chicago – you know, land of Obama!) As a mixed race woman of color/African descent (no connections to South Africa of which I’m aware), I absolutely loved seeing that Durban had chosen to re-name its streets to reflect the dominant population. For those of you who were the benefactors of the apartheid government, the time has come for you to choose – will you remain in a country that’s both predominantly inhabited AND predominantly governed by black Africans and people of color or will you choose to build your life elsewhere? Like it or not, the majority now prevails. Do I find the conditions (roadways, education system, political system, etc.) in South Africa to be perfect and ideal? Maybe not – but name me the place where they are. (Switzerland comes to mind and that’s about it.) It is appalling to me that those now on the other side choose to throw stones – you REALLY are kidding me, right? As in the US, how can a few years of alleged freedom even BEGIN to make up for the decades and generations of black and colored South Africans being discriminated against and politically disenfranchised? I still see major economic and educational divides between the haves and have-nots – the haves being predominantly white and the have-nots being predominantly of color.

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