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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.