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27 Nov 2015 00:00
The author recalls the Bree Street of his youth, following its change of name. (John McCann)
On September 4, the
mayoral council of the
City of Johannesburg
finalised a decision
to rename five downtown streets – Sauer, Bree, Jeppe,
President and Noord. They are now
named after ANC struggle stalwarts,
Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Lilian Ngoyi,
Rahima Moosa, Helen Joseph and
Sophie de Bruyn, respectively.
To ease us into the new dispensation and to save residents and visitors from walking or driving around
confused and under the influence of
outdated GPS apps, the city will provide dual signage for 12 months.
That should make us feel better,
right? Unfortunately, this noble gesture has failed to make me feel better.
Bree Street and I have a history – one whose layers I am unable to
neatly pack away, tie up and throw
into the abyss just because the mayoral committee says so.
Memory is ungovernable in that
way. nostos (home) worthy of my
algia (longing), as in nostalgia? In
a complicated but real kind of way,
yes, it does.
Not that the name Bree has any
special meaning for me. As I understand it, the name was either an old
or abridged Dutch word meaning
“broad” and, therefore, alluded to the
width of the street that once marked
Johannesburg’s northern boundary.
The name was probably taken
from a 17th-century street of the
same name in Leiden (Netherlands)
and pasted first on to the emerging
city of Cape Town. One of the gripping articles in the August 2015 issue
of the magazine Molo, dedicated to
Cape Town’s Bree Street, is a simulated January 31 1799 diary entry
by a pregnant young slave living on
Cape Town’s Bree Street, penned by
the author Rehana Rossouw.
Bree Street was imported to the
emerging city of Johannesburg in
the late 1800s. That was before the
city exploded in size and before the
likes of Noord Street (now called
Sophie de Bruyn) came along. It
was certainly long before the e-toll
infested highways and byways that
encircle Johannesburg today.
Symbols and names are important
markers of history, identity, meaning and memory. People born and
bred – and who live – in awfully
named places such as Stinkwater in
Hammanskraal, Nobody in Limpopo
or the Mshayazafe (assault until
death) men’s hostel in Thokoza on
the East Rand, probably carry a
heavy burden on their souls.
Sometimes it is not the meaning
of the name that tortures us; it is
the experiences one has of a place,
regardless of the beauty or ugliness
of its name.
I am not sold on the wisdom of
naming all our significant city streets
after politicians, dead or alive. But,
I could live with the new name for
Bree Street, Lilian Ngoyi, a fearless
struggle veteran whose name has
been written in gold in the hearts of
millions of South Africans.
I should be pleased that Bree Street
has taken on the more positive image
and name of Lillian Ngoyi. But I
cannot help the feeling of uneasiness that sits like a cold stone at the
bottom of my gut.
So, although I revere Ngoyi, I
would still say to the mayoral council: “Not so fast, please.”
Bree Street loomed large in the
Johannesburg of my youth. Every
Saturday morning, my friend,
Meadow, and I would buy a box of apples from a general dealer in Fordsburg, which we would later
resell for a handsome profit, one
apple at a time, on a busy street
corner in Soweto.
Together we would carry the heavy
cardboard box as we navigated our
way from Fordsburg to Newtown,
in order to connect with Bree Street.
After a while, the heavy box would
send ripples of pain through my
teenage biceps. Then I would beg
Meadow, the arrogant owner of a far
better physique, to change positions.
We would walk in the direction
of Park Station, past the Market
Theatre precinct, always taking
care to steer clear of the notorious
John Vorster Square, now called the
Johannesburg Central Police Station.
Up through the taxi rank, we would
follow Bree Street, which was as
much a hive of activity then as it has
remained to this day.
All along the Bree Street route, we
would exchange tall stories about
vivid romantic encounters with
imaginary girlfriends – until we
reached our halfway station, number
216 Bree Street.
Ah, number 216 Bree Street!
From the time I was a teenager,
my father worked as a labourer at
the dental surgery at that address.
A team of white University of the
largely members of the same family,
owned the practice.
One of the most problematic decisions my father ever made on my
behalf was to negotiate a school holiday job for me at 216 Bree Street.
The good news is that, with the pay
I received, which was not much, I
would be able to buy a pair of “tekkies”, a stylish pair of trousers and an
Arrow shirt, in time for the reopening of school.
The bad news was multiple. My job
consisted of three main functions.
The first was to prepare the dental
patients, all of whom were black, for
the dentist. That meant finding out
which the problem teeth were and
carefully noting down the number
and position carefully in a prescribed
format on a piece of paper.
That would be pinned on the
patient’s clothing, like a name tag.
Needless to say, many a wrong
tooth was extracted, thanks to my
My second duty was to act as the
interpreter between the dentist
and the patients, like the Mr Kapasi
character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel,
Interpreter of Maladies.
My third job was to stand behind
patients and hold them down while
the dentist worked on them. This
duty I disliked most. It made me feel
as if I was holding down black people so that white people could inflict
pain on them.
I knew the feeling was irrational,
but the dreaded thought stalked
and tormented me every time I
held down a squirming old man or
woman who was lying in the dentist’s
chair. In the throes of the pain that
comes with tooth extraction, some of
the patients called out my name, and
I was powerless to help them.
This made me feel as if I was the
mythical farm induna or foreman
from the old Transvaal, who, according to legend, apparently used to say
to his subordinates, jama kakuhle
ikhuwa li ku rithe (stand properly
while the white boss administers
punishment on you).
The other painful thing at 216
Bree Street was to watch that proud
man, my father, being treated by his
employers like a lad.
I would never call him by name
and I probably did not even know
his first name then. But, at 216 Bree
Street, I would repeatedly hear
his boss shout out my father’s first
name. I would watch my father dart
forward, hands behind his back
and head bowed. From the corner
of my eye, I would watch the boss
issuing loud and deliberate instructions while my father nodded his
head furiously, much like the character Ugwu in Chimamanda Ngozi
Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun.
I can show the scars that were
inscribed on my spirit by 216 Bree
Street. The struggle to overcome
the burden of that address has
been a major part of my life. But I
also realise that, were it not for 216
Bree Street, there would have been
no coal to light the fire each day at
3pm inside the Welcome Dover stove
in the passage-like kitchen of 445a
Zone 8, Meadowlands.
So how are we going to do this,
Comrade Mayor of the City of
Shall we just wipe away Bree Street
by force of a mayoral committee
decision? Will my severe bout of Bree
Street nostalgia be cured by the prescription of a once-and-for-all dose
of Ngoyi? Is this how I will be reconciled with my past, my city, my country and my future? I doubt it.
The past, memory, heritage and
reconciliation are a lot more complicated. I, for one, still have Bree Street
issues to work out, memories to
revisit, occasions to remember, experiences to abhor and reminiscences
In time, I should get used to Lilian
Ngoyi. But for now, no mayoral
council decision will overcome my
nostalgia for Bree Street.
Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor
at the University of Pretoria. The
view expressed here are his own.
Follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko.
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