Goodbye Bree Street

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new dispensation and to save residents and visitors from walking or driving around confused and under the influence of outdated GPS apps, the city will provide dual signage for 12 months.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. Does Bree Street represent some 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 Witwatersrand-trained dentists, 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 inaccurate notes.

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 Johannesburg?

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 to treasure.

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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