/ 4 November 2023

Name changes: The long road to a national identity

William Nicol Drive Officially Renamed Winnie Mandela Drive
What’s in a name?: William Nicol Drive in Johannesburg, named after an administrator of the Transvaal, was last month renamed Winnie Mandela Drive. Photo: Papi Morake/Gallo Images

Ten years ago, artist Haroon Gunn-Salie, armed only with a ladder and camera, changed 13 Cape Town street signs from Zonnebloem to District Six. 

With a background in graffiti, he knew the time on a Sunday evening when shifts were changing and roads would be at their emptiest. A road sign company, working with him on condition of anonymity, had provided reflective vinyl consistent with that of a government issue. 

“I did that because there are hundreds of thousands of victims of forced removals that still live on the periphery of our cities and our towns and our former bantustans,” he recalls. “They deserve symbolic reparations, and reparations in material form as well. And if we’re not going to get that from our state there’s a way that we can at least make a change in our lived reality.”

A decade on from Gunn-Salie’s protest, South Africa is still reconciling its identity with its streets, landmarks and cities. Name change is an issue that ignites national attention unlike any other — and it’s also one that is unlikely to disappear soon.

In September, the busy Johannesburg street William Nicol Drive was formally changed to Winnie Mandela Drive.

The resultant flare-up was predictable. The governing ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters bickered over who had first proposed the idea, other opposition parties complained that it was callous electioneering and many taxpayers questioned whether their funds might have been better used fixing potholes instead of changing its name.

Also weighing into the debate were people who cherished the move, saying they were relieved to no longer be sitting in traffic under street signs bearing the name of someone widely considered to be one of the architects of apartheid.

The choice of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a figure whose legacy the country has long wrestled over, encapsulates the difficulty of ever reaching a consensus on changing a place’s name. It’s a balancing game that has been played differently across various national and provincial governments. 

Nelson Mandela’s newly democratic administration preferred a cautioned approach. In keeping with his strategy of reconciliation, changes tended to err on the conservative side.

Thabo Mbeki, when he took office in 1999, had a significantly different view. As political analyst Mcebisi Ndletyana writes: “Where Mandela had counselled caution, Mbeki expressed not only impatience, but also bewilderment at the persistence of colonial toponymy.”

The pace of change has differed from region to region. 

The Western Cape, for instance, quickly did away with its PW Botha and DF Malan airports in 1994, but then settled into a perceived complacency that has frustrated many of its residents.

The 2010s have seen a number of changes in Cape Town, including the return of Keizersgracht Street to its original name of Hanover Street, and the introduction of figures like Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe and Helen Suzman. (The inauguration of FW de Klerk Boulevard in 2015 also brought fierce criticism from the national government). Many of the province’s major towns, however — George and Stellenbosch to name just two examples — remain named after colonial figures.

Signs of the times: Old street names (above) lie at the Mukhari Signs factory in Pretoria. The name of Hans Strijdom Drive (left) in Pretoria was changed to Solomon Mahlangu Drive in 2012. Photos: Theana Breugem/Gallo Images & Christiaan Kotze/Gallo Images

Until recently the same critique was levelled at the Eastern Cape. The province has a long history of focusing on spelling corrections or alterations instead of material changes — think Umtata to Mthatha. That would significantly change with Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown switching to Gqeberha and Makhanda, respectively. Graaff-Reinet may be changed to Robert Sobukwe.

Gauteng is another that picked up its pace and scope significantly in the 2010s. A number of Johannesburg road names were changed in 2014, while in Pretoria, 27 street names were changed at once in 2012. Pretoria itself was the subject of controversy in 2005 after the government backtracked on efforts to rename it Tshwane, giving the new name to the broader municipality instead.

Given the trajectory of name change, and a declaration of intent by the department of sports, arts and culture in its annual performance plan for 2023-24 to consider a number of cases, South Africans would be wise to brace for continued debate.

Theodorus du Plessis, a language professor at the University of the Free State (UFS) and one of the editors of the Dictionary of Southern African Place Names, believes that the trend is not only detrimental but correlates to a decrease in basic government performance.

“As the downward trend of service delivery continues, as the mess we are in continues, you will find more name changes,” he says. “The two work in opposite directions. It’s easier to fix a name than a road.” 

In September, the UFS hosted an international symposium on place names. Among the attendees were representatives of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names. Du Plessis says the advice they gave, applicable to all countries, is to stall any toponym alterations wherever possible. 

If a name must be changed, the suggestion is it should be done so as a neutral one, such as the name of a geographical feature and not a person. The sentiments towards an individual are liable to be swept up by the tides of history, necessitating the need for future changes.

“Each regime wants its place names to be reflected in what we call the linguistic landscape,” Du Plessis says. “That causes all kinds of ructions, it can upset people and primarily it costs a lot of money. Governments like to use this to hide behind not doing real things — our government is an excellent example. We need fixed roads, we don’t need changed place names.”

Palesa Kadi, the chairperson of South African Geographical Names Council, has a different perspective. The council’s responsibility is to consider all suggestions, from provincial bureaucratic sectors to submissions from individual citizens. From there it makes recommendations to the department. She says this is reflective of the democratic process, in which the nation’s people have a say over their lived reality.

“It’s critical that we show unity, from places we live in to places that we want our children to be a part of,” she says. “It remains critical that everyone embraces South Africa as a country for all people that live in it. It is key for us to find a meaningful way, a transparent way, and an intentional way to ensure South Africa is for all of us.”

And yet, even as someone enmeshed in the process, Kadi has commentary on the names she deals with.

“From my own critical judgment as a historian and a student of history, the names are missing women’s contributions in particular. We have not received a lot of applications for places to be named after women.

“Unfortunately I as the chairperson cannot say, ‘No, only come with names of women.’ It must be the community.”

At the time of the interview, a colleague of hers in the Eastern Cape is sitting with an application to name a street after Rassie Erasmus. There’s irony in that — the mind behind the current breed of Springboks, perceived by many as the unifying force of South Africa, having his name attached to its most divisive issue. Of course, given that he’s still breathing, he’ll have to sign off on it first.