Opinionista Ryland Fisher 8 July 2013

What’s in a (street) name?

There’s more to the changing of street and place names than simply the lip service to heroes who went before us. We need to find new ways to honour their legacy.

I spent a few days in Tshwane (or is that Pretoria?) last week and, navigating the many new street names, I realised why some people, particularly Afrikaners, could feel upset. One could probably understand why some groups might feel emasculated or alienated because of some of the new street names.

Of course, there is also the discomfort factor which is caused by suddenly have to find out where roads named after Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Stanza Bopabe, Jan Shoba, Nana Sita, Solomon Mahlangu, and Francis Baard, among many others, are.

It does not help when GPS services and Google maps are often outdated and don’t reflect the new names. I suppose there are many people who have used that as an excuse when they are late for an appointment – that or the fact that they did not know where to find newly-renamed streets.

But the discomfort, getting lost from time to time and being late for appointments, is a small price to pay for what is a necessary step in the transformation of our country and our cities.

The people who complain about changing street and other names probably know that they are fighting a lost cause. Imagine how they would have moaned if the people who wanted to change the name of our country to Azania had received more political support for their views.

We could not continue to have a situation where many streets in our major cities merely reflected one part of our history. It is important that our entire history should be reflected this should go beyond paying tribute to Nelson Mandela, but should also pay homage to others who were involved in the struggle with him.

But names changes are almost an easy victory if it is done, like it seems to have been done in most South African cities, without a proper educational and memorialisation process.

In short, when people drive down Stanza Bopabe Street, they need to know about his history of activism and how he was brutally killed during the struggle years. They need to know that Jan Shoba was a leader of the PAC’s military wing, and that Solomon Mahlangu was the first MK cadre to be hanged by the Apartheid government.

South Africa has a rich history of struggle against Apartheid and colonialism and we need to encourage particularly young South Africans to engage with this history.

Yet my sense is that the teaching and learning of history is not a priority for South Africa’s educators or our education authorities.

Understandably mathematics and science are important subjects but history and the humanities in general can help us teach certain values that have always driven people involved in the struggle for a better society.

When one hears the complaints against many politicians nowadays, it is clear that they seemed to have forgotten about our history and the values that drove people throughout our history.

Over the past few months, for a project I am working on, I have had to re-read a lot of what Mandela had said and done over the years and it is sad when one realises that something is seriously wrong with our society at the moment.

One gets a sense that people of Mandela’s generation was driven by something bigger than personal gain and a true sense of service, something that we appear to have lost over the past 19 years of democracy, despite the good progress we have made in some areas.

The good thing is that we can regain that sense of service and sacrifice, but it will take a concerted effort, not only among politicians, but particularly among the citizens of South Africa.

We need to revisit at every opportunity what it was that drove people such as Madiba and others to always put the interests of the country and the people above their own personal interests. More importantly, we need to find ways of inculcating these values into the civil service and particularly among people who have chosen politics as a career.

In some ways, I believe, people who choose politics as a career or who choose to enter the civil service, should be held to higher values and expectations than those in the private sector because they are dealing with public money and they have to make sure that they deliver services the public needs despite whatever challenges they might face.

This is, of course, easier said than done, but I have always maintained that we have overcome Apartheid and we have the ability to overcome the challenges we face as a society today.

There are many people who were actively involved in the struggle against Apartheid but who stepped aside when it appeared that we had achieved our liberation. It would be interesting to hear the views of some of those people about where we are as a country today.

It is important to learn from our history and from those who have gone before us. But this means that, in order to transform this country properly, we need to do more than change street or other names. We need to understand what drove those people whose names now adorn our streets and we need to understand and learn from their values. That is a much greater tribute than merely putting their names on street signs. DM

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