Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 5 February 2015

Canonising the past – because it’s the right thing to do?

The burden of name-changing is both political and deeply personal. It should not be turned into the re-writing of history. That is a dangerous game to play.

We all have an origin; we have a genesis from which we operate and that history is something that often shapes our future. Perhaps that is why FW de Klerk riles us up so much.

However, there is a growing tendency that the view of the majority or often now those in control should define that history and in turn decide what our own view should be. In that process our view is negated and in many ways we are made less – our voice is discounted.

We see this in the denial that xenophobia was at the root of the recent attacks in Soweto, which is reminiscent of the denial by the Mbeki Administration to HIV/AIDS and even more telling how we responded to the xenophobic attacks of 2008.

The “majoritarianism” which we now experience seeks to quell any alternative voice; it rewrites our own history and compels us to believe that everything must be viewed through the lens of that majority, that Elder, that organisation – that we are not entitled to our own opinion or view.

Recently, we have had resurgence it would seem of attacks based on racism, we have seen the hurtful headlines. Racism is very real – it harms and often we discount the extent of that hurt.

The implosion and outrage on social media has taken centre stage and slowly it is seeping in that we are very much a country dealing with the consequences of our history – we are a country in pain.

We have seen the attacks, the tirades, the meltdowns and most of all we have again seen that we are being told how to view the engagement on all these important issues.

All of these tendencies seek to silence the voice of the other, they seek to enforce a view on us which we are not only uncomfortable with but something that makes us angry.

We see it especially in the decision by the City of Cape Town to go ahead with renaming Table Bay Boulevard to FW de Klerk Boulevard. All this after a public participation process that was concluded in October 2014, the report by the renaming committee submitted soon thereafter and a decision to be made by a Full Council meeting by 28 January 2015. That is some efficiency displayed all to honour Mr de Klerk.

The City argues that Mr de Klerk was a contributor to the freedom we now enjoy, that he has not been sufficiently recognised and that the overriding participation by the public in that renaming process all indicates that we must rename the road.

We see noble men like Ahmed Kathrada urge us that there is a journey of reconciliation that we must embrace. Mr Kathrada equates this renaming decision as a gesture of reconciliation or being part of the reconciliation journey but I don’t. Mr Kathrada is very generous but in many ways his own journey of forgiveness required him to forgive Mr de Klerk (and others) so that he could find peace and rebuild his life that was systematically destroyed by the Apartheid regime.

Mr de Klerk resided over an oppressive regime that sort to dispossess and degrade the vast majority of South Africans. It is true that by 1990 it may have been a crumbling regime but it was still the Apartheid regime that Mr de Klerk led and presided over.

South Africa and Cape Town has a terrible genesis, a history which is layered in suffering, oppression, blood and pain. Everywhere we look we see buildings, monuments and places which all serve as reminders of what South Africa and its people had to endure under the guise of the “equal but different” fallacy that was Apartheid.

Mr Kathrada and more recently Mr Motlanthe, Mr Buthelezi and a string of other “prominent” folk (ad nauseam) have come out to remind us that the renaming of a street in Cape Town after Mr de Klerk is the right thing to do.

All of this is done in a city that already has a divisive legacy much like the rest of South Africa.

A city has seen a wave of racism and prejudices that has shocked us all and social media has reflected our outrage accordingly. We still struggle to deal with how best to articulate our own voice.

We are now burdened by another divisive figure – a name that does not conjure up a sense of ownership but a name that we feel is imposed on us much like the Apartheid regime was.

To the credit of the City of Cape Town it has done a good job in renaming NY1 (Native Yard, unbelievable but true!) in Gugulethu to Steve Biko Drive and recently the renaming of roads to Jakes Gerwel Drive, Robert Sobukwe Drive, Walter Sisulu Drive. FW de Klerk Boulevard is an ill-fitting addition.

I know the burden of renaming and the difficulties of dealing with it when trying to chart a path forward. After the passing of my father, my mother opted to change my name to my father’s name, Andrew, and for years I raged against the injustice of this. A name imposed which I didn’t choose, a name that was thrust on me and a name which sat uncomfortably in a Muslim family that raised me. The name thrust on me still lingers some 24 years later but fortunately I am not burdened with the name of the last leader of an oppressive regime (and that man’s own history).

The burden of our history cannot be rewritten; we may not have the full picture but deep down inside we know that we feel uncomfortable with the idea of honouring Mr de Klerk.

We are burdened not only with the problems of the day: growing inequality, ineffective governance, corruption, Eskom and the like, but also with the history of Apartheid and prejudice. In my view Mr de Klerk had no choice but to “cross the Rubicon” – there was no other option but to collapse the illegitimate Apartheid regime.

When we consider the issues facing our country the naming of a road after Mr de Klerk doesn’t seem like an important issue, however, to “canonise” the creators and leaders of our own painful history is an act which I can never sit comfortably with.

We should attempt to strive for something more and make the most of our own history without trying to whitewash and rewrite parts of it to fulfil the idea that “it is the right thing to do”.

Mr Kathrada is a better man than me for his grace and fortitude to forgive and even to thank Mr de Klerk. I cannot, this unfortunately was not the right thing to do.

The “cleansing” of our history is not done in my name, nor are the attempts to silence our voice. DM