Opinionista

Why is a major Jo’burg road still named after one of the worst racists in our history?

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Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. As a journalist covering everything from cricket to chameleons, his favourite stories are always those about people – dead or alive, virtuous or villainous. He is the co-author with Matthew Blackman of Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa (Penguin Random House). Matthew Blackman has written as a journalist on corruption in South Africa, as well as on art, literature and history. He recently completed a PhD at the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

William Nicol Drive celebrates a racist whose history simply does not fit with our Constitution or our social values, as Nick Dall and Matthew Blackman discovered while researching ‘Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (Penguin Random House).

How many hours of your life do you think you’ve spent stuck in traffic on William Nicol? Neither of us is even from Jo’burg, and we reckon we’ve lost at least an entire day sitting in traffic on William’s behalf.

Given all the heartache and anxiety he causes today, it would be nice to know that he had brought some joy in real life. How many people have wondered whether he was a famous botanist, perhaps, or a world-renowned anthropologist? Unfortunately, the truth, in William’s case, will not set you free. The announcement in 2020 by Jo’burg Mayor Geoff Makhubo that there were plans afoot to change the name could not have come sooner.

But what’s in a name? Won’t Gqeberha still retain Port Elizabeth’s many “dear (im)perfections”? Jokes aside, Shakespeare (author of the “Robben Island bible” so loved by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki) was certainly on the money when he said, “but it is thy name that is mine enemy”. That’s the most obvious reason for changing the names we have retained from colonialism and apartheid. They simply don’t fit with our Constitution or our social values.

The weird thing is that some of the most egregious names have remained while others that have caused little offence have been changed. Port Elizabeth for one was named after the dead wife of a British governor who was certainly not the worst we had. Obviously, the mere colonial origin may offend – but that Elizabeth did nothing in particular to any South African.

This is, of course, not true of Governor D’Urban. In the Sixth Frontier War, D’Urban annexed the land between the Fish River and the Kei and attempted, with the help of his favourite partner in crime Harry Smith (of Harrismith and Ladysmith fame), to drive several Xhosa tribes over the Kei, burning their farms, stealing their cattle and murdering the amaXhosa’s paramount chief Hintsa. Somerset West and Somerset East, meanwhile, both celebrate the same type of astoundingly corrupt and entitled blue-blooded British buffoon. 

William Nicol
William Nicol

And then there is William Nicol. But before we get to just who he was, let’s delve into the mystery of how William Nicol Drive got its name. In the 1970s, when the Transvaal Provincial Administration was asked whether the road was called “Bryanston Highway” or “William Nicol Highway”, they replied that it was neither: its official name was P79/1. William Nicol Drive was never officially named. So how did it get the name? What is certain is that William Nicol was the administrator of the Transvaal from 1948 to 1958 while the road was being built. (Yes, 1948! That should be ringing the alarm bells!)

One internet site claims that Nicol named it after himself, but on closer scrutiny this appears to have been an uninformed leap. The author must have read that Nicol was in charge when it was being built and assumed he had given the name. But this was certainly not Nicol’s style. You see, Nicol was a deeply earnest man of the cloth – and that cloth was of the Dutch Reformed variety.

And there you were thinking he was an upstanding Englishman in the Somerset or D’Urban mould! No, not our William Nicol. In fact, he was one of the founding members of the Broederbond and its second chairman. And to be a member of that clandestine society of white supremacists you had to prove that you were a pure-blooded Afrikaner with heritage dating back before 1820. Not a single drop of English blood could course through a Broeder’s veins.

Just as apartheid began to rise, he co-authored a book, Regverdige Rasse-Apartheid (Just Racial Apartheid), in 1947, which tried to provide religious justification for apartheid. The book sets out lucidly and authoritatively a race policy founded on complete territorial “afskeiding” (segregation).

During World War 2 Nicol went to Egypt to preach to the South African soldiers fighting in North Africa. At the time, Afrikaners were deeply divided as to just which side they should be fighting on. In fact, many NG kerke refused to allow South African soldiers into their congregations and there were many instances where families who were known to have relatives fighting the Nazis were thrown out of church.

A fascist organisation called the Ossewabrandwag, which had its own Nazi-like salute and symbols, had gathered huge popular support among the Afrikaners. And these delightful humans engaged in several attempts to murder South African soldiers on their way up north. They also blew up the post office at Benoni, killing an innocent civilian. Many were imprisoned without trial by the Smuts government on suspicion of treason at an internment camp at Koffiefontein in the Orange Free State. The Ossewabrandwag was closely linked to Nicol’s Broederbond.

When Nicol left for North Africa, the head of South African intelligence, Dr Ernst Malherbe, was deeply worried about just what Nicol was up to. When Nicol did finally preach to the troops it was reported that he received a particularly hostile reception from the soldiers after exposing his political beliefs. But this did not stop him from continuing and in his report back to the NG Kerk he expressed his disgust at the presence of non-white recruits among the soldiers. Malherbe wrote to Prime Minister Jan Smuts shortly after this, stating that Nicol was a leader of “a very clever organisation” and his supposed “charm and affability” made him a very “dangerous customer”. 

After the National Party’s 1948 election victory, the victory that would bring on apartheid proper, William Nicol was made the administrator of the Transvaal, one of the most important bureaucratic positions in the country. And if you were ever ruminating on what apartheid did for us, as Helen Zille so often does of colonialism, perhaps you should remember that the apartheid government built roads to serve white people’s needs. And that one of those roads got the name of the founder of the Broederbond – a segregationist and a racist.

So next time we embark on some name-changing, why not look for the names that offend the most? And if we are indeed searchers of the truth we could already begin calling William Nicol by its real name… P79/1. DM

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All Comments 12

  • I’ve often wondered if it is actually an honour having a road like William Nicol Drive named after you. It probably invokes more swear words than anything.

    • Well…the hasn’t changed and no-one remembers anyway. It’s thanks to writers like these that we are able to remember. It’s not a nice memory either

    • …and he was interned at Koffiefontein after returning from Germany and saying “National Socialism is one of the most important movements of our time” (yes, Na-Zi = National Socialism)!

  • “The weird thing is that some of the most egregious names have remained while others that have caused little offence have been changed.”

    Plenty of roads named after Voster, Verwoerd and Strydom still around ….

  • Change all the names you want to whatever you want – just get it over and done with so that all of us can just get on with our lives. Most people don’t care two hoots about the name of a road or town or building. More important is that it is maintained & that it actually delivers what it was buit 4

  • History is littered with racists of all colours and creeds. Colonialism brought with it a mixed bag, including technical and financial expertise, not just racial intolerance. Prejudice is built into the human DNA – modern etiquette just dictates that we “play nicely”. Let’s move on already!

  • In the US, interstate roads running E-W have even numbers whilst N-S roads have odd numbers. Genius. The I-40 runs almost coast to coast. Let’s use only numbers and save on paint. Our M, N, P, and R system is adequate and so easy to remember.

  • Is this the same William Nicol who opposed Bantu Education, supported mother-tongue instruction, and helped translate the bible into isiZulu?
    And for context it was the cultural norm at the time to be racist. Only the brave and outspoken few weren’t.
    People are human. Few are totally good or bad.