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In the name of reconciliation, let’s please find another name to replace that of William Nicol Drive

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Matthew Blackman is co-author of ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (Penguin Random House). He has written as a journalist on corruption in South Africa, as well as on art, literature and history. He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

The DA has recently raised a petition against the changing of the name of William Nicol Drive in Joburg, claiming that the cost of the change is far greater than the benefit. There is of course another politics being played out. The fact that the ANC-run City of Johannesburg wishes to change the name to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Drive is very much at the centre of the argument.

On Monday, 26 April 2021, the ANC ramped up the rhetoric surrounding the changing of the name of William Nicol Drive with party Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte leading a group on to the side of the road in a show of support for the change of name. But even here, the divisions in our country were on display with the presence of some Ace Magashule-supporting MKMVA members. Duarte, as a result, was placed in a position of having to state that those in camouflage did not “represent our aspirations”.

The philosopher RG Collingwood suggested in his book, “The Principles of Art”, that road names and statues were examples of “magic”. He equated them to a rain or war dance. Nobody, he argued, really believes that a war dance will bring you victory — they give emotional confidence. Likewise, nobody believes that rain dances will bring rain — they are community-building exercises.

As he wrote, these rituals “produce in men (sic) an emotional state of willingness to bear [tragedies and droughts] with fortitude and hope”.

This is precisely, Collingwood continues, what things like statues and road names do in modern societies. They are magical insofar as they are meant to arouse emotions that bring unity within a political or social unit.

Collingwood, writing in 1930s Britain, suggested:

“Magical activity is a kind of dynamo supplying the mechanism of practical life with the emotional current that drives it. Hence magic is a necessity for every sort and condition of man (sic), and is actually found in every healthy society. A society which thinks, as our own thinks, that it has outlived the need of magic, is either mistaken in that opinion, or else it is a dying society, perishing for lack of interest in its own maintenance.”

This is undoubtedly why we used to call the emotion of reconciliation of the 1990s, “Madiba Magic”. Mandela really did have, in Collingwood’s term, a magical effect on us — an effect which now seems like it is almost impossible to replicate in our woke vs non-woke broken society. 

The ANC once stood as a towering force in the world for having, at its centre, the notion of being a “broad church” — an organisation that was multiracial, multi-ethnic, multilingual, multicultural and ideologically pluralist. In fact, in many countries in Africa, the ANC was despised for taking this approach rather than a Pan-Africanist one. 

The ANC has a truly unique history in Africa. It once took the notion of reconciliation and plurality very seriously, and it suffered deeply in South Africa and across the world as a result.

Reconciliation has been at the root of all our good histories; radical and divisive identity politics at our worst. But where are these voices now?

The DA is leading its petition to stop the renaming of William Nicol Drive in Joburg. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, they seemingly wish to sustain the “magic” of one of the founders of the Broederbond, and one of the theological architects of apartheid. 

Jan Smuts referred to Nicol and his associates as a “dangerous, cunning, political, Fascist organisation”. And even JBM Hertzog railed against Nicol and his brothers for their secret racist agendas. Having Nicol’s name remain is simply not appropriate for the society in which we live.

But the ANC structures which are proposing the name-change cannot go without sanction in this matter. In their attempt to call it Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Drive, they know perfectly well they are stoking the flames of division. In saying this, there is no doubt that Winnie Mandela led a deeply tragic life. Helen Suzman said in a 1998 interview: 

“She is a remarkable person in many ways. I don’t think most people know what she went through; she was detained over and over again, she was harassed by the special branch… she spent 17 months in solitary confinement and she was banished for eight years to a one-horse town.”

Certainly, the apartheid security forces performed vile, hateful and unforgivable acts against her. But as a result, she reacted in a manner that is deeply controversial. From the 1980s onwards, she was painted as bête noire number one by the white apartheid regime. Some of this, it has to be objectively stated, was of her own doing. The infamous Mandela United Football Club, that protected her, did perform some truly terrible acts. The murders of young activist Stompie Seipei, and of Dr Abu Asvat, who died in his assistant Albertina Sisulu’s arms after being shot in his surgery, have always been linked to her and the MUFC. She was found guilty in 1991 of kidnapping Seipei.

When these issues were taken up at the TRC, she denied all knowledge of these events. However, Bishop Paul Verryn and many of the men who suffered at the hands of her football club testified to her involvement. The head of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, after hearing all of this testimony, emotionally appealed to her. Looking at her from across the hall he pleaded:

“Something went wrong. I speak to you as someone who loves you very deeply… I beg you, I beg you, I beg you, please… I speak as someone who has lived in this community. You are a great person and you don’t know how your greatness would be enhanced if you were to say, ‘sorry, things went wrong, forgive me’. I beg you.”

After consulting with her lawyers, she did offer this as a response:

“I will take this opportunity to say to the family of Dr Asvat how deeply sorry I am. And to Stompie’s mother, how deeply sorry I am. I have said so to her before, a few years back, when the heat was very hot. I am saying, it is true, things went horribly wrong, I fully agree with that. And for that part of those painful years when things went horribly wrong and we were aware of the fact that there were factors, and we were aware of that, I am deeply sorry.”

Many of those affected by the Mandela United Football Club’s activities, however, were not convinced or satisfied with this apology — she did not offer a full confession. 

Others will go on to mention the now almost-forgotten letter written to Dali Mpofu which suggested that she was involved in corruption. These pieces of history have for many years lain unresolved and they constitute an emotional tinder box — something the DA and both factions of the ANC seem willing to play with.

And because of these controversies, it does seem that calling the road by her name will only stir up old divisions and stoke the fires of hatred. We should perhaps remember that segregation is precisely what William Nicol stood for. Why, at this time, do we need this? 

There are many people whose names evoke a more reconciliatory magic, from trade unionists, to politicians, to artist and writers: Lillian Ngoyi, JB Marks, James Phillips (the trade unionist or for those who want to think of it as the singer, they can) Pixley ka Seme, Alfred Xuma, Ruth First, Ahmed Kathrada, Ernest Mancoba, Gerard Sekoto, Esther Mahlangu, or Schreiner (commemorating all of Olive, WP, Oliver and Jenny. As an ANC precedent, Sol Plaatje named his daughter after Olive).

At the root of all this seems to be party politics and with perhaps the October elections in mind. If they are, this is deeply distasteful and they are ultimately using people’s names to divide us. And neither side seems particularly interested in representing the common aspirations of the country.

In the name of reconciliation and as a step beyond the culture wars of (un)wokeness, can the ANC and DA not find it in themselves to engage in the magic that might help us? DM

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All Comments 9

  • The DA and the ANC collaborating on name changes is unlikely. But to be clear – the DA’s campaign to stop the name change has nothing to do with Mr Nicol, who barely anyone knows about. It has everything to do with distracting charades that imply progress of some sort, which we should not fall for.

  • As far as I know, the DAs petition to not have the name changed at this point had absolutely nothing to do with “sustain the magic of one of the founders of the Broederbond”. It is about prioritization, it is about cost & it is about a way to distract the South Africa public from real social issues.

    • I totally agree. There’re far more pressing issues to deal with right now than changing the name of a road, or anything else for that matter – at great and pointless cost.
      ANC, you need to get your priorities right.

  • Why anyone would want a road or airport named after them is mind boggling. They are noisy, filthy, busy and not pretty or calm places. To name such an item or place after people is just plain silly and does the person no credit – whether they were good people or not.

  • OK at least I now know who Nicol was! agreed that Winnie who went from Mother of the Nation to Mugger of the Nation is not deserving of this recognition. surely there are more humble people who made great contributions to reconciliation?

  • Why can’t the anc just rename whatever they want to whoever they want and get it over with? It is almost 30 years down the ‘democracy’ road and only now do they awaken to the idea of changing (More) names (Again)? How stupid! Al they’re doing is perpetuating racism or perceived racism.

  • Mathew, I couldn’t agree with you more. South Africa doesn’t need public assets named after racists, but neither does it need public assets named after ‘liberation icons’ with deeply flawed histories. The candidates you mention probably all have roads named after them already. I would suggest that we focus on the “second liberation struggle”; the struggle for a corruption-free, and truly equitable society. In that context, I would suggest that the obvious choice would be Jackson Mthembu Drive. What truly patriotic South African could object to that?

    • Brilliant idea, that will work magic as opposed to someone that inspired people to necklace one another with tyres and matches!