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Street renaming

Following South Africa’s democratic dispensation in 1994, the nation has experienced a significant ‘toponymic metamorphosis’ with many of its streets, roads, monuments, public institutions, suburbs, cities and provinces having been renamed, largely for commemorative purposes (Mkhize 2012). Whilst the substitution of apartheid-affiliated names with ‘neutral’ ones – for instance Verwoerdburg to Centurion – has been largely unopposed, the renaming of sites after political heroes has been an emotive and hotly contested issue that has generated much public debate. Nowhere in the Gauteng City-Region (GCR) has this contestation been more evident than in the case of street name changes in Pretoria Central (in the municipality of Tshwane). Before taking over as the ruling party of the City following the 2016 local government elections, the Democratic Alliance (DA), along with civil rights groups such as AfriForum, took the erstwhile African National Congress (ANC) led City to court on grounds that the ANC was erasing history and substituting it with its own politicised version of the past. It is this battle over street renaming in certain sections of the GCR that reflects their importance as symbols of identity, political history, power and socio-politico-cultural relations in the city-region and country.

Interestingly, in other parts of the city-region, the renaming of streets (e.g. in Johannesburg) after political heroes has occurred without contestation. Moreover, within Tshwane itself, whilst the street renaming process has been contentious in sections such as Pretoria Central, it has been relatively peaceful in certain sections of the municipality (e.g. Bronkhorstspruit). Not only does this begin to point to the politics of space and scale in street renaming processes in the GCR, it also suggests the need for explanations as to why street name changes are contested in certain sections and go unopposed in certain areas within the GCR. This, along with the following, are the objectives of this project:

  • To interrogate and explain the reasoning behind the renaming of streets after political figures in certain sections of cities/towns over other areas, in the GCR as a whole and within the GCR municipalities
  • To unpack the extent to which the renaming of streets serves to re-brand the GCR
  • To explore the politics and preeminence of gender in street renaming processes
  • Explore the implications of street renaming for the governance of the GCR, with particular emphasis on the extent to which the street renaming processes feed into – and align with – the brand values of the GCR as a spatial and political entity
  • Discuss the degree to which the renaming processes would be affected by party politics and the political changes that have swept through the GCR’s municipalities - particularly Johannesburg and Tshwane - following the 2016 municipal elections
  • Assist local governments, and by extension provincial government, to mitigate costs and conflict(s) associated with renaming processes in the GCR

In an attempt to account for why street renaming is fiercely opposed in certain parts of the GCR and relatively uncontested in other parts, we are comparing two case studies in the GCR’s two metropolitan municipalities - Pretoria Central (Tshwane) and inner-city Johannesburg (particularly Johannesburg CBD and Newtown). These cases were chosen on the basis that they make for good comparison of what has happened over the last decade and what has been happening most recently - Pretoria Central’s streets were renamed amidst much publicised opposition in 2012, some inner city Johannesburg’s streets were renamed in 2015 with some extending to the Newtown Cultural Precinct. Moreover, the oppositions to the renaming project in both cases were markedly different. On the one hand, opposition to the street renaming process in Tshwane was largely underpinned by party politics and concerns about lack of consultation as well as erasure of history. On the other hand, the renaming process in Newtown and parts of the Johannesburg CBD was seen by some as ‘male centric’ and thus not inclusive of prominent female cultural/political icons.

Last updated: 19 April 2021.


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