Quote of the week

[Nostalgia] is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense … nostalgia is less about the past than about the present. It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an ‘historical inversion’: the ideal that is not being lived now is projected into the past.

David Medalie
20 May 2010

Why do I have to drive past Oswald Pirow Drive?

I have never understood why some South Africans get so upset when the names of towns, suburbs, streets, rivers and dams are changed. What does it matter whether we call it “Pretoria” or “Tswane” when there are so much more pressing problems facing our country and when severe social and economic injustices continue all around us for everyone to see?

Just in the last day we heard that 6 babies died needlessly in a hospital in Gauteng because of overcrowding (and perhaps also because of callousness), that millions of people do not have formal houses to live in and that the President is shocked about their living conditions (he really should get out more),and that the Police is reported to have spent R498 million in 2006 to build 7 new police stations and refurbish 3 and spent R1.1 billion last year to construct 2 stations and upgrade 2?

Surely name changes are not that big a deal? Besides, some names need to be changed because their very existence is an affront to the majority of the people of South Africa – including to this blogger.

Every morning I drive past Oswald Pirow Rylaan on my way to work. This is what Wikipedia has to say about Mr Pirow:

Pirow became an admirer of Adolf Hitler after meeting him in 1933. He toured Europe in 1938 and claimed to offer Hitler a free role in Eastern Europe in return for allowing the Jews to leave Germany. During this tour he also met Benito Mussolini, António de Oliveira Salazar and Francisco Franco and became convinced that a European war was imminent, with Nazi victory assured.

Pirow supported Hertzog’s calls for neutrality when war did arrive and followed his leader in to the new Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP). By September 1940 he had launched his own New Order group within the HNP, backing a Nazi style dictatorship. This group took its name from his 1940 New Order in South Africa pamphlet in which he embraced the ideology. The pamphlet ran through seven editions in its first year of existence. The group finally broke from the HNP altogether in 1942 after both Daniel François Malan and Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom openly rejected the Nazis. Pirow did not run in the 1943 election although a number of New Order candidates did and they were all heavily defeated. Although Pirow continued to publish a newsletter until 1958 his political career was effectively over, leaving him to return to legal practice.

How can it be that the name of this street has not been changed – sixteen years after the end of apartheid? Surely it is s scandal of immense proportions?

The DA run City of Cape Town started a process to change such offensive names (the previous ANC administration having been too busy looking after which tenders to give to whom of their pals) and appointed a panel of experts to consider suggestions from the public about this. The panel carefully selected those names that are really offensive and made wonderful proposals to change these names. The new names proposed by this panel were both wise and sensitive, and included the names of Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker who was quoted by Nelson Mandela in his first speech to Parliament, the late heart transplant pioneer and Viagra user Chris Barnard and struggle heroes like Ashley Kriel.

Yet, three years later, I still drive by Oswald Pirow Rylaan and Barry Hertzog Boulevard – both monuments to racial superiority and racial oppression. Why? Perhaps because some fellow South Africans do not want to let go of the past, a past that is well worth letting go of? Or is it because the DA City Council is too scared of the racists in its midst or too unprincipled to do the right thing and implement these name changes?

It is an affront to every Capetonian who embraces the values enshrined in our Constitution and the democratic order every day to have to be confronted with the celebration of Nazi’s and racists in this way. Yet nothing is being done. The issue cannot be money as only a handful of name changes were proposed by the panel of experts. Besides, in preparation for the World Cup, many road signs were replaced or upgraded to comply with the dictates of Fifa. One could probably implement all the name changes proposed by the panel without spending half the money used to upgrade one police station or pay for one Departmental Christmas party.

I was reminded of all this when I saw that the ANC and the FF Plus have agreed that the difficult question of geographic name changes should proceed in a manner that reconciles histories with present realities. Following a rare meeting with FF Plus leader Pieter Mulder yesterday, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said it was important to “allow the two histories to talk to each other”. It was thus crucial “not to do name changes willy-nilly,” he said.

Mantashe’s suggestion seems sensible enough.

I am not one who believes we should erase all traces of the past (as if one can do that). Our various histories and cultures should be allowed to talk to one another and there is even a place somewhere for statues of the colonialists and racists. It is therefore perhaps not necessary to bulldoze the Roads Memorial on the slopes of Table Mountain – despite the fact that it celebrates the life of that old racist imperialist Cecil John Rhodes (whose reputation has been shamefully resuscitated with the association of his name with that of Nelson Mandela).

I have previously proposed – only half in jest – that we should remove most of the memorials and statues commemorating and celebrating colonial and apartheid era “heroes” and place them in an apartheid graveyard somewhere. There could be a neatly kept garden and informative plagues explaining the roles each of these men (because they were invariably all men) played in our history.

I am sure some space could be found at the Voortrekker Monument to house all these reminders of our oppressive past. Then schoolchildren could be taken on educational tours to this site to remind them of our history. One could have a Woodstock style rock concert there every year. I can see the dagga smokers and hippy types lounging about between the statues while the Parlotones and Freshly ground entertain the crowds. Or perhaps one can have an annual outdoor rave for youngsters amongst the graves of these apartheid heroes – all just to show that we do not take these figures too seriously anymore.

Then we can turn our attention to the real problems facing South Africa and can hold our government to account when it wastes our money or betrays the poor without the government being able to point to the past and to blame those whites who still yearn for apartheid for their own failings. I for one, would not mind living in such a country where the past stops being an excuse to justify arrogance and greed and becomes merely an important reminder of what kind of country we do NOT want to live in.

2015 Constitutionally Speaking | website created by Idea in a Forest