Scandal of Apartheid street names

By Marius Fransman

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NORTH of Cape Town, close to the leafy suburb of De Duin, the memory of an apartheid arch-villain – Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd – lives on in mocking splendour.

Verwoerd has a road named after him … hang on, let me qualify what I’ve just said: he has a beautiful, well-maintained Drive (which some people would describe as a snobbish name for a high quality road) named in his honour.

I know – and understand – how he came to be revered in this way. But what I cannot comprehend is why, in the totally different South Africa of today, he is still being honoured.

I find it inconceivable that – almost two decades after the collapse of apartheid – I (and tens of thousands of my compatriots in the Western Cape) should continue to be reminded about a man who caused so many of us so much pain.

I know that history has many memories – and, consequently, many versions. But there are some facts about the past of our beautiful country that are irrefutable….

And the most irrefutable fact of all is that HF Verwoerd was an ogre.

I would like to give just one example to back up my contention – and in doing so, I would like to draw on something that occurred during his tenure (from 1951) as Minister of Native Affairs. Verwoerd’s determination to stamp his mark – and that of the National Party – on so-called “Bantu” education left South Africa with a horrific legacy – a legacy that our country continues to wrestle with today.

In introducing his Bantu Education Act, Verwoerd explained that Africans had to be measured by different standards: “The school must equip the Bantu to meet the demands which the economic life … will impose on him,” he said.

And he added: “What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?

“Education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life.”

We all knew then – as we all remember today – that Verwoerd’s vision of South Africa was that of creating a country in which virtually every opportunity that arose would be earmarked for his white, preferably Afrikaner compatriots (and that blacks, generally, would be nothing more than carriers of water and hewers of wood.

He made it abundantly clear that protests against his education plans for Africans would not be tolerated. Transgressors, he promised, faced prosecution for the “illicit selling of education”.

Verwoerd is not the only name that I do NOT want to see on a street index:

De Duin also has a street named after one of Verwoerd’s contemporaries – Charles Robberts (CR) Swart, the Justice Minister in 1953 (and, later, state president).

In my opinion, he was every bit as ruthless as Verwoerd. In introducing the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act in 1953, Swart explained: “We will always find that reasonable amenities are provided for all classes according to their aptitude, according to their standard of civilization and according to their needs.”

Essentially, what he was suggesting was that white South Africans had a greater aptitude, were more civilized and deserved more amenities than blacks.

As Minister of Justice, he also took a hard line on all opposition to National Party policies: “If I cannot suppress violence with violence, then I do not want to be Minister of Justice,” he once famously remarked.

There is one other person (among a host of others that space precludes me from mentioning) that I would like to highlight as totally unsuited to be heralded in a street name – the Voortrekker leader Sarel Cilliers (whose name crops up on road signs all over South Africa, including the Western Cape.

And my feelings of antipathy towards him are based entirely on his comments after the Battle of Blood River in 1838.

After the Voortrekkers had defeated the Zulus, Boer chaplain Cilliers described the events as a sign of the fulfillment of the word of the Lord….

“By one way shall your enemies come, but by the blessing of the Lord they shall fly before your face,” he said.

“When it was all over, the Kaffirs lay on the ground like pumpkins on a rich soil that has borne a large crop.”

I know that every community has its heroes, of which they rightly feel tremendously proud. But, speaking as an Afrikaner, I acknowledge that we will often differ radically over the political issues of the day.

And that is the way it should be.

But there is one thing I am certain about. I do not believe that many of my compatriots from the white section of the Afrikaner community will see Verwoerd, Swart, Cilliers, the Nazi sympathizer Oswald Pirow, John Vorster and a range of others who devised and implemented apartheid legislation with almost fanatical relish as heroes.

I do not believe that these apartheid madmen should be forgotten – and I don’t think that they ever will be. say this only because I believe that their gross excesses and total disregard for human rights should act as a constant reminder of the madness that some members of the human race are capable of).

I think that most people will support me when I say that Verwoerd and the others like him should NOT be honoured by having streets named after them.

I DO, however, believe that we should honour suitable residents of the Western Cape – white and black, English-, Afrikaans- and Xhosa-speakers – in this way.

Many of us will throw the names of different people into the hat; I think that most of us will agree that the overriding criterion for being honoured should be service to the people of the Western Cape or South Africa.

I have a number of preferences….

Top of my list would be Dullah Omar, a Minister of Justice in South Africa’s first democratic government under Nelson Mandela’s presidency, and Minister of Transport in Thabo Mbeki’s first Cabinet.

Omar, who died on 13 March 2004, was responsible for piloting the legislation abolishing apartheid laws, introducing our non-racial, democratic constitution, overhauling the justice system and pushing through the legislation that abolished the death penalty, among others.

To me, he was a real “man of the people”. In the dark days of the apartheid era, he built up a reputation as a lawyer who defended the poor and oppressed, with great success at a time when everything was stacked against human rights-oriented legal practitioners.

I would also argue for Oscar Mpetha to be honoured. Mpetha spent a large part of his adult life involved in the struggle, as a trade unionist (with the Food and Canning Workers’ Union) and as a member of the African National Congress.

He was banned twice – and jailed twice – by the National Party government. When he was jailed for the second time in 1985 as a 76 year old, he became the oldest political prisoner on Robben Island.

He died in poverty at his Gugulethu home on 15 November 1994, at the age of 84.

Another choice would be the man who penned the sports battle-cry: “No normal sport in an abnormal society”.

Hassan Howa did much to focus the attention of the world on how apartheid South Africa played sport – and, in many ways, led the charge to isolate the all-white codes.

Howa, who died on 10 February 1992, once offered white administrators to get his players to change in their cars if they would allow mixed cricket. His offer was turned down.

I whole-heartedly support moves to have the Keizersgracht in District Six named after Taliep Petersen, whose life was taken away so tragically late last year.

I would also like to add the name of jazz musician Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee, who died on 12 March 1998, and who brought so much smiles to the faces and joy to the hearts of thousands of people of the Cape Flats with his unique brand of Cape Town jazz music, which he often performed free of charge, during the darkest days of apartheid.

Of course, other people may suggest other names, but what is important is that all of us who feel strongly about the issue of street names should make our voices heard.


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