THE issue of street and building renaming in Pietermaritzburg has returned to the fore of public debate rather more rapidly than many would have expected or desired. Judging from the letters columns of The Witness it is a matter that rouses considerable emotion and bears within it the seeds of possible divisiveness. This is not only true of South Africa. Two years ago in Swakopmund, a two-hour business shutdown was threatened after 15 central streets were targeted for renaming without consultation. In the Serbian town of Novi Sad, direct action was promised when a thoroughfare named after a war hero was changed to John Lennon Street.

Just over a year ago a list of proposals was published for public comment. It contains the names of many worthy and memorable Pietermaritzburg figures whose role in local and regional history deserves, in fact demands, suitable recognition. Here I must declare a personal interest because one of them belongs to a good friend of mine and three others were known to me as comrades working for the same broad political alliance. The list also includes a couple of suggestions that are debatable. The province does not need a King Cetshwayo Airport and the connections of Bhambatha with Pietermaritzburg are tenuous.

The city has been down this road before. In May 1901, in the middle of a bitter civil war, imperialist interests proposed renaming a number of central streets in ways they considered more patriotic. Greyling, Boom, Berg, Pietermaritz, Longmarket, Loop and Burger would have been replaced by Gallwey, Milner, Cornwall, York, Queen, King Edward and Hutchinson. Sanity prevailed in the city council, the matter was stood down, and this example of jingoistic hubris was consigned to a deserved obscurity, although most of these names were subsequently used elsewhere in the city.

Many of those objecting to street renaming have done so in the name of financial cost and potential confusion. These are important points: the municipality has better ways to spend our rates. But objectors have also hit upon a more fundamental issue. The landscapes with which we are most familiar become part of our being. Geographers describe our spatial perceptions in terms of mental maps, our own individual and presumably unique memory of the environment around us. In an urban area, a constant feature of our mental maps would be a street name, a generally stable factor in areas of sometimes bewildering change. Urban societies, to be true to themselves, need to reflect the different passages of their history like geological strata.

The truth of the matter is that Pietermaritzburg’s historic main street names represent no massive affront to its inhabitants in the name of either colonialism or apartheid. They relate largely to the geography and function of the city when it was established in the mid-nineteenth century; and reflect the history of the core of the city around which a wider network of roads and streets spread as suburbs developed. Their names should be left well alone. In any case, habits die hard and will not be lightly displaced by officialdom. Some years ago the name of Churchill was ill-advisedly applied to the Market Square, but it has never really caught on.

There are ways of honouring significant names from the past without wholesale change. Contributors to The Witness have frequently pointed out that many of greater Pietermaritzburg’s roads have no names at all. New suburbs and housing developments are ideal, projecting a name far beyond a single street. And buildings with no more than a street address or a functional title are obvious targets: the suggestion put forward that the municipal offices be called the A.S. Chetty Building and the Department of Labour offices named after Moses Mabhida are both logical and highly appropriate.

In Cape Town, the abortive and fraudulent attempt to rename Adderley and Wale streets after Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk led to what the Sunday Times recently labelled a ‘famous fiasco’. It involved the infamous Pieter Marais, whose talent for political buffoonery might be thought peripheral to the more sober municipal politics of Pietermaritzburg. But the consequential policy adopted by Cape Town contains lessons for our city, the most important of which is the decision that street names will be changed only in exceptional circumstances. Where personal names are used they must have a clear association with the city. One Cape Town example is particularly interesting. Klipfontein Road was not changed to Nelson Mandela or Imam Haroon Road since its name commemorates the front line between apartheid and protestors. Place matters in the context of memory.

A creative approach to this issue will have an uncontentious outcome that promotes a sense of communal well-being and shared history. There is an element of truth in the view that Pietermaritzburg was a white town built by exploited black labour, although this is an oversimplification and the city’s past is a great deal more complex than this. Renaming the streets is not going to alter that history or compensate for it. It may in fact have the undesirable effect of obscuring it, warts and all.

There is about renaming a whiff of Stalinist photo artistry, airbrushing out of the record names no longer ideologically acceptable. In a very real sense street names are a major part of the urban archive and our collective memory. Extensive change, as suggested from time to time, will justifiably be seen as deliberate provocation designed to appropriate and manipulate the past for a specific agenda. It will risk hostility and ill will rather than community.

This article was first published in The Witness on 30 September 2003 and entitled ‘The renaming debate’