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Street renaming

Although commonly regarded as mundane points of reference, street names are narrative text on city space that communicate powerful messages about cities’ political history as well as power relations. Following South Africa’s democratic dispensation in 1994, the nation has experienced a significant ‘toponymic metamorphosis’ with many of her streets having been renamed, largely for commemorative purposes (Mkhize 2012). As such, the street renaming project in South African municipalities, most notably metropolitan municipalities within Gauteng Province, has seen the substitution of most apartheid-affiliated names with names of political struggle heroes. In municipalities such as Tshwane and Johannesburg, the proponents of the renaming process - the erstwhile African National Congress (ANC) led City of Tshwane and the ANC-controlled City of Johannesburg - have motivated for it on the grounds that street names have to recognise and represent everybody’s past.

Interestingly, the renaming project has been met with various reactions by various stakeholders on the ground. For instance, in areas such as inner-city Johannesburg, where the street renaming project has honoured female struggle icons (in the CBD) and cultural icons (in the Newtown precinct), the process has gone relatively smoothly and seemingly without contestation. However, in municipalities such as Tshwane, the renaming of Pretoria Central’s 27 streets after struggle icons in 2012 was met with fierce resistance by various stakeholders. Opponents largely dismissed the project as a retributive, egotistical, divisive and unnecessary move by the ANC. For instance, 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 ANC-led City to court on grounds that the ANC was erasing history and substituting it with its own politicised version of the past. This resistance was also fuelled by the ANC-led City’s proposal to rename Pretoria, a city within the metropolitan municipality, to Tshwane - another controversial process that has been festering for years and has been halted following extensive picketing, petitioning and court action by AfriForum and the DA. It is this battle over the renaming of streets in certain parts of Gauteng that reflects their importance as symbols of identity, political history, power and socio-cultural relations.

Using the two different cases, Johannesburg (Johannesburg’s CBD and Newtown) and Pretoria/Tshwane (Pretoria Central), the study unpacks the dynamics, mechanisms and politics of street renaming in Gauteng - the impetus for street renaming; the logic and reasoning behind it; arguments for and against it; why it is fiercely opposed in certain areas and not in others; the forms of contestation to it. Moreover, using Nancy Fraser’s dual systems theory (the recognition-redistribution debate) as a framework, the research is also concerned with the extent and/or contribution of street renaming to commemoration, redistribution, representation and recognition; the role it plays in place (re-)branding; and the degree to which the process and its intended objectives are liable to being held hostage by party politics. Another crucial inquiry of this research is exploring how city governments can potentially mitigate conflicts and costs associated with renaming. Other objectives of the study are outlined below:

  • 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

Last updated: 12 November 2021.

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