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 and reconciliatory purposes (Mkhize 2012). As such, the street renaming project in South African municipalities, most notably metropolitan municipalities within the Gauteng Province, has seen the substitution of most apartheid-affiliated names with names of political struggle heroes and cultural icons. 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 – mostly negative reactions - by various stakeholders on the ground. For instance, although the renaming process has gone relatively smoothly and seemingly without contestation in various parts of Johannesburg, where the street renaming project has honoured struggle icons and cultural activists, some renaming proposals have also been opposed. Some of the contested proposals have been the renaming of the city’s major arterioles, including the most recent proposal to rename William Nicol Drive to Winnie Madikizela Drive. The same can be said of the street renaming project in metropolitan municipalities such as Tshwane, where the renaming of Pretoria Central’s 27 streets after struggle icons in 2012 was met with fierce resistance by various stakeholders. Opponents took to the streets in protest and largely dismissed the project as a retributive, egotistical, divisive and unnecessary move by the ANC. Moreover, prior to taking over as the ruling party in Tshwane after the 2016 local government elections, the Democratic Alliance (DA), along with civil rights groups such as AfriForum, had taken 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 had also been fuelled by the City of Tshwane’s proposal that Pretoria, a city within the metropolitan municipality, be renamed 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 places and streets in certain parts of Gauteng that reflects their importance as symbols of identity, political history, power and socio-cultural relations. What also becomes interesting to unpack in this regard is why street renaming, an initiative presented by its proponents as necessary and for the greater good, is seemingly divisive and contested.
Drawing selectively from some renaming episodes in Johannesburg and Tshwane this study attempts to unpack the dynamics, mechanisms and politics of street renaming in Gauteng. The study is primarily concerned with the impetus for street renaming; the logic and reasoning behind it; arguments for and against it; forms of contestation to the initiative; and ways in which divergent views on renaming proposals have been – could be - aligned. Another critical inquiry of this research is exploring the extent to which the street renaming initiative and its intended objectives are liable to being held hostage by party politics. Moreover, given the party-political and administrative changes that have swept through Johannesburg and Tshwane since the 2016 municipal elections, it becomes more crucial to unpack the administrations that have made the renaming initiative a priority as well as those that have de-prioritised it.
Mkhize, Thembani (June 2021). 'What's in a Name? The Politics of Street Renaming in Gauteng Province: Johannesburg and Pretoria/Tshwane', GCRO Brown Bag. 23 June 2021.
Mkhize, Thembani (July 2021). 'The Politics of Street Renaming in Gauteng Province: Johannesburg and Pretoria/Tshwane'. Research Committee 21 Conference 2021. 17 July 2021.
Last updated: 1 November 2022.