The story goes that former president Thabo Mbeki was once fond of talking long walks across the country to acquaint himself with what he might have missed during his years in exile.
However, while enjoying the many new discoveries he made on foot, something perplexed him greatly. Why were so many of the places he travelled through still named after people who once chased black people off their own land?
There’s another story on the same lines, about Thokozani Mtshali, whose life experience tells the story of him being born on a farm called Skuilplaas, near Amersfoort; growing up in Driefontein near Piet Retief; and being schooled in Tweefontein near Bronkhorstspruit.
When the family moved to Joburg, they lived in the Vosloorus township and later in Cape Town, he resided in a suburb called Ruyterwacht.
I picked up the precious anecdotes from Elwyn Jenkins’s entertaining book, Falling Into Place - The story of modern South African place names, which details how streets, towns, suburbs, post offices and airports came to be named and, in many instances, renamed after democracy.
When it came to changing street names, it seems some cities, realising the sensitivities involved, were far more consultative in their approach.
Unlike Durban where things got messy because of the arrogance of certain municipal leaders who seemed to rush into the process with almost unholy haste.
And when the new street signs did go up, some were defaced and vandalised by people opposed to the municipality’s handling of the issue.
They weren’t opposed to the principle of name changes, but detested the manner in which it had been implemented without meaningful consultation.
With the new street names a reality, I’ve made it my business to find out more about the roles played by many of the people who have thoroughfares named after them, so that when I drive through Moses Kotane, Sandile Thusi and Felix Dlamini roads, their names resonate with me. I’m more aware of the sterling roles they played in the Struggle for our liberation.
Much of the brouhaha in 2007 could have been avoided had the municipal authorities not been so arrogant.
A comprehensive programme of education and consultation would have won far greater consensus and acceptance for the process.
Take the recent decision to name a walkway in the CBD after the much-loved social justice activist, Paddy Kearney, who died a year ago. It enjoyed unanimous approval across the city because leaders across party lines talked to one another in candid and non-partisan language.
Its location, in downtown Durban, could not have been more fitting - in the heart of a complex where he was involved in advocating social cohesion; close to the Denis Hurley Centre where he cared for the homeless and down-trodden; and at the confluence of several places of worship which symbolised Paddy’s commitment to religious tolerance.