The road to reconciliation – Helen Zille

DA leader explains her party’s position on the renaming of places and streets.

DA Leader: Helen Zille.

There were several unforgettable moments, in the early years of South Africa’s transition to democracy, that illustrated Nelson Mandela’s masterly use of symbolism to advance reconciliation in our country. His capacity and skill in bringing South Africans together, after a history of bitter conflict, is the primary reason the former President established himself in the front rank of the world’s greatest statesmen.

A number of these moments were immortalised in the film Invictus, which tells the story of how the President united the nation behind the Springbok rugby team that went on, against all odds, to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The most famous moment of “Madiba Magic” occurred when the President walked onto the field in the No 6 Skipper’s jersey to show his support for Francois Pienaar’s team.

But for me, his leadership was best illustrated in another, preceding scene in the film. Re-wind to the meeting of the South African National Sports Council where an important decision had just been taken. The Council has unanimously resolved to change the name and emblem of Springbok rugby to obliterate the painful reminder of the apartheid past. Flushed with a sense of their own power, the Council is listening to a choir when Mandela interrupts their celebration with words they did not expect to hear. A silence descends on the room. Disbelief and incomprehension reflect on their faces, as Mandela shows why his name is synonymous with leadership. His words, as they are captured in the film script, are worth quoting:

“Brothers, sisters, comrades
I am here because I believe you have made a decision with insufficient information and foresight.
I am aware of your earlier vote.
I am aware that it was unanimous.
Nonetheless, I believe we should restore the Springboks.
Restore their name, their emblem and their colours immediately.
Let me tell you why……”

He then goes on to explain how, during his 27 years in prison on Robben Island, he worked hard to understand his jailers, their language Afrikaans, their history and their culture. Since that time, says Mandela, the ANC had prevailed against their “enemy”, winning power in an election. Then he continues…..

“Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner.
They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy.
And they treasure Springbok rugby.
If we take that away, we lose them.
We prove that we are what they feared we would be.
We have to be better than that.
We have to surprise them with the compassion, with restraint and with generosity.
I know all the things they denied us.
But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge.
This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us……..”

After a few moments of hostile silence, he wins enough support to reverse the decision. And the rest (as they say) is history.

It was this quality of courageous, counter-intuitive leadership, that made Mandela the hero of all South Africans who understand that our only chance of success is to become one nation, building a shared future, with fair opportunities for all.

But his gestures of magnanimity also carried an inherent risk. Some South Africans began to equate reconciliation with the preservation of the status quo, conveniently exempting themselves from the challenge of reciprocal generosity.

This mind-set still exists in some quarters. A topical example involves the naming of streets and places in towns and cities across South Africa.

The DA takes the following approach: We believe that the names of places and streets in towns and cities should reflect all its residents’ histories and heroes. As Mandela said, names and symbols should not be the terrain of “petty revenge” or defensiveness. We must acknowledge our discriminatory and unjust past, and genuinely seek to develop inclusive cities, where all feel welcome.

In this respect, I was inspired by a story I heard during my discussion with the DA’s Free State Executive Committee this weekend. When faced with the ANC provincial government’s proposal to change Eeufees Ave into Kenneth Kaunda Ave in the Mangaung municipality, the DA-dominated ward committee made a counter-proposal. They said they would prefer to re-name the street after Winkie Direko, the late former Free State Premier, who had once lived in the street and had earned respect across party lines. It is this common-sense approach, which seems to characterise the Free State, that has earned that province a reputation for nation-building and reconciliation like no other.

Sadly, at the other extreme, was the ANC in eThekwini (Durban), where the ANC forced blanket name changes onto every highway and by-way to show that they were now in charge and would re-write history. One form of exclusion merely replaced another. Inevitably, resentment and polarisation grew. It got to a point so absurd that the ANC vetoed a statue of an elephant in case voters associated it with the Inkatha Freedom Party! Small wonder that this Province has had some of the worst inter-party violence in South Africa’s history.

We could all do well to learn from these opposite examples. As “street name” controversies escalate in towns and cities across the province, we can approach them either as an opportunity to promote reconciliation – or division. For the millions of South Africans who prefer the former option, it makes sense for the various parties to begin by drawing up broad principles they can all support before negotiating the “nitty gritty” of individual name changes. Here is a “road map” to follow, derived from the starting premise that the names of streets and places should promote nation-building, not undermine it.

1. All parties acknowledge the need for place and street names to be inclusive and celebrate the history and heroes of all communities.

2. The names of streets and places should aim to reconcile and unite, rather than divide. This requires compromises all round.

3. Former SA Presidents or Prime Ministers are entitled to retain one street (but not necessarily more) that is named after them in a town.

4. Streets and places should not be named after living politicians (with the exception of Nelson Mandela who symbolised the drive towards reconciliation).

5. First seek to “name” before “re-naming”. There are a surprising number of places and streets that do not have names.

6. It is easier and more desirable to change names that do not stir intense emotions. For example, it is easier to change names linked to points of the compass (e.g. Eastern Boulevard) than it is to change names that are linked to people (e.g. Jip de Jager Drive), if very few people know who Prof. de Jager is. The locals do, and they like him.

7. It is easier to name or re-name major highways and thoroughfares than it is to rename smaller streets on which homes and business base their addresses.

8. Seek consensus on names that are deemed offensive (e.g. “Stinkwater” or “Native Yard”), and agree to change those as a matter of urgency.

9. Ensure a participative process, that includes that all political, cultural and other major traditions.

10. Name changes can occur sequentially, over time. They can be a process, celebrated one by one, rather than a “big bang” event.

Of course, it is easier to promote this kind of approach where the DA is in government. Yet even in Cape Town we made several false starts and generated serious controversies over this most sensitive of symbolic issues. Eventually, after several years of discussion, the process is rolling out under Mayor Patricia de Lille with significant success at achieving reconciliation. Eastern Boulevard has been renamed “Nelson Mandela Boulevard”. Western Boulevard is now called “Helen Suzman Boulevard”. As one colleague observed: you enter the City Centre on a highway named after a black man and it becomes a street named after a white woman”.

Why have things gone so wrong in so many other cities? Why are there “No More Mandelas”? Why is it that most current ANC leaders seek to entrench division rather than promote reconciliation? The answer is that this formula suits them well. All they have to do to keep winning elections, is to divide people on the basis of race, and keep them hating each other. It is the easiest recipe in politics for short-term power, and long-term disaster. And, as Nelson Mandela said: “We have to be better than that”. That is the most difficult challenge of politics.

This challenge has now fallen to the DA. It is, of course, much easier to show the way where we are in government. But we can do so in opposition too. We show the way by setting out how things could be done differently. And offering South Africans an alternative vision of a shared future. I am more and more confident each day that this vision will win out before this decade ends.

Sincerely yours

Helen Zille

This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today, the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.


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