Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Street Renaming, Symbolic Capital, and Resistance in Durban, South Africa

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Street Renaming, Symbolic Capital, and Resistance in Durban, South Africa

Article excerpt

Abstract. In early 2007 the African National Congress majority within the local government authority of Durban, South Africa, approved two phases of a street renaming process, which culminated in the renaming of over one hundred prominent streets after various anticolonial and antiapartheid 'struggle heroes'. The process led to an unprecedented degree of public attention and debate, expressed through a range of arguments and symbolic gestures, and local state representatives responded by casting this opposition in terms of 'countertransformation'. This paper examines the Durban case with a critical analytical perspective that sees acts of place naming through the heuristic frames of 'text', 'arena', and 'performance', drawing attention to the complex spatial and material dynamics that attend acts of symbolic transformation and resistance. It contributes to theoretical discussions surrounding "naming as symbolic resistance", by arguing that a performative conception of symbolic capital and resistance may aid our understanding of naming processes in contested memorial landscapes.

Keywords: street renaming, symbolic capital, symbolic politics, resistance, Durban, South Africa

1 Introduction

Early on a humid South African summer morning in mid-January 2009, in the affluent suburb of Durban North, the Mayor of Durban, Obed Miaba, wearing casual clothes, climbed a short ladder, gripped a detergent-soaked brush, and began to clean the crude spray-paint from the obscured sign of Dr Kenneth Kaunda Road. Little over five months previously the new metallic sign, then gleaming proudly in commemoration of Zambia's famous independence leader and long-time president, had been erected to mark the official renaming of Northway Road. Present with the mayor to launch eThekwini Municipality's hands-on "clean-up campaign" of defaced signs--part of "an ongoing process" designed to "rid the city of negative sentiments from citizens who are not embracing change"--was City Manager Michael Sutcliffe, as well as an illustrious collection of influential local African National Congress (ANC) members and councillors (eThekwini Online 2009a). The extent of street sign vandalism in Durban, especially in middle-income suburban areas, had been alarming since the erection of new signs for ninety-nine renamed roads in August 2008. Miaba explained,

"What we are seeing [the defacing of the new street names] is precisely the effects of the fact that South Africans have not been made to integrate and reconcile properly--and have not begun to understand their continent and its leaders, including the role the African continent played in our freedom" (eThekwini Online 2009b, additions in original).

The mayor proceeded to issue various punitive threats at the anonymous, nocturnal spray painters:

"If the culprits are caught, they will be forced to face the law and they will be prosecuted accordingly. I do not understand why people cannot accept change" (Daily News 2009).

Some passersby indicated their support for the mayor's effort; others reportedly "showed signs of disapproval" (eThekwini Online 2009b). A local resident, present at the event, described sign vandalism as "disgusting" and "costly"--the expressions of obscure individuals bent on "fighting change". Nevertheless, she suggested that "[t]he street names will be vandalised again overnight" (Daily News 2009). A local representative of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the ANC's main political opposition in Durban, rejected the campaign launch as a "cheap publicity stunt", stating "the ANC should know that you can never force unpopular changes and decisions on communities which have rejected them" (Daily News 2009).

The public performance of what the street renaming process officially meant, in contrast to the actual utterances of public opponents, signals some of the salient aspects of the furiously confrontational discourse that came to surround the Durban street renaming project, which took place from 2007 to 2008--albeit with plans stretching back at least to 1999. …

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