In Africa the Road to Renaming Does Not Run Smooth

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DURBAN, South Africa: None of South Africa’s big cities are so redolent of colonialism as this old seaport, namesake of a British major general and headquarters, in the early 1800s, of a British colony at Africa’s southern tip. Durban’s baroque city hall is said to be a clone of Belfast’s. From Brighton Beach to Victoria Market, allusions to colonial dominance are inescapable.

So one could hardly blame Durban’s thoroughly postcolonial leaders for wanting to redress this imbalance, and give some of the area’s byways and landmarks names honoring the architects of democratic South Africa. And perhaps nobody would have, had matters stopped there.

But they did not. And so the renaming of Durban’s landmarks has become a political brouhaha of the first order, and an object lesson in the pitfalls of building South African democracy.

On May 1, at least 6,000 marchers paraded through the city’s downtown, protesting local proposals to bestow new names on as many as 180 major streets and buildings. Black and white, stick-wielding and peaceful, the demonstrators massed at city hall to complain — not about the idea of renaming landmarks, but about the new names themselves.

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