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William Nicol Drive, a main thoroughfare through suburban Johannesburg, should have had its name changed long ago. Nicol was, after all, a key figure in the Broederbond. It’s incredible that we still have a major road named after John Voster, a Nazi sympathiser. 

In Durban the road name changes implemented some years back were not about removing the names of apartheid or colonial figures. They were largely about inserting the names of ANC figures on key roads in high-status areas. There is clearly a problem with a political party using its power to change names to advance its own standing. 

It’s equally clear that as the ANC loses support due to corruption and mismanagement destroying more institutions and wrecking the economy it finds it rather useful to associate itself with the ANC of the past to legitimise what has become a predatory organisation in the present. There is considerable opportunism at play.

The names of roads, airports and the like should be able to endure for generations, if not permanently. But no political party endures forever, and when the ANC is voted out, whether in 2024’s election or the next, there will be considerable popular resentment at its attempt to monopolise public memory through self-interested naming practices. 

Already people are asking why Ridge Road in Durban was renamed Peter Mokaba Road, given the very real issues with Mokaba, including academic and author Jacob Dlamini revealing that Mokaba was at one time a spy for the apartheid regime. It will be no surprise if some years down the line Peter Mokaba Road is renamed again. 

The same fate is likely to befall Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Drive, the new name for William Nicol Drive. When the ANC has been out of power for a while and is remembered as much for the damage its corruption and mismanagement caused to SA as for its pre-democracy period, there will be general resentment against its attempt to conflate itself with the country.

Left: William Nicol. Right: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Picture: SUPPLIED
Left: William Nicol. Right: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Picture: SUPPLIED

There will also be disgust at the ANC’s disregard for human life, whether the massacre at Marikana, continuing assassinations of shack dweller and anti-mining activists, the Life Esidimeni outrage, murders by the police and army during the Covid-19 lockdown or the Marshalltown fire. 

The ANC will also be held accountable for the appalling level of violence under its governance, including terrible rates of gender-based violence and murder. There is also likely to be a less rosy recollection of the ANC’s
pre-democratic history as people search for an explanation for the corruption and violent oppression of the present. 

A more critical eye will also be cast on the corruption and violence in the ANC in exile. Madikizela-Mandela will not be spared. In recent years, collective memory of her has become increasingly fact free and ahistorical. This escalated dramatically during the student rebellion in 2015.

Madikizela-Mandela’s courage and the terrible suffering inflicted on her by the apartheid regime are rightly recognised and must never be forgotten. But so too must we never forget that while she suffered appalling abuse, she later became an abuser.

This trajectory is dealt with exemplary care and nuance in Jonny Steinberg’s magnificent new book, Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage. Steinberg’s book, written with empathy and wisdom, is a model of how to understand that a person can have suffered abuse and become an abuser while being deeply sympathetic to the former and not shying away from the latter.

To leave either part of this trajectory out of the manner in which Madikizela-Mandela is remembered is morally and empirically unacceptable. The full story must be told. This means we must reckon with Madikizela-Mandela and the thugs (The Mandela United Football Club) she surrounded herself with in the 1980s having committed serious abuses.

When she is heralded as a feminist hero, though the “football club” became notorious for rape, we are in the realm of fact-free wish fulfilment rather than objective history. 

For a country wracked by violence, some of it perpetrated directly by the ANC, it is not acceptable to celebrate uncritically a figure who turned from suffering abuse to perpetrating it. Our politics is deeply morally impoverished if it sees fit to affirm militant opposition to white supremacy — something that must be affirmed — while simultaneously accepting that black lives were treated as disposable. 

When we continue to treat the black lives ended or damaged during the reign of terror by the “football club” that surrounded Madikizela-Mandela as disposable we are complicit in the morally debased politics that devalues human life, which did not come to an end in 1994.

The only way to begin to resolve the endemic violence that so scars our society is to begin to accept that no human life is disposable. The ANC has long had a pass on its contempt for human life because it was for so long on the right side of history, often courageously so. 

But the world of human affairs is always complex. Individuals, organisations and countries are often exemplary in one respect and atrocious in another. Maturity and seriousness about empirical facts and morality all require that we take contradictions and complexity seriously. To fail to do so leaves us in the realm of children’s stories in which heroes are all good and entirely without contradictions or complexity. 

To comprehend the world in a mature way we must think beyond simplistic categories and understand, for instance, that Zanu-PF fought settler colonialism and became an oppressive force, and that US society is clearly remarkable in some respects but that its war on Iraq left more than
1-million dead.

Former Financial Mail editor Barney Mthombothi recently argued in the Sunday Times that it would have been more appropriate to rename William Nicol Drive after one of Madikizela-Mandela’s victims, Stompie Seipei. In 2023 there’s still enough romance about the ANC, still enough wilful blindness about its serious abuses and failures, for this to be a marginal view. But once the ANC has been out of power for 20 years, as it surely will be before too long, there will have been a far greater reckoning with the appalling parts of its legacy, and the idea of a road named after someone who became so entangled with abuses committed in the name of the struggle will no longer be acceptable. 

The road will have to be renamed again. Stompie Seipei may not be a bad option to consider as we confront the fact that the ANC went from being a liberation movement that suffered terrible abuses during the struggle to itself become an abusive force in society.

• Dr Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socioeconomic Research Institute and postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

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