The ConCourt and the Afrikaners

John Kane-Berman says diversity requires tolerance, not conformity

Diversity requires tolerance, not conformity

In its recent majority judgement upholding the appeal of the Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality against an interim interdict granted to the Afriforum civil rights group preventing street name changes in Pretoria, the Constitutional Court stated that "all racial groups in this country deserve to have their culture, heritage, history, heroes, and heroines respected and honoured by all".

But it then went on to declare that some of these names were "objectively offensive", and that replacing them with new ones from among the "previously ignored" would "unify the nation". Among the names Tshwane sought to remove from streets in Pretoria, the central city of the Tshwane metropolitan area, were those of Hendrik Verwoerd and Louis Botha, while Nelson Mandela, Ismail Mahomed, Steve Biko, and Solomon Mahlangu would be among the new ones.  

There are no doubt millions of blacks, and many whites, who revile the name of Dr Verwoerd. But there are also likely to be many people who find it deeply offensive to drive along a street named after Mr Mahlangu, who was hanged as an accomplice to the murder of two civilians in 1977. Although the Constitutional Court regarded him as a "freedom fighter", others would describe him as a "terrorist". Even with the passage of time, Mr Mahlangu is no more likely to command "respect and honour" among all than is Dr Verwoerd.

The court pointed out, correctly, that a "very insignificant" number of street names give recognition to the "indigenous people of this country". There is a simple way to rectify this, which is to change the names of streets that are not named after individuals.

Instead, for example, Johannesburg some time ago changed Hendrik Verwoerd to Bram Fischer and D F Malan to Beyers Naude. Whatever one might think of Drs Verwoerd and Malan, removing their names is a slight to those who wish to see them commemorated. It is inconsistent with the court's pronouncement in the Afriforum case that the heroes of all groups are "deserving" of respect "by all". It is more likely to cause resentment among some people of the new names than foster the tolerance required for South Africans of differing viewpoints to continue living in harmony, as they generally do.

Tolerance requires not the replacement of some street names with others, but the addition of new names to those already there. This would be a better way of achieving the objective set out by the court that Pretoria "belongs to all of our people, white and black, united in their diversity". It would also be a means of recognising "previously ignored" heroes of certain sections of the population without denigrating people who belong to the culture and history of other sections.   

Universal honour and respect for political figures representing radically opposed organisations and ideologies is an impossible objective in South Africa, and no doubt elsewhere too. We would be doing well if we successfully pursued a more modest objective, which is to foster as wide a degree of tolerance as possible of the rights of all sections of the population to have those they regard as heroes commemorated by street names. An even better solution, of course, would be to remove all personal names from streets and everything else.               

The court said that nothing which "objectively encourages or seeks to perpetuate the stereotypes, prejudice, or discriminatory practices of the past is to be tolerated". To imply that anyone should wish to perpetuate apartheid is a serious accusation, but the court cited no evidence that this was Afriforum's intention.

The court further criticised Afriforum for making use of the Constitution to "advance illegitimate sectarian interests through legal stratagems". This does not send a reassuring signal to any cultural or other minority seeking to enforce its rights through due process of law. It suggests, on the contrary, that some people might be regarded as less equal than others.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.