Remembering is important

2013-02-14 00:00

NOW work at an interesting intersection of history. Last week, my employer finally shed its European namesake and renamed itself the King Dinuzulu Hospital Complex. An important figure in the South African struggle against colonialism and imperialism, history remembers him as the first king to join the African National Congress, working closely with its first president, Dr John Langalibalele Dube, after whom Longmarket Street in Pietermarizburg is renamed.

He was the last monarch of the Zulu nation to be officially recognised by the British, ruling from1884 until his death, aged 45, in 1913. He was exiled and imprisoned many times. In 1910, Prime Minister Louis Botha granted him an early release, but placed him under house arrest in the Transvaal. Their statues stand alongside each other in Durban, at the corner of Warwick Avenue and Berea Highway (also renamed after Dinuzulu).

No more King George V

The name change was pronounced by Premier Zweli Mkhize in February 2012, and 53 weeks later, the signboards that read “King George V” came crashing down in a red-carpet ceremony full of pomp, dance, songs and food.

People seemed happy to do away with King George V, a colonial narcissist who in 1914 denied an African delegation a request that they get their stolen land back. Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo diplomatically incorporated neighbourhood suggestions for other names. So, the R1,1 billion renovated complex, which includes specialist mental health services, had its tuberculosis treatment centre named after the pioneering Dr David Landua, and the new district hospital wing honours Professor Fatima Meer.

The area in which the complex is situated is itself a kaleidoscope of cultures, overlapping Sydenham, Asherville, Overport, Springfield and Sherwood, and cushioned by Morningside, Westville, and Reservoir Hills. Located in historically Indian and coloured residential areas, the complex is meant to serve a very far-reaching population, going as far as Ntuzuma, KwaMashu and Inanda.

The racial and socioeconomic mix is thus very varied, attracting diverse patients. The name King George V has no ancestral or personal resonance with the people we are serving.

In Mkhize’s address on January 29, attended by Ahmed Kathrada and Dinuzulu’s great-grandson, the current King Goodwill Zwelithini, he remarked that “in the post-colonial dispensation, institutions should [not] honour colonial masters when we have our own heroes who made meaningful contributions for our people”. I agree. However, there are some cautions to heed.

Political branding

Firstly, fairness must prevail. As Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi wittily mentioned, the ANC cannot be selective about who it chooses to remember. Buthelezi was irked that he only found out about the name change the day before, despite him being a direct descendant of Dinuzulu. “Were it not for the king’s command at the 11th hour, I would not have been present as my mother’s father was honoured,” said Buthelezi.

This is, of course, no accident. Renaming is not about balancing history; it’s about political branding. In this case, it backfired slightly because Buthelezi was given a stage in front of a very large audience to chastise the ANC for trying to dominate the historical narrative. The story of our struggle for a free country is not owned by any one organisation, sector or ideology.

Expensive red herrings

Secondly, priorities must prevail. Cheap political points are, in fact, rather expensive. New paraphernalia and media events cost tons of money. On our list of priorities, how does money, time and energy spent renaming buildings and roads take precedence over direct and meaningful service delivery? These red herrings distract us from the sorry excuses for the non-delivery of essential services to those who need it the most.

I am sure, given the choice, patients would opt for more hospital staff, shorter waiting times, and faster service, even if the hospital bears the name of an imperialist. Ideological interventions are significant, certainly, but in our young democracy is it at the expense of practical interventions that are more urgently needed?

Go beyond renaming

Thirdly, truth must prevail. If there is a genuine desire on the part of the government to help South Africans reclaim their sense of identity, initiatives must go beyond renaming, which, for most ordinary people, is just an inconvenient and bothersome task of changing addresses and documents, complicates the giving of directions, and creates an emotional loss of identity linked to the places one has grown accustomed to.

In recognising where we’ve come from and where we hope to advance, simply erasing the names of people we dislike does not automatically change the history of our country. The old truism that history depends on who writes it, is apt.

Suppressing history

We need to apply our minds to find more intelligent and creative ways of reclaiming our grand narratives, while balancing the hard facts of emerging from an oppressed society, shaped and contoured in endless ways by the apparent villains of the story.

Renaming is important, but so is remembering. Simply suppressing the dark aspects of history will only impede Steve Biko’s goal of mental liberation.

While I am happy to change my letterhead to King Dinuzulu and honour a person who played a part in the freedoms I enjoy, I am also uncomfortable with airbrushing King George V out of the story, because whether I like it or not, the story will be incomplete without him, even if he was a colonial bastard.

• Suntosh R. Pillay is a clinical psychologist at a public hospital in Durban. He writes independently on a variety of social issues.

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