Where the streets have new names

Gugulethu roads to ditch the Na­tive Yard apartheid-era ref­er­ences as city fi­nalises pro­pos­als

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NEWS - JAN CRONJE

“FROM young we had known that ‘ NY’ was ‘ Na­tive Yard’. And that alone made us want to re­sist the name,” Moeketsi Nt­sane ex­plains.

The 58-year-old parish­ioner of St Gabriel Catholic Church in Gugulethu – known lo­cally as “eRoma” – was speak­ing from the plainly fur­nished of­fice of Fa­ther Em­manuel Sil­jeur.

Sil­jeur, three years into a six-year term at the church, had in­vited Nt­sane to talk about the church’s his­tory af­ter the City of Cape Town an­nounced re­cently that NY 5, the street that runs past the church, would be re­named St Gabriel Street.

It is one of 90 Gugulethu street names that will be changed, af­ter the city re­ceived 4 500 sug­ges­tions from Gugulethu res­i­dents.

“St Gabriel Catholic Church is com­pa­ra­ble to Regina Mundi in Soweto which, dur­ing the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle in 1976, served as a refuge,” a panel of ex­perts that con­sid­ered the sug­ges­tions said.

The panel chose the 90 they be­lieved were the best, and res­i­dents then voted in agree­ment or dis­agree­ment with the pro­pos­als.

St Gabriel was founded in 1966, at a time when there were few churches in the area, said Nt­sane. Four years ear­lier, the Angli­can church of St Mary Mag­da­lene had been built about 500m away.

Nt­sane, a for­mer em­ployee of the South African Coun­cil of Churches, said both churches be­came refuges for ac­tivists dur­ing apartheid, and served as meet­ing places for ev­ery­one from trade unions to stu­dents.

“I met Biko in that room there in 1975,” Nt­sane said, ges­tur­ing to a room now used as a re­cep­tion area.

“He had come to the church with some fel­lows from Som­er­set West and Mitchells Plain.

“They had come be­cause they had been hear­ing of ac­tiv­i­ties of the youth around here.”

Nt­sane said that from the 1960s on­wards churches, and soc­cer clubs were cho­sen meet­ing points in town­ships be­cause large bod­ies of peo­ple could as­sem­ble there.

“Take Os­car Mpetha of the Food and Can­ning Work­ers’ Union,” he said. “If he wanted to speak to his peo­ple, they would meet here. When the stu­dents of 1976 were hav­ing a meet­ing, they would use this venue here. All th­ese move­ments found com­fort here.”

Strug­gle ac­tivists like Christ­mas Tinto and Zoli Malindi also used to meet at the church, he said. Tinto and Malindi will have Gugulethu streets named af­ter them too.

UCT his­to­rian Sean Field said Gugulethu was ini­tially the western part of the older Nyanga town­ship. It was later split in two. The east­ern part be­came the cur­rent Nyanga, and west Nyanga be­came Gugulethu.

His col­league Vi­vian Bick­ford-Smith said “NY” was most prob­a­bly an ab­bre­vi­a­tion for Nyanga, and never meant to stand for “Na­tive Yard”.

“Some in­hab­i­tants and be­yond could gen­uinely have come to be­lieve that NY stood for Na­tive Yard, as clearly some still do to­day,” he said.

“Any­way, giv­ing roads proper and mean­ing­ful names could only be a good thing.”

This view is echoed by mayco mem­ber for trans­port Brett Her­ron, who re­ferred to NY as an apartheid-era relic in a re­cent speech.

“Re­gard­less of what ‘ NY’ stood for, the com­mu­nity of Gugulethu will now have names for their streets and pub­lic places that res­onate,” he said.

St Gabriel pri­est Fa­ther Dick O’Rior­dan, from Ire­land, was also in­volved in the strug­gle against apartheid, Nt­sane said.

An ar­ti­cle in the Catholic Her­ald news­pa­per from 1978 said: “Dur­ing the last year, he was fined and given a sus­pended prison sen­tence for ‘ pro­duc­ing, dis­tribut­ing and pos­sess­ing banned pam­phlets’, and fined again for at­tend­ing a me­mo­rial ser­vice for those killed in the Nyanga Town­ship ri­ots.”

O’Rior­dan was later ar­rested, and his per­mit to work in South Africa can­celled. He had been part of the Min­is­ters’ Fra­ter­nal, an in­ter­de­nom­i­na­tional body of church lead­ers.

“When you had deaths, like those of 1976 stu­dents, you would have the Min­is­ters’ Fra­ter­nal run­ning the fu­ner­als,” Nt­sane ex­plained.

They were also in­volved in protests against evic­tions from Mod­der­dam and Cross­roads.

“One day we went to protest with Fa­ther Dick and I re­mem- im­me­di­ately do in­ves­ti­ga­tions within the church.”

Nt­sane walks to the church it­self. It is large and spa­cious. On the wall is a paint­ing of the An­gel Gabriel.

“I think we have a huge his­tory if we talk about ‘eRoma’,” said No­ma­linde Mvambi,

When the stu­dents of 1976 were hav­ing a meet­ing, they would use this venue here

ber we met one of our parish­ioners who was a po­lice­man. We were right where he was, you see. He got so em­bar­rassed he didn’t ex­pect us to be there,” Nt­sane said.

Mean­while the church youth, said Nt­sane, were on the look­out for gov­ern­ment spies.

“Within our church com­mu­nity, we had peo­ple who were Spe­cial Branch,” he said.

“They would in­ter­view a num­ber of peo­ple. When they saw un­known faces they would stand­ing in front of three large marim­bas. The 74- year- old helped in­tro­duce marim­bas to the church for use in ser­vices.

She said this only hap­pened af­ter ini­tial re­sis­tance from church lead­ers, who feared the in­stru­ments would bring the “sounds of the bush” to the hal­lowed space. But they were won over when they saw how pop­u­lar they were and what beau­ti­ful mu­sic they made.

But choir prac­tice, which in­volved groups of peo­ple meet­ing, was dan­ger­ous. It aroused the sus­pi­cions of the apartheid po­lice.

“We used to lock our­selves in­side this small room,” she said, point­ing at a door. “Be­cause the po­lice were go­ing around look­ing for young peo­ple, so we had to hide when we were play­ing the marim­bas.”

As he lis­tened to Mvambi play the marimba, Nt­sane talked about the “NY” re­nam­ings.

“I would say the re­nam­ing im­pacts on the dig­nity of the peo­ple to be re­stored,” he said.

“I would say most of the names are good. Most of the names now mean some­thing.”

Af­ter­wards, Fa­ther Sil­jeur walked to the Catholic grave­yard that stretches along NY 5.

When ac­tivists were killed by apartheid se­cu­rity forces, the church would of­ten of­fer to bury them there.

“I like com­ing here,” he said. “It’s peace­ful.”

jan.cronje@inl.co.za

PIC­TURE: THOMAS HOLDER

STAND­ING TALL: Fa­ther Em­manuel Sil­jeur stands in front of the al­tar of St Gabriel Church in Gugulethu. The City of Cape Town is chang­ing the name of NY 5 to St Gabriel Street to hon­our the church’s role in the fight against apartheid.

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