Where the streets have new names
Gugulethu roads to ditch the Native Yard apartheid-era references as city finalises proposals
“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.”
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.