Friday, November 27, 2015 - 07:01

According to members of the Gandhi Mahlangu branch of the ANC, which covers Pageview/Vrededorp in Johannesburg, the branch has been discussing a proposal to re-name a street in the historic locality.

Krause Street, one of only two streets in the locality that is non-ordinal number named, is the target of the proposal presently. The other street with a name is De La Rey Street. These streets border Pageview to the west and east respectively. Every other street has a numbered name, running parallel, north to south, from 11th Street to 26th Street. Each connects with Krause and De La Rey streets respectively at either end. Krause Street and De La Rey Street frame this lattice and define the compact space that is Pageview, otherwise fondly known as Fietas.

Until its eventual destruction by the Group Areas Act in the mid-1970s, Fietas was a colourful and vibrant community, profoundly integrated in terms of its people, space and use. African, Indian, Coloured, Malay and Chinese people, of Hindu, Christian, Muslim and indigenous African faiths, workers and professionals, shopkeepers, artisans, rich and poor, all lived together cheek by jowl. Fietas was said to lack for nothing on its doorsteps - or stoep-steps rather. It boasted mosques, churches, bioscopes and shebeens, schools, sports grounds, corner cafes, dance halls and bazaars. And it permeated community caring and sharing of a time less fractured by class.

 

Poster designed by Franco Frescura during the battle to save Pageview

 

It is remarkable that up till today, close on 40 years since the bulldozers rolled in to physically demolish the locality following the forced removal and separation of its residents, it still endures so powerfully in the hearts, minds and souls of its former residents.  

For the historical residents of Fietas - now living worlds apart in Eldorado Park, Lenasia, Orlando, Meadowlands and the like - and interestingly their descendent generations too, Fietas lives on as a shared and deeply meaningful reference of history, heritage, identity and emotional wholeness. This is true of all of Fietas, in all its diversity and contradiction, including Krause Street and De La Rey Street.

On Facebook there is a Fietas group which is revealing of the ways in which the life histories, social dynamics, and identities of individuals and groups are inextricably bound with and referenced by the streets of the place. Suraya Khan’s introductory post provides a good example:  “I am Suraya Khan, daughter of Perona (Achmat) Khan and Fatima (Tammy) Kirsten of 16th and then I believe 23rd Street. I was also a student at the Girls' school on 17th and Krause Street - my father was Kay's Fashions on 14th Street. I was born and raised on 14th Street!”

The people of Fietas are known by their streets, and will be for generations to come. Take away the names of these streets, from a community that was forcibly uprooted and scattered, its members lost to one another by the rupture of history and dislocation to barren beginnings, then their still deeply embedded anchors will come adrift, reinforcing an alienation that has been a consequence of the Group Areas Act.

 

Plaque commemorating Fietas (The Heritage Portal)

 

It did not then figure in the consciousness that Krause Street was named after a city councillor, in the early 1900s, or De La Rey Street after the famous Boer general in 1943. Nay, for the people of Fietas, Krause Street meant fish and chips at Ajmari’s; the “Girls School” and the “coloured school”; access to Queenspark Grounds, past the hang out of the Kajala Boys gang, and where “Lucky Lips” got her name for  invading the field of play to hug and kiss every player who scored a goal.

De La Rey Street, jumping blocks created by the intersecting number-named streets, was for its entire length a line of shops: Foxy’s Café and Fishy the Greek shop, where a challenging game of pinball could be had; Lalla’s Shoe Shop for Bata Toughees at the start of every school year; and Smiling Stores for Eid clothes. De La Rey Street, like the infamous 11th Street, was also an official divide between the Black and white people of Vrededorp, buttressing its historical significance.

This is not the stuff merely of a romantic walk down memory lane. Fietas is instructive in its offerings to concepts of “social cohesion”, a national imperative of the times (that current struggles too need to acknowledge). While challenged by experiences of racial, class, religious and ethnic tensions and divides, the overwhelming narrative of Fietas proclaims it to have been richly integrated, to the point of spawning a fused local identity, and including too in terms of its multi residential, commercial, social and recreational nature; its local economy; and in an inadvertent spatial design that encouraged community bonding. And in a time particularly of increased religious fundamentalism and polarisation, Fietas stands as a powerful bulwark to this as being outside of known and cherished historical experience.

It is questionable whether veneration of General J.H de la Rey was top of mind for the white Afrikaner residents of Vrededorp in their interaction with De La Rey Street. The intent however was subverted by the nature of the street itself and the meaning and association the Black residents of Fietas infused it with.

This is something that zealous re-name proponents should recognise for a more nuanced and dynamic understanding of historical names. Fort Hare for example was originally a British fort in the wars between the British and Xhosa in the 1900s. As the name of the university that resulted from missionary efforts at the beginning of the 20th century, it is indelibly associated with a progressive heritage of its students who forged anti-colonial movements, including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and Robert Mugabe.

“Fietas” itself, the evocative nick-name of the locality, may be a signifier that too was subverted in its intent. There is no definitive account of how this Black section of Vrededorp, later renamed but not entirely embraced as Pageview, got its nickname. One account is that it may have been a slang reference by Afrikaner residents, who were designated to live north of 11th Street and east of De La Rey Street, for that which is “disagreeable” or “unpleasant”.

Indeed Fietas may be described to have been an inner city slum. Its generally poor, boisterous multitudes crowded small decrepit homes and backyards, interspersed with shebeens that spilled drunken patrons onto dirty narrow streets. However it was a dynamic locality of residence, recreation, trade, entertainment and diverse cultural observance and ceremony. If “Fietas” was a term of disparagement, then the people of Fietas subverted it to be a universal and lasting identity of positive experience and endearment. The reverse may unfortunately come to hold true for the names of the struggle heroes after whom horridly dysfunctional state institutions are named.

Goodness knows there are names that need to be changed, because they are patently undeserving, commemorative of the worst of personalities, unrepresentative, inaccurate, or manifestly offensive. Ironically, both Krause Street and De La Rey Street are names changed from previous names considered inappropriate: Krause Street from Locatie Street, and De La Rey Street from Kaffer Straat. But the present bid to change street names in Fietas is arbitrary, lacks appreciation of their lived meaning and significance, and would obliterate, for alternatives that are decidedly lacking, a unique historical example of something that has shared resonance for both Black and white people. Life is complex, and the landscape of our public representations would do best to allow for and be true to that.  

Feizel Mamdoo is a filmmaker and heritage, arts and culture worker. He was born in Fietas and is a founder of the heritage reclamation organisation, The Fietas Festival.

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