Durban backs down from plan to rename 'red-light' street after Gandhi

The fashion in South Africa is to rename streets, cities and towns after famous historical figures, but Durban city authorities may regret their decision to honour the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.

The fashion in South Africa is to rename streets, cities and towns after famous historical figures, but Durban city authorities may regret their decision to honour the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.

In an effort to please the city's 1.5m residents of Indian descent, councillors have just renamed a road after the hero of India's struggle for independence.

But when it was discovered that the choice of street, Point Road, is notorious for drug dealing, prostitution, crime and other vice, the result was a storm of protest which has yet to abate.

"This is the greatest insult to be ever bestowed on an important historical figure," said Randish Patel, a Durban businessman who is one of the leaders of the backlash.

"It is as good as branding Gandhi a criminal. They should have renamed the whole city 'Gandhi City' instead of electing to abuse his name on a street prominent for everything that Gandhi would have opposed".

The Gandhi affair is particularly unfortunate, given the noble motives behind the move. South Africa has embarked on an exercise to rename streets and places to assert the dominance of blacks who took power after 50 years of institutionalised racism.

A decade after apartheid was dismantled, many historical landmarks still bear the names of people such as Hendrik Verwoerd and D F Malan, the founders of apartheid. As, gradually, the names of more and more figures of the anti-apartheid struggle appear on street corners, the idea of renaming Point Road was partly an attempt to include the country's Indian community in the transformation.

Gandhi spent several years in Durban in the early 1900s and his descendants still live in the city.

A torrent of suggestions for a new location are now being hotly debated. The city fathers will not heed Mr Patel and other locals' solution to rename the entire city after Gandhi, and the original renaming proposal has been sent back to the municipality's non-sexism and non-racism subcommittee. In all, nine alternative streets are being considered and Grey Street, the area the Indian community was restricted to during apartheid, is a possible contender.

As the debate rages, irate residents are jamming the switchboards of local radio stations and newspapers to make their feelings known.

The president of the Hindu organisation Maha Sabha, Ashwin Trikamjee, said he was pleased the council had at last decided to address the concerns raised by the public.

A spokesman for the council said: "It's unfortunate that some people felt that this particular street was not honourable enough. Their concerns have been noted."

But after weeks of debate, some of Durban's citizens are now arguing that the lesson of the Gandhi street affair is that name-changing, which came into vogue with the end of apartheid, simply isn't worth the trouble.

One Indian resident, apparently tired of the whole saga, said simply: "After all the name-changes will the municipality give us rebates to change the addresses on all our documents and to buy maps of our brave new world?"

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