Updating signs of South Africa's troubled past

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Hundreds of thousands of soccer fans are heading to South Africa for the World Cup. Once there, they'll have to find their way to stadiums in the nation's nine host cities. There could be problems with many streets getting new names, as apartheid era symbols are replaced. Kyle G. Brown reports.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. The World Cup begins Friday in South Africa. Up to 370,000 soccer fans from around the world are heading there. Once they arrive they'll have to find their way to the stadiums in the nine host cities. And that won't be as easy as picking up a map and following the route. That's because many South African street names have changed and it's taking time to update the maps. There's another problem; Kyle G. Brown reports that the name changes themselves are taking time because not everyone is on board with them.

ROB FRY: These signs that you see lying around here, these blue and white signs are all overhead signs. They go up above the freeway.

KYLE G. BROWN: Rob Fry is stepping up production at Le-Nash signs, a sprawling factory just outside Johannesburg. He's had to hire more staff and now keeps the factory going 24 hours a day, six days a week.

FRY: Right now we're under quite a lot of pressure to complete all of the overhead signage for the Gauteng Highway improvement project just prior to the World Cup. There's only a few days left.

BROWN: It's all to meet a rising demand for road signs in time for The World Cup. And it's also fueled by the drive to replace the names of streets and landmarks dating back to the colonial and apartheid periods.

FRY: It has been quite a big growth industry in name changes. And so each area has come forth and eventually had their name changes approved and so that's ongoing business and it will continue to be.

BROWN: With the end of white minority rule in 1994, Afrikaans and European names have been increasingly replaced with African ones. That year, Jan Smuts Airport became Johannesburg International and then, OR Thambo, after the former head of the African National Congress. National Defense Headquarters went from Voortrekkerhootge to Thaba-Tshwane. Now more streets are being renamed too. Map makers and locals are finding it hard to keep up. Fanie Terblanche is Chairman of the Federation of South African Tourist Guide Associations.

FANIE TERBLANCHE: It is a difficulty if you drive around and you're looking for a place, you're looking for an address, and all of a sudden you look up and there you see a name that you don't know.

BROWN: He's advising World Cup visitors to rely on GPS rather than street maps. So far, more than 120 towns, rivers and dams have been renamed along with hundreds of streets across the country. That's a tiny proportion of the country's total number of place names. For Khorombi Dau, too many reminders of apartheid remain.

KHOROMBI DAU: And you feel such a frustration.

BROWN: He's an official with the City of Tshwane, where the capital Pretoria is located.

DAU: There are others whose names are they? Those names should be removed. Because they belong to a dark part of history.

BROWN: But those names won't be removed without a fight. In 2008 public debates over new names in Pretoria ended in gridlock. Young Africano men sang racist songs and prevented others from speaking.

ANTON JANSEN: I was disgusted that people from my culture, would act like this.

BROWN: Anton Jansen advises the city of Tshwane's Public Place and Street Names Committee. He says it wasn't just the Afrikaner community shouting down proposed name changes. Later on, members of the ANC did the same thing.

JANSEN: They called in all the youth leagues and they sat the whole auditorium full. And as soon as a white man stood up, waaahhh! We didn't have a chance to say a word. And there were intellectuals there, academics wanted to put their case. So it was chaos.

BROWN: But the push for new names is about more than politics.

JANSEN: We are in one of the extensions of Mamelodi.

BROWN: Jansen takes me on a tour of a township just outside of Pretoria. Most of the roads are unpaved. Electricity is patchy. The people live in shacks with corrugated tin roofs.

JANSEN: The next phases now to move these people to an area where houses have been built and then the last phase is to name the streets.

BROWN: During the apartheid era many township streets such as they were, had no names. In the city of Tshwane alone, an estimate 14,000 remain nameless.

JANSEN: If there is an emergency here in the village where we are now, he or she must explain over the telephone where they are phoning from. The streets got no names, so for the emergency vehicles it's impossible to be of assistance to the inhabitants here.

BROWN: Just a few minutes from Mamelodi, a campaign is under way to rename the capital Pretoria to Tshwane. The government announced the change earlier this year, but there was such an outcry that it retracted the decision and has been silent on the matter ever since. Some say the status quo, Pretoria in the Municipality of Tshwane, is a perfect compromise. If so, it's in good company. The province once called Natal is now KwaZulu Natal. And the national anthem previously sung only in Afrikaans is now a multilingual combination of Die Stem and Nkosi Sikelel'iAfrika. They're just some of the creative compromises that are helping South Africa emerge from its apartheid past. For The World, I'm Kyle G. Brown in Johannesburg.