Why did I not know who Peter Kerchhoff was?

The mosaic of Peter Kerchoff at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg (thanks to their Facebook page).

The mosaic of Peter Kerchhoff at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg (thanks to their Facebook page).

I don’t remember how old I was when all the old street names came tumbling down, and the new, shiny street names were hammered up in their places. Or, more correctly, hung over the old ones, so that people could get used to it for a while, and still find their way.

I just remember people were grumbling. Everyone grumbled. The new names were long, and sometimes unpronounceable, and why would they change something nice and easy like “Chapel” for the long “Peter Kerchhoff”. Or “Chota Motala” and “Langalibalele” for things like “Old Greytown” or “Longmarket”. People were worried with the name changes happening all over South Africa that the old and familiar history they knew and loved–where they knew who the heroes were and who the villains were–was all being wiped out, and all that was left was a confusing jumble of unpronounceable syllables.

Even recently, when I was still home, I heard someone moan about the way the government had come in and inconsiderately changed all the names.

And then one day I learned who Peter Kerchhoff actually was, and it was like I had found a piece of my story and my place in South Africa. 

Peter Kerchhoff was a white guy. He quit his job as chief chemist for an aluminum company to turn his little back room (with his wife) into the headquarters of PACSA, (Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness). He had four kids. He had a nice life. But his Christian convictions compelled him to do something about the injustice around him. PACSA mostly campaigned and spread information about the injustice under apartheid (such as the forced removals), and today they continue to be actively involved in researching and spreading reports related to social justice issues. Kerchhoff was detained in the 1980’s, but was released. After 1994, Kerchhoff was famous for saying, ““It’s not the new South Africa, it’s the real South Africa.” And keeping the organization focused on serving those who are most marginalized in our society.

There’s a mosaic of Kerchhoff as the good Samaritan in the Anglican Cathedral in downtown Pietermartizburg.

Chapel street is home to many churches- An old Baptist, a massive Pentecostal, a Methodist. And when renaming it, our mostly black, secular government decided to name it after a white Christian guy.

When I discovered that, I started googling these people. Who the heck is Chota Motala? Oh, you know, a doctor who was pretty cool, stowed away on a ship to India to learn medicine, then came back and practiced in Pietermaritzburg as one of the first black doctors, and also advocated to end apartheid.Alan Paton, the prize-winning author and former professor at UKZN is the name of the street going past the university.

For some reason, the story of the re-naming of streets had always been presented to me as some kind of tragic debacle. Like just another thing the government had done after 1994, and confused everyone, and it was just so arbitrary. Maybe it’s just me who got that impression (maybe it was my teachers at school, who knows).

But I wish I had gone on this adventure when I was in fifth grade. Maybe they do that in school now. I hope they do. Maybe they have a unit called, “Street names and local heroes of our rainbow nation”, where they get on a school bus, and drive down all these streets and hear the stories of these heroes of every color who sacrificed and campaigned to make our country better. Because when we gave up our old heroes, our Rhodes, and our Queen Victorias and our P. W. Bothas, we weren’t sacrificing everything there ever was about our identity. We got to trade them in for better heroes. 

So, in case there’s anyone else out there like me who was super confused about that whole renaming thing: Our streets are named after AWESOME people.

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