Poring over maps for the last few weeks as I try to get a sense of the layout of the city, the name of one particular suburb caught my eye. It’s called Roosevelt Park, and it is situated in the northern suburbs, just a few miles northwest of where we live. The name sparked my curiousity, and I wondered about the origin. I figured it could be one of two things: either Teddy Roosevelt had come through the area hunting for big game and had left his mark on the national conscience, or Roosevelt was a fairly common Afrikaans name and it had nothing to do with U.S. president’s at all (Roosevelt is, after all, a Dutch name). As it turns out, I was wrong on both counts.
Our suburb of Westcliff and the suburbs directly to the north are products of the gold rush of the late 1800s/early 1900s. The grand mansions of the gold and diamond barons still dot the hillsides, overlooking where the mines once stood. The surrounding suburbs, however, grew up in the aftermath of WWII.
South Africa lost over 11,000 service members to the war effort, primarily in the North African and Italian campaigns. Despite this, the South African economy boomed during and after the war. Mining production continued to strengthen, and manufacturing increased exponentially during that time. When the war ended, servicemen returned to a growing, thriving Johannesburg. New suburbs began springing up to accommodate their families.
One of these was Roosevelt Park, named in honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd U.S. president who died 3 months into his fourth term, less than a month before an allied victory in Europe was declared. A local primary school, and later a high school, were also both named FD Roosevelt.
And that is the short history of how a quiet suburban neighborhood in Johannesburg came to be named after one of the United States’ most revered politicians who never even visited South Africa.