A museum for untold stories

2008-06-18 00:00

Lorenzo Satchel Hennessy Msimang is 83 years old. His names are a reminder that when very few black people were educated his parents were schooled in the classics and English literature. Thanks to his generosity, his names and the entire Msimang clan will be remembered for posterity. Msimang has bequeathed his historic family house in Edendale to the city of Pietermaritzburg to be converted into a museum.

Recently members of the Msunduzi Municipality’s Greater Edendale Development Initiative (GEDI) visited Msimang in his Clermont home to say thank you for the biggest gift the project has received.

GEDI team leader Brian Bassett said the property has already been transferred to the municipality and the next step is to renovate the house and build a hall at the back. It will be called the Msimang House Museum and a part of it will have a display devoted to the family. The Natal Museum and the Msunduzi Museum have already committed to work with the municipality on the project. The museum will also house an oral history archive which will have visiting displays.

What’s really exciting, said Bassett, is that besides the Mandela Museum that exists in Soweto this is the first museum in an ex-township area.

The Msimangs can claim to be one of the most prestigious families in South Africa. Among their ranks are founding members of the African National Congress, judges, teachers, writers and civic leaders. A younger generation are forging their way in the fields of information technology, engineering, architecture and the arts.

Due to good record keeping within the Methodist Church, the family’s early history is known. A forebear, Daniel Msimang, accompanied the missionary James Allison from Swaziland to South Africa after the latter was accused of political involvement in the area. In the literature, Daniel is described as a “gifted and fiery preacher”. They arrived in the Pietermaritzburg district around 1845, where the Methodist Church had bought the farm Welverdiendt which the Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius had received for his role in the Battle of Blood River. The land covered over 2 400 hectares and Allison settled there with a group of Swazi and Hlubi converts to Christianity. The mission was named Georgetown after Cape governor George Grey, who supported the initiative. These early missionaries built a church and school in the area, and Georgetown became a centre of education, and social and economic upliftment The name changed to Edendale Settlement in 1861 and in a unique arrangement at the time, the black settlers became shareholders of the land. Allison left the mission in around 1851 after a falling out with the church over a land scheme that he proposed.

The Msimang house was originally known as Allison House and is unusual in that it is a double-storey building. According to historians it could be one of the original farmhouses of Welverdiendt as it is characterised by a Dutch hip roof and a truncated second storey, which could have served as a lookout point to warn of any attacks.

Lorenzo Msimang said his father and all his siblings grew up in that house. “I don’t know how it became my father’s house. I know that a brother had another house next to the old mission. In turn, I inherited the house, but at that stage I was living in Durban. I had come here initially to assist my sister, Judge Vuka Shabalala’s mother, to run her shop.”

He said he had tenants in the house who never paid rent and it was difficult to maintain. “It has deteriorated through time and misuse, and is almost falling apart.”

According to Msimang, his leaving the house and surrounding property of more than 10 hectares to the city, was in part motivated by knowing that the house is going to be restored to its original state. “I grew up in a family for whom history and legacies were considered important. We lived at a mission station that had a college. We knew that we had to go to school and we knew that we had to aim to go to college. Schooling and religion were the centre of our lives. In those days we didn’t play sport on a Sunday and our mothers didn’t even cook, preparing meals for Sunday on the previous day. I remember that we couldn’t dodge our homework and if we missed school, the bigger boys would come and fetch us and sjambok us. Our parents didn’t interfere.”

Msimang said he has always felt a responsibility to record and keep alive the family’s rich history that is so intertwined not only with Edendale and Pietermaritzburg but with the broader South African landscape. Years ago he started drawing up the family tree. However, he had to stop this project when illness affected his short-term memory. Since then, he has been urging members of different branches of the family to fill in the gaps. Bassett assured him that the tree would be completed and have pride of place in the museum. According to Msimang, Daniel was his great-grandfather who had a daughter and five sons from his first wife Ruth Khumalo. “My grandfather Enoch was the eldest of these sons.”

As Bassett outlined plans for the museum and hall to Msimang, he shook his head. “My short-term memory is bad. I’ll forget all that you said the minute you walk out the door, my family should be hearing this.”

He called out for his wife, Sybil, who was busy making her other guests comfortable. She listened with interest before saying her husband is a generous man. According to Sybil, he was chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre and one of his big projects there was to assist with the establishment of a library. “He wants people to study and he believes in leaving a legacy so that history remains alive, long after we are gone,” she said.

The Msimangs’ Clermont home is a testimony to that history. There are certificates from the Methodist Church adorning the walls and in one corner stands an antique bookcase with all the books covered in brown paper. “That’s my work,” says Sybil, “to preserve the books”.

You can picture the certificates and the bookcase in the Msimang Museum, a reminder of Msimang whose generosity not only preserves the history of his own family that shaped South African history, but has also opened the way for forgotten and untold stories to be recorded and preserved.

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