Birthplace of the ANC ‘lies in tatters’

2017-01-08 06:03

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While thousands are expected in Gauteng today when President Jacob Zuma delivers the January 8 statement on behalf of the ANC’s national executive committee, the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church – the historic birthplace of the ANC in Bloemfontein, where it all began in 1912 – is a colossal embarrassment, not only to the oldest liberation movement in Africa, but to all people who love and cherish freedom.

Although the actual structure – at least from the outside – looks solid and intact, the inside of the building reveals an empty shell. It resembles an abandoned building. There is nothing inside the structure except for chairs and old pictures of sporting teams from a bygone era.

Among the black-and-white pictures, strewn on the floor with others stuck on the wall, are 1944 Winners of the Interschool [basketball] Floating Trophy, Tatane Cup Holders 1925-1927, as well as an undated photo of the Bloemfontein District Football Association – formed 1894.

This place of historic importance lies unoccupied, redundant and almost abandoned.

Such is the importance of this building that in 2012, in recognition of the ANC’s centenary celebrations, the party leadership – including then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, chairperson Baleka Mbete, secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, then chief whip Mathole Motshekga, US civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, former president Nelson Mandela’s grandson Mandla, as well as some traditional and community leaders – attended a special church service at these premises.

The centenary celebrations cost more than R100 million, which was confirmed by Mbete when she told reporters in Johannesburg weeks before the celebrations that “it is not cheap, but we believe ... it is worth it. Future and younger generations need to know where we come from.”

More than R12 million of that was spent on accommodation and “protocol support” for heads of state and others who attended the celebrations in Mangaung, as was confirmed by International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

It was a political extravaganza that saw former African heads of state such as Sam Nujoma, Kenneth Kaunda and Joaquim Chissano attend the festivities. Dignitaries from all over the world and representatives of liberation movements and anti-apartheid movements, as well as celebrities, also invaded the City of Roses.

The Wesleyan Church is where it all began 105 years ago, where people from all over the country met for a conference that resulted in the formation of the South African Native National Congress, the forerunner to the ANC.

The area Waaihoek, where the church is located, seems to have gone through a slump and urgently needs rejuvenation. Besides a taxi rank in an open, dusty area, there are a few panel beaters and mechanics’ workshops.

Also, the nearby towers that were branded with ANC colours and ANC leaders’ pictures stand with faded and torn photos.

In 2011, the Mail & Guardian reported that a Free State businessman, Kevin Jacobs, who owns the property, demanded R15 million when the Free State government offered to buy it. At one stage it was alleged that he wanted a whopping R100 million, despite it having been valued by independent property evaluators at only R3.4 million. He denied the allegations, stating that he was willing to sell the property if offered fair value.

According to a Free State provincial plan, the main objective was to turn the church and immediate buildings into a historical and cultural precinct, which would include a museum and an auditorium.

During a visit to the church last month – five years after the centenary celebrations – there has been no effort towards turning the church into a museum.

The potential for such an iconic and historic precinct lies in ruin. The potential tourism spin-offs are massive, not only for the city, but for the province.

Given that the ANC is Africa’s oldest liberation movement, a meaningful percentage of domestic and international tourists would love to visit the iconic church where it all began.

While thousands of ANC supporters in their black, green and gold regalia will sing and dance in celebration at the birthday bash today, the base and foundation where it all started lies in tatters.

Khumalo is the author of Almost Sleeping My Way to Timbuktu, Heart of Africa and Dark Continent, My Black Arse

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