Memorial sites: should they be up for grabs?

2018-03-25 06:22
The Waaihoek Methodist Church in Bloemfontein, where the ANC was founded in 1912. PHOTO: Madeleine Cronje

The Waaihoek Methodist Church in Bloemfontein, where the ANC was founded in 1912. PHOTO: Madeleine Cronje

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ANC recently succeeded in securing the two-thirds majority needed to pave the way for an amendment of the Constitution – a move which will enable the government to expropriate land without compensation - by supporting and modifying a motion from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The land question in South Africa remains a thorny issue as black people were subjected to increasing dispossession during the apartheid era and as far back as the colonialists.

A landmark in this process was the Natives Land Act of 1913, written about movingly by Sol Plaatje in his book Native Life in South Africa.

Dispossession came through forced removals by the apartheid regime. A case in point was the demolition of Sophiatown in 1955, leaving urban black people wrenched brutally from their homes. For black people, apartheid was an era of subjugation and dispossession. For the colonialists and for the beneficiaries of apartheid, it was a time of political power used in the service of economic advancement.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the government’s efforts to return land to the dispossessed – through the willing seller, willing buyer arrangement – hit an iceberg. In many instances, land owners, mainly white and mostly farmers, demanded exorbitant figures for land. The result has been frustration for the government which has been left unable to resettle black people or at least compensate them adequately.

The government says only about 10% of commercial land has been restored to the dispossessed since 1994. Its stance on land expropriation without compensation comes as no surprise.

As a heritage practitioner, this new development makes me think that in many ways the heritage sector is faced with similar problems related to land distribution. Some individuals and companies are sitting on valuable heritage assets.

Some do not even know the historic value of these possessions until it is pointed out to them.

Upon realising the financial value of their properties, owners of these heritage sites often start thinking in monetary terms. The prospect of selling to the government, with its apparently unlimited resources, beckons.

A case in point is the Waaihoek Methodist church in Bloemfontein, where the ANC was formed in 1912. The property had been used as a panel-beating establishment since 2003.

Unbeknown to the owner of this dilapidated place, Kevin Jacobs, his was a valuable possession. Once this came to his attention, he realised he had been sitting on a pot of gold.

And so began negotiations between him and the Free State government, then under pressure to get the historic church ready in time for the ANC centenary celebrations in 2012. Jacobs saw an opportunity to bargain, demanded R15m and was eventually paid R10m for the building.

The seller must have been well satisfied, but for the government, as is the case with willing buyers, willing sellers, this was another episode of digging deep into dwindling government coffers just to secure an important historic building.

The Sanlam building in Port Elizabeth, the security branch offices during apartheid times, is another notable example. Activists were often detained, tortured and sometimes died at the hands of the police in that notorious building. Lungile Tabalaza and George Botha are examples of struggle activists who drew their last breath in what is now the Sanlam building. Steve Biko, the leader of the black consciousness movement, was detained in this building in 1977 and horribly tortured. Siphiwo Mthimkhulu was tortured and poisoned in the building. He was later assassinated in Cradock in 1982.

In post-apartheid South Africa, there has been a great need to reconnect with the history of the Sanlam Building through a memorial site. The sixth floor of the building is of particular interest because this is where activists were tortured, including room 601 where Biko was tortured. Through the Steve Biko Foundation, the Biko family has been in the forefront, trying to ensure that the site is preserved for the purpose of renewal and spiritual healing.

But the issue of ownership once more came into play. The Sanlam building was privately owned by Irish property dealer Ken Denton. It would be years before the building could be restored as a memorial site.

The building was eventually bought by the Qhama Social Housing Institute, a private not-for-profit company working with the government and specialising in urban renewal and mixed-development housing.

In 2016, R86m was invested in the project with the intention to convert the building into a housing unit for families of former detainees under the auspices of the Steve Biko Munford project. The sixth floor of the Sanlam building would be preserved as a memorial site and room 601 as a prayer room.

Sites such as the Sanlam building, as with some of the land taken during apartheid and colonial times, have significance that is more than material. For instance, relatives of the landless are often buried in land that was dispossessed. Solemn rituals and other cultural activities are often performed at the grave sites, which in African can be a cornerstone to life, adding significance to existence. All this becomes impossible when the land was dispossessed.

Similarly, in the case of the Sanlam building, rituals might have to be performed by families whose loved ones died in the building, spiritually reconnecting for healing and spiritual revival.

Some might want to visit the place just to pray, asking the Lord to receive the spirit of their loved one. Some families might want to visit such spaces to repatriate the spirits of their loved ones to a final resting place, such as Isivivane at Freedom Park in Pretoria. Moreover, preserving such heritage sites is significant for present and future generations to learn about our country’s history of racial oppression.

That said, let me raise a perhaps controversial question. These sites are sometimes in private hands and are often difficult to secure for preservation. Should they not be expropriated without compensation as will now be the case with the land? A statement of this nature does of course require heritage practitioners, government, policy-makers and the public to engage with it.

Closely related is the subject of ownership of the names of struggle heroes, including their final resting places. In April 2016, the EFF hoped to evoke Solomon Mahlangu’s name in a rally in Mamelodi, but the Mahlangu family would have none of it. Mahlangu, they argued, belongs to the ANC. The matter landed in court.

Another case is that of former president Nelson Mandela’s final resting place in Qunu, Eastern Cape. Recently, the ANC delegation led by President Cyril Ramaphosa was refused access to Mandela’s place of interment. The Mandela family members wanted to perform some rituals before allowing the public to visit the site, they asserted.

How far does our freedom as members of the public extend with regard to names and sites pertaining to struggle heroes? Or, to put it differently, where do we draw the line between family and the public on such issues? An indaba aimed at engaging the nuances around issues discussed in this article may be necessary, particularly on that of expropriation without compensation of memorial sites.

- Mancotywa is the head of the National Heritage Council.

Read more on:    anc  |  land  |  culture

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