Fight to protect heritage

2018-11-06 06:02
Standing in front of the Black River cemetery are Bassil Coetzee with Caroline and Nazmie Jamal.

Standing in front of the Black River cemetery are Bassil Coetzee with Caroline and Nazmie Jamal.

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Residents of Athlone are concerned that a piece of land off Klipfontein Road will be used for development purposes, after standing as a cemetery for more than 150 years.

The property in question belongs to the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and was first used as a burial ground in 1867. It is believed that the deceased who were previously buried there were all moved to a columbarium, located in Crawford, during last year.

Residents are now calling on the local government and heritage organisations to save the old Athlone cemetery, also known as the Black River Cemetery.

Speaking to People’s Post last Tuesday, Caroline Jamal – who represents the Black River Interest Group – says they have been opposing the desecration happening at the cemetery since April last year.

Jamal, who lives opposite the site, says the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) along with the church, took the decision to use the burial site for development purposes, without acknowledging the community and “all” relatives of the deceased.

She says Sahra granted a permit to exhume the bodies, even with 400 signatures opposing the
exhumation. “This process started last year when a construction group came to the cemetery and started digging. A few neighbours came out and questioned the process, unaware of what was taking place,” explains Jamal.

“We observed and went closer to ask questions. The archaeologist on duty at the time told us that they are going to exhume the cemetery. The neighbours asked how they could just go ahead without consulting those living around the cemetery.”

Jamal says she went as far as taking the case to court, but claims she lost after church representatives claimed they didn’t have any plans for development.

Basil Coetzee from Mitchell’s Plain, also a member of the group, says the church did not properly attempt to find and attend to all the relatives of the deceased.

He says a small number of people who were at the church’s meeting decided on the fate of others.
People’s Post spoke to Jessica Kocks, who claims the remains of her uncles, aunts, great-grandmother and great-grandfather were all moved without the family’s consent.

According to Coetzee, residents were told that the reason for the removal of bodies from the site was because it was being plagued by vagrants and drug activity. He says the last burial was in 1952.

“If this was the case, then why didn’t they maintain the place and put fencing up back then?”

Residents are also questioning the whereabouts of other human remains. Residents say that with more than 2500 deceased buried at the cemetery, not all were moved. They claim only 400 urns were placed in the tombs, although most of the deceased’s names are mentioned at the columbarium.

Coetzee says the deceased were among the last coloured people living along the Black River, before they were removed by the Group Areas Act during apartheid. He says the history of those buried there since the 1800s will be erased forever if the development process

Ward councillor Mark Kleinschmidt says the church introduced the topic of the exhumation of about 1000 remains (mainly infants) to subcouncil 17, but the introduction was out of courtesy as the church owns the land.

Kleinschmidt says the Western Cape Government and the City were requested to ensure that the health regulations were put in place to ensure that the health conditions during the exhumation of the site were contained.“The church conducted the exhumation under the auspices of the heritage society, and advised that permission had been sought widely for permission from the next of kin from the families of the deceased.They (church) said a columbarium would be built at St Mark’s Church in Bamford Road, Crawford, where the remains of the deceased would be consecrated.

“Neither the subcouncil nor I have a say over the decisions taken by the church because they are the rightful owners.”

He says during a conciliatory meeting held with a Khoisan group at the subcouncil offices, chaired by Councillor George March, the group requested that a memorial be established in recognition of themselves.

“I had suggested that the group approach the church and request their proposal directly with them who are the rightful owners of the land.”
After making contact with the church on several occasions, People’s Post has not received a response by the time of going to print.
Mimmie Seetelo, Sahra’s manager for burial grounds, told People’s Post a response will be issued as soon as they have consulted their legal team. Their response was also not ready by the time of going to print.


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