Biko lives on in apartheid block

2016-10-09 06:39
Helen Sauls-August

Helen Sauls-August

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The notorious 12-storey Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth’s central business district, which used to serve as the apartheid security police’s headquarters – and where political activists, including Steve Biko, were tortured – is to be turned into an R86 million housing project.

On completion, the building, which is in a dilapidated state, and surrounding area will be renamed after Biko.

At least 220 social housing units will be built, consisting of bachelor and one- and two-bedroom units.

The ground floor will serve as a multipurpose space, with retail outlets and a section set aside for preservation as a heritage site.

However, some former detainees have questioned the idea of making people live in a building where they were once tortured.

Others opposed the idea of naming the building after Biko alone, saying many other activists were also detained there.

Professor Janet Cherry, a social development studies researcher at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, asked:

“Why would anyone be comfortable living in the building where they were once tortured?”

She was detained and tortured in the building.

Her problem was with the sixth floor, where detainees were brutally assaulted.

“It is on the sixth floor where the torture happened and I suggest that the floor not be lived in. I would not be comfortable with people living where I was tortured,” said Cherry.

“Could that floor not be kept as a memorial site and [in this way] preserve its dignity?” she asked developers.

Moki Cekisani, another former detainee, suggested the building be called Azania House.

“Yes, Biko was the Black Consciousness Movement leader, but there are also many others who were tortured. Some even died there.”

Pralene Botha, the widow of George Botha – an activist who was murdered in the building – did not mind the new building plans.

“I do not have a problem with it. It is a good idea. I just do not know how people will be prioritised [for accommodation],” she said.

The Eastern Cape human settlements department said preference in allocating accommodation would be given to the victims and families of those who were detained there.

The project, situated in Strand Street, is being driven by the Eastern Cape provincial government.

Human Settlements MEC Helen Sauls-August told City Press that room 609, on the sixth floor, was where Biko was tortured. It would “serve as a place of sanctity and prayer”.

“The aim is to change the building from a place of pain into a thriving social and rental space with retail and heritage components. It also brings people closer to the business district, where everything happens, while preserving the building’s heritage,” said Sauls-August.

Human settlements spokesperson Lwandile Sicwetsha told City Press this week:

“This building was used by apartheid state security to torture freedom fighters, among them these late comrades: Biko [who was in the building in 1977, before being transported at the back of a police van to Pretoria, where he died], Botha, Siphiwe Mthimkhulu, Lungile Tabalaza and many others.”

The renovations will be conducted by an all-female company, Qhama Social Housing Institute.

Funding will come from the Eastern Cape Development Corporation and provincial government.

Mkhuseli “Khusta” Jack, one of the activists tortured there, said it was eerie to be in the same area as the building.

“That was a horrible place. No one wanted to venture into that area as you did not know what would happen to you. The beatings were severe and very cruel,” said Jack, who led the 1960s consumer boycotts in Port Elizabeth. He is now a prominent businessman.

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