The family of Sol Plaatje has accused the Northern Cape government of “desecration” by putting a “cage” around the political icon’s grave in what appears to be a rushed spruce-up project ahead of a planned wreath-laying by President Cyril Ramaphosa next month.
A family member said while they welcomed Ramaphosa’s gesture of paying homage to Plaatje, they were unhappy and felt “disrespected” that the grave had been touched without their consent or input.
“They can’t put a cage, lock the gate and we don’t even know who’s got the keys … we’re locked out. The cage has created a barrier for everyone,” said the literary icon’s great-grandson Sebeka Plaatje.
He was referring to the galvanised welded mesh fencing around the grave.
“Had we agreed to it, we would not have allowed them to put a cage around the grave. We cannot allow this to happen just for some people to score political mileage,” he said.
Sebeka added that they were denied an opportunity to perform a ritual on the grave before it was fenced off.
The family have since instructed their lawyers to write to several government officials, including Ramaphosa and Northern Cape Premier Zamani Saul, demanding that work should be stopped pending a proper consultative process.
They are also demanding the removal of the “cage-like structure which has been placed over the graveside” and want the graveside restored to its prior state.
In its explanation, the province’s department of sports, arts and culture said the fence with the access gate “was done to prevent the vandalisation of the grave”.
It said the pavement around the grave was also done to “ensure that no weeds grow around it”.
A founding member of the ANC, Plaatje died aged 55 in 1932.
Apart from the striking obelisk headstone towering over other graves at West End cemetery in Kimberley where he was buried, his grave had until recently been nondescript.
Naledi Gaosekwe, Northern Cape ANC spokesperson, confirmed that Ramaphosa would lay a wreath at the grave before the January 8 statement celebrations.
She said there had been engagements with the Plaatje family on the January 8 statement commemoration programme and “a breakfast with the family has also been planned” on January 11.
However, this was flatly denied by Sebeka Plaatje who said he was hearing about the breakfast for the first time.
Meanwhile, the provincial department of sports, arts and culture admitted that it led the grave refurbishment project.
The department insisted that the family was represented by Daniel Plaatje, the icon’s other great-grandson.
“The [Sol Plaatje] trust was involved with the development of the wording on the plaque/name plate to be mounted at the grave,” said departmental spokesperson Conrad Fortune.
This was denied by Daniel.
He said there were some “informal engagements with two senior officials from the department but there was no formal agreement”.
“I challenge them to produce proof of any agreement or consent from us. They started work about two weeks ago and my pleas fell on deaf ears when I tried to stop them,” Daniel said.
Fortune said although the family had not complained, his department “will further engage with the representatives of the Plaatje family again around the concerns raised and to ensure that there is no further misunderstandings around honouring Sol Plaatje”.