When South Africa celebrated struggle icon Charlotte Maxeke’s 150th birthday earlier this month, politicians took to various podiums and pledged to remember her legacy by erecting memorials in her honour.
Speaking in her birthplace in Alice in the Eastern Cape, President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged that government would establish a Charlotte Maxeke Memorial College in the province to honour this “educated person” and “intellectual” who “led the education project in our country”.
In Ga-Ramokgopa in Limpopo, Deputy President David Mabuza unveiled a plaque in honour of the stalwart and “her generation of women freedom fighters” at a house that Maxeke used to use as a meeting venue.
On the same day, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule was in Kliptown, Soweto, where he visited Maxeke’s derelict former home that government has for years been promising to turn into a museum.
Power FM reported that Maxeke family representative Olga Sema spoke sadly about the broken promises regarding the house and decried the terrible state of the poor neighbourhood.
“I always expected something to have been done here. The owner of this house [Maxeke] didn’t want to see this. If she was here and seeing us, she would be asking: ‘These people come year after year to this house. The streets are still like this. The houses are still like this. What is happening?’”
To coincide with Maxeke’s birthday, Power FM went around the country to check on the state of memorials of icons, including Moses Kotane, Solomon Mahlangu, Sol Plaatje and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
The reports from the field were heartbreaking. It was clear that the promises around preserving Maxeke’s legacy were just hollow platitudes; that not only are those who are in charge of the country failing to maintain essential public infrastructure, they are also failing to keep our history alive.
City Press on Sunday reported on the deterioration of Robben Island, arguably the most prestigious monument to the South African revolution.
A former prisoner tells this newspaper how it pains him to see the rusting silver fences, the damming up of the famous quarry and how the once-beautiful trees are looking more and more like Andile Mngxitama’s hair.
Fine, fine ... he didn’t quite put it like that, but you get the point. The ex-prisoner speaks about the “slow death” of the island.
“Madiba’s cell looks like a street kid’s hiding place. The blankets have been removed. That is when you see that something is wrong here because we can’t take care of something that belongs to our hearts,” says the ex-prisoner.
For someone to be so devastated about the state of the place where he was incarcerated and subjected to cruel hard labour tells you a lot about what Robben Island means to the people of South Africa and the world.
In declaring it a World Heritage Site in 1999, Unesco said that “Robben Island, with its past history of the subjugation of the human spirit ... has come to symbolise, not only for South Africa or even the African continent but also the entire world, the miracle of the triumph of the human spirit over enormous hardship and adversity”.
“In so doing, it has offered to a world struggling under social injustice and intolerance, the example of the indomitable nature of the human spirit.”
That is how the rest of humanity sees the treasure that we take for granted and treat as if it is a nondescript dumping site.
The betrayal of Robben Island is nothing new. It has been going on for years. It has taken the form of neglect, corruption, straightforward thieving and infighting among factions of former prisoners, as well as among executives who have been entrusted with the task of looking after it on behalf of current and future generations of South Africans. Instead of being the wonderful symbol it should be, it has become an embarrassment.
Two issues arise here. One is about the purpose of this animal called the department of sport, arts and culture, under whose ambit museums fall. Week in and week out, you hear a chorus of cries from artists from all disciplines about how this department is failing them.
NGOs that work to preserve and promote culture complain bitterly about the uselessness of the department. Language activists who are concerned about the decline in indigenous tongues have little positive to say about the state entity. And so on and so forth. And those who care about historical sites are as unhappy.
And so it begs the question: What is the department of arts and culture for if all these constituencies feel abandoned? If there were at least accusations that it was favouring one over the other, you could maybe argue that it was a matter of the prioritisation of meagre resources.
The other big issue is that, if we cannot appreciate the symbols of one of humanity’s most significant revolutions of recent centuries, then how can we appreciate and defend the fruits of that struggle?
If we can allow Robben Island and other heritage sites to fall into dreadful disrepair and even get vandalised, then it is no wonder that we are letting the Constitution and the democracy that it underpins also fall apart.