City of Joburg celebrates Avalon Cemetery 50 years of preserving South Africa's history

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Vandalism and theft continue to plague Avalon Cemetery as thieves steal concrete palisade fencing, leaving graves exposed.
Vandalism and theft continue to plague Avalon Cemetery as thieves steal concrete palisade fencing, leaving graves exposed.
PHOTO: Alex Patrick/News24
  • The City of Joburg's Parks and Zoo celebrated 50 years of Avalon Cemetery, South Africa's biggest resting site. 
  • The cemetery in Soweto is the resting place for icons like Helen Joseph, Hector Pieterson, Lillian Ngoyi Joe Slovo, and many of the youth that participated in the June 1976 Uprising. 
  • Johannesburg mayor says the city has a responsibility to ensure that those coming to the cemetery to pay tribute to their loved ones are safe.

"We must preserve our country's history while also working to ensure that mourners and visitors can remember their loved ones and icons in a safe and dignified manner," - so said Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Phalatse, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Avalon Cemetery on Monday.

The largest cemetery in the country is located in Soweto and was opened in 1972 during the height of the apartheid era. 

It is known as the graveyard for South African icons such as Helen Joseph, Hector Pieterson, Lillian Ngoyi Joe Slovo, and many of the youth that participated in the June 1976 Uprising.

Phalatse said the cemetery was a place for heroes, heroines, famous and lesser-known anti-apartheid activists, and stalwarts.

She said some of the icons laid to rest in the cemetery were young girls and boys who died when they gave up everything for the country.

"This place allows us to remember ... the sacrifice they made for us all," she said. 

According to Phalatse, during women's month in August 2010, the City of Johannesburg declared the graves of struggle heroines Charlotte Maxeke, Helen Joseph, and Lilian Ngoyi heritage sites, signifying the country's commitment to preserving its history.

Phalatse also honoured the graves of the men who lost their lives when the SS Mendi Ship sank in February 1917 during World War I.

"In February 2019, the city unveiled extensions to the Mendi Memorial as a fitting tribute to the brave soldiers. We owe them a debt we can never repay," she said. 

In her address to the attendees, Phalatse commented on the cemetery's fence that had been stolen. 

On 19 September, News24 reported that the parts of the sprawling cemetery were without a fence after thieves stole them to sell as scrap.

The fencing along the N12 freeway had been taken down, destroyed, and stolen in batches, with little fencing left.

The only things still standing are pillars with no palisade between them due to the vandalism and theft that continue to plague the cemetery.

Vandalism and theft remain prevalent in Avalon Cemetery as thieves help themselves to concrete palisade fencing for a quick rand, leaving graves vulnerable and exposed.

Substantial gaps were also seen between fences around the cemetery, while many fence pillars have been broken into pieces and piled up on the ground.

In the wake of this, the site has become susceptible to vandalism of tombstones and crime inside.

At the time, the security guard told News24 that the place was unsafe, especially for people visiting their departed relatives' graves, as they would be robbed of their belongings. 

During the celebration, Phalatse said security around Avalon Cemetery had been a burning issue for many years. 

"No matter what time of the year it is or what time of day, there are always people who come to the cemetery and leave flowers or little rocks on a headstone. 

"As the Johannesburg multiparty government, through the Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, we have a responsibility to ensure that those coming here [to pay tribute to their loved ones] do so in a safe and secure manner," she said.

Phalatse said the city had repeatedly tried to address the issue by reinstating the fencing with newer options from mesh, metal palisades to concrete palisades and then ClearVu.

However, she said these options had also been unable to withstand continuous theft and vandalism. 

Phalatse added:

Most recently, we opted to plant green hedges around the cemetery in the hope that it would, over time, create a fence to contain opportunistic crime in the cemetery.

The mayor hoped this would ensure mourners and visitors can remember their loved ones and icons in a safe and dignified manner.

Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo spokesperson Jenny Moodley said more than 350 000 people were buried in the cemetery. 

"This is a historical milestone. It's 50 years since the first burial took place at the cemetery so it was important for us to commemorate the day for many reasons, one of which is to celebrate the rich heritage we have in the City of Joburg. 

"We also wanted to reinforce the importance of civic ownership and civic pride. We also wanted to encourage residents to take greater pride in such facilities while also taking good care of them," Moodley said.


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