‘Historic sites reveal how the authorities had abandoned our heritage and had failed in their duty of care’
GROWING up in the apartheid era, I was fed a skewed and incomplete history of our country.
Growing old in the democratic era, I can address this bias by reading and seeking out significant stories and sites that were censored in our newspapers and our matric history text books. This quest has taken me to many places, including the grave sites of Steve Biko, The Cradock Four and Sol Plaatje; the Samora Machel aircraft crash site on the border of Mozambique; 32 Battalion’s Camp Buffalo in the Caprivi and Brandfort.
When Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s 80th birthday celebrations coincided with Heritage Day 2016, I thought it a perfect time to visit her place of banishment in Brandfort, while en route to Bloemfontein.
Besides, according to the Brandfort municipal website, her house was now a museum, Hendrik Verwoerd completed his matric there at Hoërskool Akademia, President Charles Swart farmed nearby and Brandfort is the site of a Boer War/second South African War Concentration Camp and Cemetery.
Unfortunately what should have been a journey of reflection became a journey of disillusionment, because three of the sites I visited revealed how the authorities had abandoned our heritage and had failed in their duty of care. When I returned home I decided to alert people in authority, in the hope that something could be done to restore the sites and that those responsible (or irresponsible) would be held accountable.
I sent letters to the personal e-mail address of the then minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, Carte Blanche, the Sunday Times, following a glowing review of the Winnie Mandela movie and Corruption Watch. The only reply I received was from the computer at Corruption Watch.
In my letter, I described the “Winnie Mandela Museum” as “a scene of complete desolation and desecration. There are two buildings on the site and it was not clear to me which was actually her home.
So I consulted the Internet and learnt that a disaffected security policeman firebombed the house/s in the nineties. Absolutely nothing appears to have been done since then to repair or respect the site. Lying about was human excrement, soiled disposable nappies, shards of broken glass, and mounds of general litter.
The buildings are derelict, windowless, and where there are walls, these are covered in graffiti; where there aren’t walls there remains only a tortured steel structure. To make matters worse, there is a construction sign on the pavement next to the precinct — which proclaimed “Heritage Restoration” and listed all the contractors that would be involved in the work — which according to a few locals, was never started, because the R2,5 million to R3 million given to the municipality simply haemorrhaged away due to corruption.”
I continued my letter by drawing attention to the situation at the nearby concentration camp on a private farm: “During former President Thabo Mbeki’s term, a number of graves belonging to black concentration camp victims were identified and a cemetery/memorial was established to honour them. This is overgrown, and all signage has been removed/vandalised — in stark contrast to the Boer cemetery about one kilometre away on the same farm.”
My letter ended with a comment about my visit to the Waaihoek Wesley Church in Bloemfontein where the ANC was founded in January 1912: “Firstly Google Maps had no results when I searched for Waaihoek Wesleyan Church Bloemfontein.
I was glad when someone at the B&B found a reference to it for me on a DA website describing Mmusi Maimane’s visit there in April 2016. Despite this information, and even zoning in on the iconic huge cooling towers nearby, it still proved difficult to find the site. Eventually a Ghanaian passer-by escorted me to the church — the precinct was locked and barred, and the banners on the cooling tower were in tatters. There was also simply no signage anywhere indicating what the building was, and when or if there was public access to it.” Discouraged by the lack of response to my letters, but undaunted, I contacted the Office of the Public Protector early in December 2016. As you can see by my comments in this unacknowledged e-mail, I shouldn’t have bothered: “Good morning. I wish to alert the public protector to an issue. So I phoned the toll-free number (given on your website)
this morning at 08h10 only to receive a recorded message, advising me that the office was closed, and operating hours are 08h00 (!) to 16h30.
I then called the customer service line at 08h15. Twice the number rang, and then disconnected before I could speak to anyone. It is now 08h20 and before sending this e-mail off, I tried the toll-free and customer
service numbers again, with the same frustrating results. I do hope that someone will contact me, and restore my waning faith in your office.”
There was still one avenue left for me to try — Winnie Madikizela-Mandela herself.
After many hours of lobbying in mid-December 2016, I eventually managed to get hold of Zodwa Zwane who is MadikizelaMandela’s personal assistant.
In talking with her, she expressed interest and concern about the museum and asked me to send her all the correspondence so that she could in turn forward this to her boss.
There followed numerous friendly phone calls, but these ended abruptly in January 2017 when I was less than enthusiastic about the suggestion that they send the correspondence to President Jacob Zuma and premier of the Free State, Ace Magushule.
During 2017, I conceded defeat when I realised that compared to the magnitude of state capture, the Brandfort “Museum” was really insignificant.
But then on April 2, Madikizela Mandela died. At last the media went to Brandfort and Trevor Manuel tore into Magashule at her memorial service in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on April 5, asking: “Where is the money that was budgeted for? And even the numbers he talks about for the restoration of that very basic house‚ for the R3 million he talks about‚ what does he want to do? Does he want to gold plate the window frames? Does he want to put in a jacuzzi? Does he also want to air condition the house? No‚ that must remain that place of pain.”
It remains for me to thank Trevor Manual and ask him to visit Waaihoek and the Brandfort Concentration Camp Cemetery for black victims of the South African War.
• Yvonne Spain was active in local government in the nineties, and was a children’s rights and HIV/Aids activist until she retired in 2009.
Instead of being a museum, Winnie Mandela’s house in Brandfort is ‘a scene of complete desolation and desecration’.
There is a construction sign on the pavement next to the precinct, ‘which proclaimed “Heritage Restoration” and listed all the contractors that would be involved in the work’.