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MALAIKA MAHLATSI | It is our responsibility to protect our heritage from criminals

State is also to blame for failing to invest in security at our iconic monuments

The scene around the Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, Soweto, which has descended into state of decay. File photo.
The scene around the Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, Soweto, which has descended into state of decay. File photo.
Image: Antonio Muchave

A month of September marks Heritage Month in SA. It is the month which we celebrate our country’s awe-inspiring diversity in all its manifestations – cultural, ecological, social, political and otherwise.

Heritage is the root from which the tree of human development grows. Without it, we are discombobulated from our past, present and future. Unfortunately, South Africans have limited the meaning and significance of heritage to traditional regalia and some superficial elements of intangible heritage.

This is evidenced in how the government communicates the significance of Heritage Day and the activities that are lined up for Heritage Month at all levels of society. The consequence of this is not only that Heritage Month has become performative, but also that critical aspects of heritage are completely disregarded.

This is especially true for tangible heritage. Tangible heritage refers to all the material traces such as archaeological sites, historical monuments, artefacts and objects that are significant to a community and a nation. In SA, tangible heritage is largely disregarded and the Mayibuye Precinct in the Kimberley township of Galeshewe is the most apt illustration.

A few years ago, I visited Galeshewe where the founding president of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and one of the greatest revolutionaries in history, Robert Sobukwe, was banished by the apartheid government following his release from Robben Island in 1969. In 1975, Sobukwe opened his law practice in the township, where he consulted with numerous political activists despite the insurmountable restrictions that he was faced with, including being restricted from moving from one magistrate’s district to another. Sobukwe would die just three years later.

In 2005, the democratic government declared Sobukwe’s law offices at the Mayibuye Precinct a national heritage site. Within a very short time, the offices had been vandalised and defaced. At the time of my visit, drug paraphernalia was strewn all over the floors of the building and litter was piling on every corner. Recently, historian and social activist, Thando Sipuye, wrote an article detailing the sorry state of this national heritage site and the vandalism that it continues to experience.

Many other heritage sites in our country face the same problem. In my birthplace of Soweto, many iconic cultural monuments have been reduced to rubble. The Walter Sisulu Square in the heart of Kliptown, one of the oldest townships in SA and the place where thousands of our people gathered to map out a democratic future in 1955, culminating in the adoption of the Freedom Charter, is one such monument. Once an iconic monument, the square is now in a derelict state. It has been vandalised and subjected to cable theft. Water pipes and electrical cables have been stolen, while metal fixtures have also been removed.

On one hand, the government has some culpability due to its failure to invest in security at these monuments, especially the Mayibuye Precinct. But greater culpability lies with the community of Galeshewe which shows no regard for the legacy of the great man in whose memory the precinct is built. Protecting our heritage, both tangible and intangible, is not the responsibility of government alone. Communities have a duty to ensure that our most important asset, our heritage, is protected from criminal elements.

These criminals are known to communities and in most cases, they are brazen in their vandalism and theft of infrastructure. It is true of the Mayibuye Precinct and of many other parts of our country where tangible heritage is being destroyed on a daily basis. The fact that communities do not rise against this criminality is indicative of our collective soporific state and desensitisation towards crime in general and our cultural monuments in particular. It is a disregard for our tangible heritage, without which we are a people without a history and a future.

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