Fulfilling Tutu’s wish for a Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre peace park will save our heritage from being buried

Fulfilling Tutu’s wish for a Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre peace park will save our heritage from being buried
The ruins of what was once the main house and offices at the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre. They were demolished by property developers to make way for upmarket houses. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick)

The South African Council of Churches has pledged to fulfil one of Desmond Tutu’s wishes: that the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre be developed into a Nobel Laureates Peace Park to allow people to celebrate and continue the traditions of non-racialism, non-violence and human rights that were defended by its founders.

If you mention the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre (WFC), there will be very few anti-apartheid activists who lived in Johannesburg and further afield in the 1970s and 1980s for whom it does not summon positive memories of the special bonds that were built at a centre based on living an alternative lifestyle in resistance to apartheid.

Steve Biko spent time sheltering there, as did activists from the churches, the United Democratic Front and other progressive political traditions.

In its early days, Albert Luthuli helped to build the road that winds down the steep Witwatersrand hillside to the conference centre below. Its alumni include Brigalia Bam, Emma Mashinini, Kgalema Motlanthe, Cyril Ramaphosa and dozens more.

Reverend Dale White, its director for 37 years, was a protégé of Trevor Huddleston and a confidante of Desmond Tutu.

However, former staff of the WFC caution against the “erroneous impression that Wilgespruit was a training centre for the elite”. Instead, they say, “it was a sanctuary and centre for the people at large, both strong and weak, educated and grassroots, healthy and wounded, university graduates and squatters”.

Now in ruins, Wilgespruit offered a safe space for people fleeing police and township violence. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick)

The WFC is an unusual place in every way. It is located on a portion of what was originally a larger farm, originally 60 hectares of beautiful land, embedded in conservative Roodepoort on the West Rand. It was founded in 1948 as a physical space “where apartheid would not set the rules”.

During the dying decades of apartheid, Wilgespruit flourished as a non-racial oasis. White, its director for much of this time, was an Anglican priest who had worked with Huddleston in Sophiatown and “shut the doors” on the Church of Christ the King (now a heritage site) when the suburb was bulldozed and turned into a whites-only area.

Under his tutelage, the WFC grew to become home to multiple projects and initiatives that aimed to alleviate poverty; empower black workers, migrant miners and young people; and build values of solidarity. Its programmes sought to expose the conditions faced by migrant mineworkers (through the Agency for Industrial Mission), build cooperatives among rural women, and promote development economics (through Self-Help Associates for Development Economics). Leaders such as Lindi Myeza, Griffith Zabala, Bishop Joe Seoka and Morontshi Matsobane all cut their teeth in its projects.

Its conference centre was almost the only place in Joburg where black activists could stay over in a whites-only residential area.

The pledge to create a Nobel peace park at the WFC, signed by a representative of the Luthuli Foundation in 1996. Similar pledges were signed by the other Nobel laureates. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick)

Wilgespruit was there when people needed it. At times it offered a safe place for refugees from police and township violence. While it maintained its principle of non-violence, when requested it also operated below unjust apartheid laws. For example, in 1983 White helped to smuggle Cedric Mayson, a Methodist church leader on trial for treason and membership of the ANC, to the Lesotho border. Mayson crossed on foot to avoid his conviction of treason.

It is for all these reasons that Tutu once said: “If Robben Island was the university of the struggle, then Wilgespruit was the technikon.”

As a result, Wilgespruit was a thorn in the side of the National Party. Two commissions of inquiry investigated the centre (one described it as a “den of iniquity”). Wilgespruit  also faced threats and constant surveillance by the security police. But it refused to succumb. Tutu said of White: “When it was under threat from the security police, he would have defended those who took shelter there with his last ounce of blood.”

Instead, it cheekily cocked a snook at the authorities, made a plan, stuck to its mission, and survived to cross the finishing line of democracy.

The ruins of the chapel at the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick)

Wilgespruit and the advent of democracy

After the coming of democracy in 1994, Wilgespruit continued its mission. However, funding slowly dried up and over the past decade it has fallen into disrepair. White died in 2007; that same year former president Thabo Mbeki made him “Grand Counsellor of the Order of the Baobab”.

His wife and comrade, the indomitable Tish White, whose presence and power was a constant, died in December 2021. Today, its staff and volunteers are dispersed into a diaspora of contemporary South African politics.

Unfortunately, during the period after White’s death, Wilgespruit Farm was sold to a commercial property developer. Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, the secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), says that in 1981, ownership of Wilgespruit Farm was transferred to a trust. The SACC set up the trust to prevent the property from being seized by the apartheid government, as the state had done with a number of other anti-apartheid institutions. The agreement was that the WFC would operate independently but symbiotically with the trust, reimbursing it for costs incurred on the property.

But, sources say, in 2015 the trust sold Wilgespruit to a property developer for a song – sources say only R2.3-million – and the promise of a share of profits after the property was turned into upmarket houses.

Memorabilia at the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick)

Mpumlwana confirms the sale, which he says was done without the authorisation of the SACC, which had assigned the property to the trust “in perpetuity”, according to the trust deed. However, Mpumlwana declines to assign blame for the sale, saying it is an issue that remains to be resolved by the SACC. He says the SACC NEC has set up a subcommittee to address the WFC issues.

Until recently, burial under ostentatious housing seemed to be the sad fate to which a vital part of our human rights heritage was to be consigned. History is in danger of being concreted over and turned into prime housing stock, marked up for its view over the Cradle of Humankind.

In this context, a proposal to turn Wilgespruit into a peace park, which was first mooted in the early 1990s, becomes important.

On 21 March (Human Rights Day) 1996, South Africa’s four Nobel Peace laureates – Albert Luthuli (represented by his foundation), FW De Klerk, Nelson Mandela and Tutu – attended a ceremony to launch Wilgespruit as a peace precinct. At the event, each signed a pledge to be a patron of the Nobel Laureates Peace Park “as a living memorial and as a guardian of the spirit of reconciliation and peace”.

Unfortunately, the idea lay dormant for the next 25 years. However, in the aftermath of Tutu’s death, the call for the WFC to be restored as a Nobel Laureates Peace Park has been revived.

In his homily at the memorial service for Tutu in Pretoria on 30 December 2021, Mpumlwana declared the SACC as duty bound to see out the noble dream of the Nobel laureates. He recalled how, in 1996, South Africa’s laureates had “committed to the establishment of the South African Nobel Peace Park at Wilgespruit in Roodepoort”. Mpumlwana told mourners that, as symbols of their commitment to peace, each presented unique artefacts:

“Mandela gave a rock of limestone from the Robben Island quarry. De Klerk gave a piece of the Berlin Wall, which fell at the time he became president and sought to break down the political ‘Berlin Wall’ of South Africa’s separatism. The Luthuli family gave a container with the ashes of the ‘dompas’, the apartheid pass book that Luthuli burned in the anti-pass protests of 1960. It has been preserved.

“Tutu gave the nail cross of the Coventry Cathedral that had been bombed by the Nazis, [after which] nails from the pews of that cathedral were used to make significant crosses, symbolising the reconciling power of the cross of Christ.”

The SACC’s commitment coincides with the gathering of many former WFC staff and friends, who are excited to help restore the values Wilgespruit stood for in South Africa. This has been catalysed by the death of Tish White.

The foundations of the four laureates are also actively supporting the proposal.

A Robben Island rock kept at the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick)

Sello Hatang, the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said the foundation believes taking the peace park forward is important because “South Africa doesn’t have a site that we have centred peace on. It could help South Africans to understand what’s at stake when they don’t have peace. This site would focus our minds into peace seeking and building.”

Hatang added: “A counter is needed to political rhetoric that incites violence, to help us to understand what we need to do differently if we are to achieve the country we want.”

Maverick Citizen supports this campaign. The values of the WFC are the values our Constitution espouses. Wilgespruit should be declared a heritage centre. We will continue reporting on this issue in upcoming months, hoping that the wishes of Tutu and his fellow laureates, together with a generation of activists, are fulfilled. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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