Maverick Citizen

Tutu's wish

Controversial property deal stands in the way of turning Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre into a Nobel Laureates Peace Park

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)

From the very beginning, Wilgespruit in Roodepoort became an oasis of peace and non-racialism, used for meetings, religious meditation and recreation. It hosted workcamps where participants discovered that ‘although they have skins of different colours and are kept by the rigid conventions of their country from the real lives of each other, they have in actual fact all the universal interests and hopes of their generation’.

In an article earlier this year, Fulfilling Tutu’s wish for Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre, Maverick Citizen reported on a proposal that Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre (WFC), once a fulcrum for human rights and development initiatives, be turned into a Nobel Laureates Peace Park. However, flagging a possible obstacle to the dream of Tutu and his fellow Nobel laureates, we also reported that Wilgespruit had been sold to a property developer and that the land is at risk of being turned into an upmarket residential housing complex. 

Since the article was published, further investigation has uncovered the facts of what happened, and a dispute that still simmers within the South African Council of Churches (SACC) as to the propriety of the sale and the reasons it took place. Despite this, Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, the General Secretary of the SACC, has reaffirmed the SACC’s commitment to fulfilling Tutu’s dream and has set up a sub-committee to look into the issue. The SACC’s next NEC meeting in March is due to chart a way forward. 

Background

The WFC originated in 1948, the year the National Party came to power, when — as reported in a 1954 article in The South African Outlook (a publication of Lovedale Press) — “a small company of six men dedicated themselves in response to what they believed to be a special call of God” and resolved “not to allow any differences of racial background or denominational loyalty to influence their main purpose”. 

The six men called themselves the Wilgespruit Community after the farm where their first service had taken place. By 1954, they had raised enough funds to purchase the land, which they then gave over to be held by the Christian Council of Churches which, in 1968, became known as the South African Council of Churches, for use as a centre for reflection and witness to the Christian faith in a racially divided South Africa. 

From the very beginning, Wilgespruit became an oasis of peace and non-racialism, used for meetings, religious meditation and recreation. For example, according to the South African Outlook, it hosted workcamps where participants discovered that “although they have skins of different colours, and are kept by the rigid conventions of their country from the real lives of each other, they have in actual fact all the universal interests and hopes of their generation…” 

It was also a picnic site for children who lived in “large African locations known as townships… Almost every holiday, busloads of children with their teachers arrive and soon the valley echoes with laughter”.

Over the years, as apartheid became entrenched, Wilgespruit developed its activities and would become a serious thorn in the side of the apartheid regime, that wanted to crush it. One of the ways the then National Party government had done this with other anti-apartheid organisations was by declaring them an “affected organisation” under the Affected Organisations Act, and using this as the legal grounds to seize their property.

This had been the fate of the Christian Institute, led by Beyers Naude, which was banned in 1977.

To preempt such an eventuality in August 1980, Wilgespruit Farm, the land on which the WFC is still located, was donated by the SACC to a specially created trust. The Deed of Trust was signed by Desmond Mpilo Tutu, “in his capacity as the General Secretary of the SACC”. 

In terms of this deed and an occupation agreement signed by the WFC in March 1981, the WFC could exist on the property “in perpetuity”, paying the trust only for costs that it incurred in its upkeep. This arrangement saw the WFC through the turbulent 1980s and 1990s. 

However, in the early 2000s, with the WFC under financial strain and following the death in 2007 of its long-time and much adored director Reverend Dale White, tensions began to develop between some members of the trust and the WFC staff and leadership.

It was in this context that, it turns out, the property was sold in 2015. 

The sale of WFC

Maverick Citizen set up an interview with Dominee André Bartlett, the chairperson of the trust (then and now) to establish the facts about what had happened. According to Bartlett:

“In the late 1990s, the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre… stopped functioning. The responsibility for all expenses then reverted to the trust (with no source of income of its own).” 

Bartlett says this issue was raised with the SACC, but that the SACC was facing its own leadership and organisational challenges in the early 2000s and did not offer support.

“The trust deed gives the trust full authority to dispose of any property without the authorisation of the SACC or any of the member churches. 

“The Board of Trustees were given all the information and proposals regarding the proposed partnership. All requisite processes, procedures and resolutions were followed and entered into by the Board of Trustees to fully authorise the transaction.

“In 2015 the Trust formed a partnership with Izingwe Property Group in 2015. A new company Helderkruin Resdev Pty Ltd (previously Oakleaf Investment Holdings 138 Pty Ltd) was established in which the Fellowship has a 40% share. The property was transferred to this new company.”

“The transfer of the land to the new company was done during 2015. The transfer was effected at a price of R2.3-million. The Fellowship retains a 40% share in the company which ensures the Trust 40% of all income generated in the future. 

“The fair value of the property was R8.5-million in 2020 following the rezoning and Township establishment process undertaken. The Trust, in addition to the 40% share of all profits, gets paid an agreed amount for the land per phase of development, out of the development proceeds (a pre-profit distribution) to an effective/cumulative land value of R12-million.

Bartlett defends the sale, saying that “the partnership with Izingwe was formed because of the financial situation in which the Trust found itself, with no financial assistance forthcoming from the SACC or any of the member churches of the Trust.”  

wilgespruit roodepoort noblel peace park
Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (Photo: EPA / Georg Hochmuth)

He points out, for example, that “Izingwe… has taken financial responsibility for the upkeep and running of the property, which exceeds R300,000 per annum.”

In response to claims that the SACC was not informed, Bartlett says:

“The SACC was informed about the whole process through two members of the then NEC of the SACC, Dr Kobus Gerber and Dr Jerry Pillay, who were appointed by the NEC to assist the Trust with its difficulties. The process went forward with the full knowledge of then President of the SACC, Bishop Zipho Siwa, who is also a member of the Trust and approved the decision to transfer the property to the new company.

“A meeting was held in 2015 by myself and Dr Gerber with the General Secretary of the SACC, where he was informed about the developments and where he confirmed that the SACC was not in a situation to give any financial assistance to the Trust — the SACC itself being under financial constraints at the time.”

The CIPC lists Bartlett as a director of Helderkruin Resdev, but Bartlett says this is because he “was appointed by the Fellowship Trust to act as its representative director of Helderkruin Resdev”. 

“I do not receive any income as a Director of Helderkruin Resdev. No directors of the company are compensated.”

Bartlett offered to share with Maverick Citizen the Memorandum of Understanding between the trust and the company on the sale. However, on Monday he said he had not been given permission to make it available.  

Finally, Bartlett says that although the trust has not met lately “because of the physical distance of some of the trustees”, it still functions “when need be” and has “always been supportive of the proposal of Archbishop Tutu but never had the funds to undertake it on its own”. 

Bartlett says that while “sections of the property have been earmarked for the development of residential housing… another section has been specifically allocated for the possible development of a Memorial Centre”, specifically mentioning the Wilgespruit Chapel. 

However, the SACC has a different understanding. Bishop Mpumlwana said he was “intrigued by the report that the SACC had authorised the sale” and that Bishop Siwa similarly denied that he had been part of the decision-making, adding that Siwa only became president of the SACC in 2014.

Mpumlwana believes the trustees were not acting maliciously, but were wrong because they acted ultra vires to the trust’s mandate and “out of ignorance of the political and social values of the property”.

So what of the future of the peace park and an undeclared site of important heritage and values? 

Mpumlwana quotes from the acceptance speech of one of the Nobel laureates, Albert Luthuli, emphasising that “we shall work unflinchingly”. 

He reports that in October 2021, the SACC conference passed a “resounding resolution to restore Wilgespruit”. 

It has now created a Wilgespruit Mandate Committee “because the primary issue is to restore the mandate of Wilgespruit” as set out by its founders in 1948 and captured by Tutu and the first trustees in 1980. 

The SACC is meeting next week with the foundations of the four Nobel laureates to start the process of “visioning” the peace park. Wilgespruit is also linked to the SACC’s emerging nation-building campaigns. 

Mpumlwana concludes that “there is no way the SACC can countenance the property being turned into a commercial enterprise. We need to negotiate with the company and the Trust and go back to its original mandate of community service and working for a better South Africa”. 

“The project of a Peace Park for a wounded and divided society falls right in the middle of that.” DM/MC

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