Diplomatic corpse – old South African embassy in Germany left to decay

Diplomatic corpse – old South African embassy in Germany left to decay
When the Wall came down and Germany’s capital moved back to Berlin, the South African embassy in Bonn, a three-storey 1970s relic, entered an uncertain future. (Photo: Supplied)

Abandoned after diplomats’ move to Berlin, the building in Bonn has gone to ruin. And it’s not the only one.

In Bonn’s old diplomatic neighbourhood, an apartheid ghost still lingers in the shape of South Africa’s former embassy, now dilapidated as it awaits its fate. Once it doubled as a base for spooks to intercept the ANC’s phone calls. The banned liberation movement’s office was a few hundred metres away.

Then the Wall came down, Germany’s capital moved back to Berlin, and the three-storey 1970s relic entered an uncertain future – but not before then president Nelson Mandela had graced it during his 1996 official visit to Germany.

South Africa’s chancery is not alone. Of the 152 embassies that were originally in Bonn, 10 are still in limbo and disrepair, decades later. The others belong to Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Cameroon, Nepal, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Hungary.

Some countries couldn’t scrape enough money together to do a move. In others, political trouble prevented any decision-making. Others were holding out for a better price – in vain.

For example, the war in Syria and European Union sanctions meant that Syria has neither sold nor maintained its old embassy building, the local General-Anzeiger newspaper reported in 2021.

The former embassy of Yugoslavia, which ceased to exist as a country in January 1992, was demolished in 2020 after it went to ruin.

South Africa’s former embassy is tightly shuttered and the garden is overgrown. (Photo: Supplied)

South Africa’s embassy will probably meet a similar fate, but the residence, a few kilometres away, is in a better condition and can still be saved, sources say.

The entrances to the embassy at 3 Auf der Hostert are tightly shuttered and the garden is overgrown. The prime property borders the Rhine and a back gate leads to a path that runs for miles along the ­river.

Around 1997 there was an offer to buy the embassy for 2.2 million Deutsche Mark, and later an offer for a property exchange with Berlin, but neither yielded a deal. One former diplomat reckons the Department of Public Works wanted to hold out for property prices to rise again, but Bonn’s property market has never recovered from the decision by the German Bundes­tag in June 1991 to move the capital back to Berlin.

By the time the last of South Africa’s embassy staff moved to Berlin in 2003, into the country’s newly built post-apartheid embassy, the Bonn building was in a bad state.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Cost-cutting: South Africa to close ten embassies, consulates

“For years before the move people knew the embassy was going to Berlin, so it wasn’t really maintained,” says a former South African diplomat. A year after the move, he visited and discovered it had declined even more. “The place was locked up, but the holes for the pipes and cables probably allowed little animals to move in, and they have been peeing and messing.”

There was an attempt to rent out South Africa’s old embassy buildings, but the rental market, too, was low, and the income wouldn’t even have covered the heating bill – which is important for maintenance in winter, to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting.

Back home, the transition to a democratic government had slowed down decision-making.

Closed for business for nearly 20 years. (Photo: Supplied)

“The new people that came in didn’t have all the knowledge [about the disposal of assets], and the old ones weren’t prepared to make decisions for fear of getting into trouble,” he says.

The law has since been amended and the Foreign Service Act of 2019 gives the Department of International Relations (Dirco) the power to dispose of its assets. Still, regulations have to be finalised before the act can be promulgated. Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela says a process is under way to value the Bonn properties and to put them on the market, with hopes of a sale by early 2023. Despite numerous requests, Monyela declined to say how much the maintenance of the Bonn buildings cost the department.

Shameful state

Dirco also wants to sell other properties, including eight in Namibia, one in Switzerland, one in Gambia, two in Malawi, one in Portugal, one in Uruguay and one in Italy.

Some of these buildings, which include homes, are in a shameful state. In Namibia, for example, a delegation from Parliament found in April that some of South Africa’s properties had deteriorated so badly that staff had to be put up in rented accommodation.

In Walvis Bay, four properties are up for sale. The South African High Commission in Windhoek was supposed to manage them, but a report by the MPs found that they had gone to ruin.

One of the homes in Windhoek had been illegally occupied by at least four families, while another, in the upmarket neighbourhood of Ludwigsdorf, had been vacant for more than eight years.

The prime property borders the Rhine and a back gate leads to a path that runs for miles along the ­river. (Photo: Supplied)

The delegation noted that the property showed signs of deterioration as well as vandalism and theft.

It’s not financially viable to renovate the homes, the report says. All the properties in Namibia are 40 years old or more and those to be sold were valued between R1.3-million and R2.3-million in 2019.

South Africa might want to take inspiration from some other old embassies in Bonn. The former South Korean embassy was sold and reinvented as an upscale retirement home. The former Soviet embassy is still in use by Russia as a consulate – one of the largest in the world, it is said.

Indonesia’s former embassy played host in 2018 to the filming of a German-Swedish thriller series, West of Liberty, posing as the Syrian embassy in Berlin, and in 2021 it was turned into accommodation as part of the NYCE hotel chain. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Just now sell it; obviously this should have been done decades ago, but the second-best time is NOW.

  • Lynn Crossley says:

    So tragic. The large, modern building which was our SA Embassy in Bonn, was well-built, well-maintained, huge, spacious. A large piece of prime land, well-kept, pristine.
    Such neglect, disregard and also disrespect for the neighbourhood, is beyond comprehension. DIRCO has well-paid experts, supposed expert sections that should’ve “read the signs” – how many highly paid Directors-general, not to mention Ministers of this Department, simply ignored, did not care, or could not comprehend. What a tragic waste, what a shame!

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