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Experts confirm Newlands Stadium is not a heritage site, despite claim by former Bok skipper

Experts confirm Newlands Stadium is not a heritage site, despite claim by former Bok skipper
WPRFU administrator Rian Oberholzer. (Photo: Ross Setford / Getty Images)

The Western Province Rugby Football Union will remain under administration for the foreseeable future as a mysterious heritage claim stalls the sale of Newlands Stadium.

Former Springbok captain Wynand Claassen’s heritage claim over Newlands Stadium is one of the more mysterious interventions in a Western Province (WP) rugby saga that would make a Terrence Mallick movie seem mundane.

Claassen, a man who never played a minute for WP in his life, and led the Boks once at Newlands, is the face of an intervention to have Newlands Stadium declared a heritage site.

If successful, the Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU) will cease to exist because it needs to sell the valuable site to continue as a going concern.

“To be frank, the sale of Newlands Stadium is key to the future sustainability of Western Province Rugby,” said WPRFU administrator Rian Oberholzer. 

“The proposal to declare the stadium a heritage site has the potential to derail so much hard work that has been done to stabilise WP Rugby both on and off the field.

“We have consulted with a heritage specialist who is confident that Newlands Stadium does not qualify as a heritage site, but the upcoming public participation process will also be pivotal in determining the outcome of the proposal.” 

WPRFU’s general manager of amateur rugby, Danny Jones, said the union’s General Council had voted and decided more than three years ago that the professional teams would play their rugby at DHL Stadium in Green Point.

“All of the WPRFU’s proper processes were followed when it was decided that our professional teams would play their rugby at DHL Stadium,” Jones confirmed.

“Newlands Stadium cannot currently be used to host rugby matches, but its sale remains crucial to the future of the WPRFU and we are hopeful that all stakeholders will do their utmost to ensure that happens,” he said. 

Strange claim

Claassen’s heritage application is a strange claim for a sports stadium that has no significant historic buildings to speak of (the grandstands were upgraded and rebuilt several times over its 130-year existence). Only the old Mill House, which stands apart from the main stadium, qualifies as a heritage building.

newlands claassen

Former Springbok rugby captain Wynand Claassen (with the ball). (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / Gallo Images)

But this intervention is all part of a bigger picture playing out in the battle for control of the WPRFU. Claassen’s claim, which he started in June 2022, was made weeks before an independent, sealed bidding process for the sale of Newlands’ development rights reached its deadline.

The timing was curious because it has been clear for more than 2½ years that the WPRFU was moving out of Newlands and would sell the stadium to developers.

In December 2019, Investec Property Division signed heads of agreement with the WPRFU to redevelop Newlands.

Claassen didn’t lodge a heritage objection then. And he didn’t do it when a little-known company called Flyt paid for the development rights after the WPRFU turned its back on Investec in mid-2020.

newlands marais

Former WPRFU President Zelt Marais. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

Former WPRFU president Zelt Marais sold the Flyt plan to the union’s General Council on the basis that the WPRFU would receive an immediate R112-million loan from Dream World Investments (Flyt’s parent company) to cover its existing debts to Remgro and Investec. The council backed Marais and walked away from Investec.

Dream World paid R52.97-million to Investec Bank on 21 August 2020, and on the same day paid R57.76-million to Remgro to clear its debts. 

As security for the loan, 11 properties owned by the WPRFU were registered with Dream World. According to subsequent court papers lodged by Dream World at the Western Cape High Court in March 2021, the WPRFU “acknowledged that it was indebted to Dream World in the sum of R250-million”. 

The WPRFU and Flyt became 50% partners in a new company set up with Flyt to redevelop Newlands and another plot called Brookside.

Despite all this information in the public domain, Claassen didn’t lodge a heritage claim. And there was no hint of a heritage claim in the following two years, even after the Flyt deal turned sour and new developers were sought.

newlands protest

Part of a small group of people demonstrated outside Newlands Rugby Stadium in support of former WPRFU president Zelt Marais on 21 March 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Only once the South African Rugby Union (Saru) invoked clause 29.1 of its constitution and put the WPRFU into administration when it reached the brink of insolvency and collapse, did this claim arise. 

Which makes the timing curious. And potentially disastrous. 

Heritage claim dismissed by experts

Although experts have dismissed Newlands’ status as a heritage site, a process has to be followed. There is a public participation process until the end of January in which people can object to the redevelopment of the precinct.

But, as it’s a property owned by the WPRFU, and there appears to be no legitimate heritage claim, other than nostalgia, it’s unlikely to stop the process.

But it is delaying it, and that costs the WPRFU money. Interest on the Flyt loan is growing and the union is still paying rates and taxes, as well as some upkeep for Newlands.

After Claassen’s claim was made, Oberholzer appointed Bridget O’Donoghue, a heritage specialist, and Tony Barbour as its environmental consultant.

According to a report, based on the assessment of the two experts, Newlands does not qualify as a heritage site. 

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“Based on the findings of the social assessment, there appear to be no compelling reasons and/or international precedents to declare Newlands Stadium and the associated site a provincial heritage site,” the report reads. 

“The social memories associated with Newlands and the Newlands Stadium are largely linked to the events that took place at the stadium, as opposed to the actual stadium itself. 

“To be clear, the nomination of the Newlands Stadium as a provincial heritage site is rejected, as the site does not possess sufficient architectural, aesthetic, historic, social, associational and contextual significance to meet the requirements of a grade in terms of section 7 (1) of the National Heritage Resources Act. 

“It is clear that the Newlands Stadium is currently unused and the structure requires repair for any future event.

“In the absence of financial resources [and] ongoing maintenance, retaining the existing stadium will also pose increasing safety risks to the public. 

“In addition, the stadium’s functionality is outdated for the players, administrators and the public. Retaining the existing stadium will impose an increasing financial burden on the Western Province Rugby Football Union and the ratepayers of Cape Town.” 

Heritage for whom?

As it stands, the WPRFU owes in the region of R220-million to Flyt, and the only way to pay that debt is to sell off Newlands’ development rights. 

In an interview with Sport24 last year, Claassen tried to present himself as some sort of saviour of Newlands, which was a crumbling, out-of-date and unfit-for-purpose stadium by 2020.

“Once the heritage site is granted, then they can’t just go and do anything with it… they have to rethink their designs and their development,” Claassen told Sport24.

“Then you’ve got to come up with [new] applications of how you’re going to develop it. It’s not that we’re trying to be nasty… the thing is, I can’t understand that nobody considered keeping it as a heritage site.

“We aren’t saying they must still play rugby there. Obviously, that won’t happen — we realise that. We’re trying to look after our heritage. There’s not much left. People don’t care. They just knock things down, and we are concerned about that.”

Claassen’s use of the phrase “look after our heritage” is telling.

Who is the “our” Claassen claims to represent? Because while the stadium produced many wonderful rugby memories, it was not a joyous heritage for all South Africans for much of its life.

Current Stormers coach John Dobson, son of renowned rugby historian Paul Dobson, expressed this position eloquently.

newlands dobson

Present Stormers coach John Dobson. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

“While I was one who was privileged to experience Newlands Rugby Stadium and reflect with fondness on memories of playing on the field and sitting in the crowd, there are many in this country who were not afforded the same opportunity, and whose recollection of that era is very different to mine,” Dobson said.

“So, while the rugby memories remain good for those privileged to experience the stadium in the same light as me, there are at the same time painful memories of a divided country and a racially exclusive rugby system.

“A lot of people speak about Western Province being 130 years old, but the reality is that the unified Western Province is 31 years old, and the beauty of a new stadium and a new home is that we get to build a new history.

“Our squad comes from such a mixed cultural background, but it represents every aspect of the Western Province.

“Newlands is antiquated, old and most of the players in the current team have little to no memories from it. The consequences of failing to sell Newlands would be stratospheric; I don’t see how we would survive as a professional rugby union without selling the old stadium. 

“The most important thing is that rugby in this region survives and thrives.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Garth Kruger says:

    In spite of the condescending tone of the article toward Claasen, I admire his initiative. If SA had more like him we wouldn’t be up the creek as we are at the moment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    The odd – and much more interesting thing about heritage (I prefer the word conservation), is that it actually is a forward looking endeavor.
    How is the future influenced by the past?
    The heritage value of the Newlands Stadium is probably one of memory, even nostalgia.
    The building no longer resonates with this or with the present, and cannot convey this into the future.
    I would think that retaining the Mill House as a permanent museum, and making this and the upkeep of such a “memory box” a condition of sale. This would be able to acknowledge and conserve the history of the site.
    Buildings come and go, the task here is how to remember what took place on the site for 130 years, and in a very different era.

  • mike rizzo says:

    Please, get a grip. Claasen and whoever he represents have an ulterior motive. Newlands is ugly, dangerous and has absolutely no architectural value whatsoever. So who and what heritage are you and Claasen protecting?

    • Elizabeth Pearson says:

      Absolutely agree. Newlands stadium must go – it is old and structurally on its last legs and if we are to preserve Western Province Rugby through the sale – so be it.

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