Opinionista Vusumzi Mba and Mandisi Aplom 17 May 2021

Demolition of Victoria Grounds in Qonce another assault on the Eastern Cape’s rich history

Victoria Grounds in Qonce (previously King William’s Town) is not only home to a rich sporting tradition but has major political significance in the Eastern Cape’s anti-apartheid history. Now tenders are out for its demolition and redevelopment as a commercial site, probably as a shopping mall.

When the military option of resisting white settler encroachment ultimately failed for the Xhosa after more than 100 years of wars of land dispossession, it was suggested that an alternative strategy of resistance was needed to replace it, one that would appropriate as a weapon the printed word.

Isaac Williams Wauchope, the secretary of the first known black organisation established in September 1882, Imbumba Yamanyama (Unity in Strength), as a black response to the foundation of the Afrikaner Bond in 1881, penned the famous poem that became the precursor to our democratic foundation of a negotiated settlement a century later in 1994: 

“Fight with the pen!”:

Your cattle are gone, my countrymen!
Go rescue them! Go rescue them!
Leave the breechloader alone
And turn to the pen.
Take paper and ink,
For that is your shield.
Your rights are going!
So pick up your pen.
Load it, load it with ink.
Sit on a chair.
Repair not your Hoho
But fire with pen.

When we read the Daily Dispatch of 8 May 2021, our eyes welled with tears at the prospect of the demolition of Victoria Grounds in Qonce (formerly King William’s Town) for commercial purposes — a shopping mall is proposed — despite its rich history and heritage; and of the imminent closure of the King William’s Town Golf Club, thanks to lack of funding from both our government and private sector (we must also say that our newspapers have kept alive the tradition of good journalism that they were bequeathed by the founders of newspapers like Imvo Zabantsundu and Izwi Labantu established in 1884 and 1897, respectively, as voices of black communities).

Victoria Grounds is a sports facility in King William’s Town that was built in the time of the liberal Kings Borough Council, and the first recorded cricket match was played there in February 1889 — a touring English team played two matches against the Cape Mounted Riflemen. It was a sports hub for white people dominated by the Farrer Family, who owned a sports shop and controlled sports in King William’s Town. The liberal white council was warm towards black people despite racial segregation policies at the time.

In 1977, the council allowed the funeral of Steven Bantu Biko to take place there even though Biko was an opponent of the white minority regime. Future black Springboks from the nearby townships of Ginsberg, Zwelitsha and Breidbach played their rugby at the same field, and it played an important role in social cohesion.

The great Steve Biko once defined democracy as “a feedback session between those who develop policy and those who are to accept or reject that policy”. So we have a right to reject that which is the antithesis of the sport development agenda, our inheritance. It is no coincidence that the first minister of sport after 1994, Steve Tshwete, and his director-general, Mthobi Tyamzashe, were both from King William’s Town.

On 25 September 1977, the then Kings Borough Council bowed to political pressure and listened to the will of the people and gave permission for the funeral of Steve Biko to be held at the Victoria Grounds at the height of apartheid and racial segregation. Fifteen years later, on 7 September 1992, the people assembled at the very same Victoria Grounds and marched to Bhisho against the illegitimate and tyrannical leader of Ciskei, Oupa Gqozo.

As the people were approaching Bhisho they were confronted by Ciskei Defence Force soldiers armed with live ammunition and 29 people lost their lives and more than 200 were wounded. The people of South Africa will never forget that day or the mass funeral that followed — which was also held at the same Victoria Grounds.

These two historic moments qualify Victoria Grounds to be a heritage precinct that ought to be protected and preserved at all costs for it contributed to the liberation struggle of our country (any developer will have to request a permit from the Heritage Management Authority as that space is protected through the Heritage Management Act and that process demands public participation and engagement).  

Additionally, when a group of young social-political activists were doing social history research, they learnt that during the dark days of apartheid and racial segregation in sport, black rugby teams from the neighbouring communities such as Ginsberg, Zwelitsha and Breidbach were allowed to use the Victoria Grounds — albeit in the evening — for their games. These three communities are still inseparable and they share mutual memory and history.

Sport is a powerful tool to foster social cohesion, improve community pride, and promote a spirit of oneness among the people irrespective of gender or race. Black people, in particular, were able to assert themselves through sport, hence i-Qonce prides itself on its many black Springbok players, SA boxing champions, great athletes, cricketers and golfers of note. In progressive countries, a wall of fame is erected in honour of luminaries who flew the flag of their country with distinction and their legacy could be used to inspire future generations of our country. Victoria Grounds would be a perfect precinct to house and nurture that history of sport and politics and would promote sports tourism.

Development is not only about tangible aspects — intangible aspects are equally important, for they talk to the soul of the nation and value systems aimed at nurturing a morally and ethically sound society.

In 2012, in preparation for the 20th anniversary of the Bhisho massacre, a multistakeholder committee was established comprising the Eastern Cape Department of Public Works, Buffalo City Municipality and the Department of Sports Recreation Arts and Culture. The committee’s role was to provide content on concepts around the 20th anniversary event. The project was headed by the provincial Department of Public Works.

The preparatory meetings agreed that for the anniversary to have more meaning and impact, a Bhisho revitalisation concept was needed. A pilot project anchored on the Bhisho massacre included the memorial precinct, but the bigger picture was to preserve the Bhisho Heritage Trail that included the Bhisho Massacre Memorial, Victoria Grounds and the cemetery in Ginsberg. The Buffalo City Municipality committed to developing the corridor adjoining King William’s Town and Bhisho, with business opportunities that were to boost the economy of the area and revive Bhisho, the provincial government seat of the Eastern Cape.

Seemingly that vision was left to die, as the only thing that has happened around so-called development is the illegal issuing of a mining permit for a quarry without consultation of the suburban dwellers close by, and that community is up in arms as the quarry is devaluing their properties.

It’s a pattern being repeated across the Eastern Cape — what happened to the Mdantsane Urban Renewal Programme? The municipality kicked local sports out of Mdantsane’s Sisa Dukashe Stadium to make way for a professional team that does not have even a single player from our region, and even gave them the lease on our own Absa Stadium despite cries from the veterans.

The destruction of Mthatha Stadium for a shopping mall literally killed football in our province and we are still licking our wounds after the Eastern Cape Glad Africa Bizana Pondo Chiefs had to relocate to KwaZulu-Natal as there were no proper amenities in our province except for those in Gqeberha. 

The legacy of the current Eastern Cape-born World Cup rugby players is going to evaporate into thin air because we lack vision and fail dismally to make the best out of what we have. 

Our country is founded on democratic principles and, as far back as 1954, Robert Sobukwe made a clarion call “that we speak the truth before we die”. So it is within our constitutional and democratic rights to vent our anger when our own government reneges on its obligations of consulting its citizenry. Gone are the days when leaders think and do for the people.

The Bhisho Massacre Precinct adjacent to the Victoria Grounds, the university and the provincial legislature present many opportunities for development that will fulfil the Bhisho revitalisation project. Commercialisation should not be at the expense of our sports traditions.

We should all, in the words of Isaac Wauchope, “fight with the pen” and rally behind the sports veterans of Qonce and protect Victoria Grounds from being demolished under the guise of development that is likely to benefit only those who are in proximity to the powers that be. DM

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  • As always, follow the money, who is receiving a kick back from the mall development? Qui bono?
    Sadly this is the way of all South Africa.

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