Defend Truth


Sale of Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre a disservice to SA’s liberation struggle


Griffith Zabala joined the WFC in 1977 after he was expelled from the University of the North for political reasons. He worked closely with Tish and Dale White as Co-Director of the Self-Help Associates for Development Economics programme, and was instrumental in developing new community interventions and programmes at the WFC, including the Ubuntu Social Development Institute. He left the WFC in 1990 to pursue a management consultancy in the NGO sector. He is writing on behalf of the ex-staff and friends of the WFC.

The Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre represented ubuntu in very practical ways, expressing its core values of ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: You are because I am, I am because you are’. That is why it seems inconceivable that what was once an oasis for people seeking peace and human rights will be relegated to a mere string of upmarket concrete.

Former staff and friends of the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre (WFC) were shocked and utterly dismayed to learn from a recent article in Daily Maverick  that the property that many of us spent our productive lives on has been sold for a pittance at R2.3-million. 

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

We are even more disappointed that the sale was to a commercial entity, seeking to meet the upmarket housing needs of the economically better off in society. 

We feel that the sale of the property is in clear violation of the purpose for which the founders of Wilgespruit acquired the land. They bought the property in 1948 to be used for ecumenical and ecclesiastical purposes and as a place where people of all races could meet to reflect on their lives and pursue their common goals without regard to race, creed, religion or sexual orientation. 

In 1952, the property was given in trust to the Christian Council (which later transferred it to the South African Council of Churches, SACC) to ensure its preservation for the ecumenical and ecclesiastical purposes for which it was intended in perpetuity. In 1981, the SACC and WFC jointly created the Fellowship Trust for the purpose of protecting the Wilgespruit property from the apartheid government. 

The ruins of what was once the main house and offices of the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre, demolished by the property developers as part of a plan to make way for upmarket residential housing. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick

The purpose for which it was intended is firmly rooted and clearly spelt out in the provisions of the Trust Deed, which governs the actions that could be taken by the trustees of the Fellowship Trust in executing their duties with regard to the Wilgespruit property.

That the establishment of the Nobel Peace Park, proposed by the late Bishop Desmond Tutu to be set up at WFC and endorsed by the Luthuli family as well as Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, is now in jeopardy as a result of this sale, breaks our hearts and tears at our souls.

A sacrosanct space

To us Wilgespruit is sacrosanct.

For us it was an oasis of race relations, a cauldron of political and ideological discourse; it was a home for the homeless, a refuge for those in flight from the vicious apartheid police (remember the children fleeing from Leandra in 1986 who found shelter with us), a home for the afflicted; a fort for the Trade Union Movement, a source of hope for the hopeless and the arrival centre for who we called “new arrivals”, people in informal settlements. 

Race, class, religion, ideology, political and church affiliation did not count at the WFC. What counted was humanity. 

We recognised one mantra: “We are all made in the image of God and are a masterpiece of His creation.” The WFC represented “ubuntu” in very practical ways, expressing its core values of “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: You are because I am, I am because you are”.

The ruins of the chapel at the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre, where property developers are planning upmarket residential housing. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)

It is inconceivable that a centre that was traversed by leaders of all sectors of society fighting for the liberation of this country – the churches, political, trade union and civil society organisations of all kinds – will be relegated to a mere string of upmarket concrete. 

Wilgespruit was and is still the home of leaders such Beyers Naude, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sheena Duncan, Leah Tutu, Emma Mashinini, Lindi Myeza, Bantu Stephen Biko, Chris Mokoditoa, Zephania Mothopeng, Morontshi Matsobane, Brigalia Bam, Bishop Alphaeus Zulu, Bishop David Nkwe, Bishop Joe Seoka, Frank Chikane and many other political and trade union leaders. All of them walked, dreamed and worked in its grounds.

We cannot countenance this pristine valley, where once struggle and worker songs reverberated loudly to the skies, being turned into a conglomeration of upmarket concrete. 

No, it cannot be. 

Such action is a disservice to the history of the liberation of this country. It is a denial of knowledge and heritage to our children, their children and the generations to come. It is a shame to the stalwarts of the struggle. It is a sellout to the Nobel Peace Laureates. 

No, it cannot be. 

We support the efforts of the SACC, the Mandela, Desmond and Leah, Luthuli and De Klerk foundations in their efforts to establish the Nobel Peace Park at the centre. We further lend our support to the efforts of the SACC to reclaim this property and restore it to its original purpose. 

We call upon the SACC, in whose care the property was entrusted, to do everything and anything to reverse the sale of this property as we believe the sale was not in accordance with proper and legal processes and violated the purpose for which it was founded.   

We request the SACC and the Mandela, Desmond and Leah, Luthuli and De Klerk foundations to enter into discussions with the government to consider declaring the WFC as a National Peace and Reconciliation Heritage Site celebrating the church, civil society and struggle icons.   

Memorabilia at Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre, a place of great importance to our heritage and values. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Daily Maverick

We call upon the trustees of the Fellowship Trust at the time of the sale to show cause why they should not be called upon to account for acting recklessly and embarking on such an action in violation of their responsibilities as trustees. 

We also call on them to show cause why they deliberately ignored the consistent and repeated attempts of a group of Wilgespruit stalwarts – who between them had a collective history of more than 100 years with the institution and represented the interests of Wilgespruit’s history and legacy – to engage in discussion on the future of the Wilgespruit property between 2013 and 2015 when the property was sold. 

We believe the trustees did not act in the interest of the duties to which they were assigned, and that they acted in violation of the Trust Deed when they deliberately excluded Wilgespruit representation on the Fellowship Trust when the decision to sell the property was made, and/or that they acted ultra vires in entering into an agreement to dispose of the WFC property in the manner in which they did. DM/MC


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