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Vandalisation of Walter Sisulu Square a tragic metaphor for the wrecking of South Africa

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Mervyn Bennun was a member of the Congress of Democrats and went into exile in 1965. He and his father, Tolly Bennun, joined the ANC the moment its ranks were opened to all South Africans. He returned to South Africa in 2000, and resigned his ANC membership at the age of 86 in June 2022 in an open letter published by Daily Maverick.

The historic site of the signing of the Freedom Charter is merely an old man’s memory and nothing but a heap of rubble for a collapsed country. Every promise has been broken that was made to the people who put all they had and then even their lives into making the Freedom Charter real. It has all become worth nothing.

I have just read the account of the ruined condition of the historic site in Kliptown where the Freedom Charter was signed. I was there in 2005, with my late wife, as guests at the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the event. The site then was a beautiful and inspiring acknowledgement of the Freedom Charter and what it took to realise it.

The previous time that I had been there, I was 19 years old and attending the Congress of the People in 1955. There is at least one photograph to prove it and I can still name some of the others in the picture who came up from Cape Town with me.

In fact, it was I who was addressing the gathering when the police raided it. A line of constables ran, one behind the other, down the centre aisle of the gathering towards the platform on which I was standing. They still wore the old-style khaki uniforms and were carrying bolt-action rifles.

I was terrified, and I remember that the constable leading looked equally frightened as he ran up to the platform. Somebody behind me pushed me, and I fell off onto the trampled grass almost at the constable’s feet. I hurried back to the nearest seat I could find.

At the time, I had no idea how privileged I was to have taken part in such an important event. It was exciting, I felt involved, I was conscious of the need for the Struggle against apartheid, and I wanted to be part of it. Though my role was insignificant and much of it was in exile, I am now very aware of that privilege. And one consequence is that I want to react to what I have just read.

I rummage in my vocabulary but the appropriate words feel tired, used up, clichéd, boring. Why use them? Anyone reading this can probably guess my thoughts after reading the report. The only word I feel motivated to use is “disappointed”. It shuffles reluctantly into my mind because it knows that it’s inadequate to carry the burden I’m placing on it. 

After the Congress of the People, I became a proud ANC member in time, and did things in my life. Yes, I was insignificant in the Struggle, but I tried.

And then in 2005, now back in Kliptown again, the delight and pride at how the site had been used to make a memorial of the events of 1955. I felt that I had my own little private right to rejoice there, because I thought that we had won and I had been a part of the Congress of the People which had been essential. The Freedom Charter had become real in the Constitution, and I felt part of it.

Now it’s merely an old man’s memories and nothing but a heap of rubble for a collapsed country. Every promise has been broken that was made to the people who put all they had and then even their lives into making the Freedom Charter real. It has all become worth nothing.

In June 2022 I resigned from the ANC with feelings that I now realise were shadows ahead of my thoughts today — “disappointment” doing its overloaded best.

I see that on 18 July this year, two statues of Nelson Mandela were unveiled, one at Mthatha and another at Qunu in the Eastern Cape. It was on Nelson Mandela International Day. Well, that’s alright then. The honours have been done. But how long will they last before being vandalised and stripped of anything stealable? The Struggle memorials around Cape Town have already been attended to.

In South Africa, it does not matter what one does so long as one says it right. Sometimes it’s said magnificently.  The political stability of Fikile Mbalula, the current Secretary-General of the ANC, is best measured by a demented weathercock in a whirlwind. When he was the leader of the ANC Youth League he insisted — perhaps he still does — that the prosecution of Jacob Zuma was engineered by then president Thabo Mbeki. 

Mbalula has a way with words, but it is not oratory as we know it when one compares him to his predecessors in the post, such as Walter Sisulu. With the ANC having successfully ensured that venality will triumph in its leadership, it is not surprising that Mbalula has nothing to say about such trivia as the desecration of the Struggle monuments and memorials. What matters is that new statues go up to Nelson Mandela so that more speeches can be made.  

Of course, those who have done the actual harm are to be condemned, but why prosecute them? They probably thought that they had little choice but to steal from the Kliptown site what could be sold if they were to live. As those with state incomes are squeezing further to get what they can, why hold back if all one wants is a few metres of copper cable? 

What has happened? Did nobody care after 2005? Does anybody care now? Do neither the state nor the ANC have any sense of shame?

The fate of Kliptown has become a metaphor for South Africa now. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sara Gon says:

    Putting up statues is a performative moment for the ANC to relive a past that no longer has bearing on the shattered society we’ve become. Once that’s done, their job is done. Symbolic form over substance.

  • Anthony Akerman says:

    Sad but true. In 2018, I was taken on a tour of the monument to the Cradock Four. It had just reopened at a staggering cost after having been vandalised on two previous occasions. I have no idea what it’s like today. The other day I drove along Enoch Sontonga Avenue and the fence and the walls of the Braamfontein Cemetery have been vandalised and removed. The site of so much of Johannesburg’s history – not to mention where the grave is of the man who composed our anthem – has been stripped for scrap metal and become a home for the homeless. Not much of a better life for all.

  • John Smythe says:

    The rot in South Africa started prior to the 1994 elections with the Arms Deal by Zuma and his cronies with corrupt foreign entities. And then, after a lull, it accelerated when he became president. He set the tone and it naturally trickled down to the poor that, ironically, made them even poorer. So, it’s natural now that nothing is sacred in our country anymore. Poverty is a terrible space that I wish upon nobody but the corrupt and dishonest. Some things must be regarded as sacred and be respected – even if you are poor. But if your former president and his cronies regard nothing as sacred and rather as an opportunity to reap to their own benefit, then of course that is an example to the poor to do the same. Ransack anything to your own benefit. Even your heritage is fair game!

  • John BEWSEY says:

    Reading this article makes me want to shed a tear or two. Does any of the modern day ANC have even a small drop of shame at what their people are doing to our lovely South Africa? – The answer, sadly, is not many. Until the ANC leaders do adopt some Mandela- ism they won’t know what shame is and SA will continue to be ripped off, until, like a reforming alcoholic, they see that there is nothing left but to become responsible and behave like real honorable human beings.

    • Ryckard Blake says:

      I have seen not a single example of any feeling of shame amongst the band of thieves and liars that run our ruling party. You will wait for infinity, if you hope they will transform themselves into responsible and honourable human beings.

  • James Johnston says:

    Sad but vivid reflection of the current state of SA.
    The corrupt are glad that the old guard have gone. The old guard had morals.

  • Jeremy Stephenson says:

    It seems astonishing to us, in the bitter realities of 2023, that the engineers of South Africa’s new democracy could have been so naive as to think: power won’t corrupt us.

    But it did. Those who were entrusted with power used it to enrich themselves and fortify themselves against us, as if we were the enemy, and they continue to do so to this day.

    It’s not enough to be disappointed. Betrayal of trust on such a scale as this should be met with the most incandescent fury. The people of South Africa could and should become a lava flow of retribution against which no protection can stand.

  • Steve Stevens says:

    It’s one thing to reminisce, but it’s rather disingenuous to lament the destruction of something that pales into insignificance (no matter its symbolic value) when compared to the destruction of the country’s infrastructure whilst being until only very recently a member of the organisation responsible for said destruction. We know where the author was in 1955, but where was he during the 9 wasted years?

  • betsy Kee says:

    ” The fate of Kipltown has become a metaphor for South Slafrica now”. So sad. So true. We have truly declined into the banana state that naysayers and those who ” packed for Perth” predicted. Cry the beloved country yet again – if for different reasons.

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