FILE – The exterior and front of the Tumulus building at Maropeng, near The Cradle of Humankind in Johannesburg today. 05.06.06. File photo: LEAH ANGEL
FILE – The exterior and front of the Tumulus building at Maropeng, near The Cradle of Humankind in Johannesburg today. 05.06.06. File photo: LEAH ANGEL

Do our national heritage sites matter?

By Opinion Time of article published Sep 11, 2021

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OPINION: Museums and similar sites of history, culture and symbolism convey to present and future generations what to value, how we see and understand ourselves in terms of the past, writes Mpho Masemola.

The closure of Liliesleaf Farm – that lent its name to the seminal Rivonia Trial – is the latest casualty in the ongoing saga related to the meaning, value and sustainability of our national heritage sites.

The Mandela House in Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, has been under liquidation. Although the Gauteng Government vowed to stop the liquidation process last November, there is no reported progress to date.

Freedom Park has previously been in the news for the wrong reasons. The numerous challenges confronting the Robben Island Museum remain unresolved, not least of which are the two forensic reports, which are yet to be made public.

What stands out about these historic sites is that they were all instituted since the advent of democracy. They centre around key aspects of the liberation history of our country and have been widely visited by South Africans and visitors to our country.

Against the backdrop of wide-scale looting of the public purse – caused by politicians, public servants, executives, and the private sector – questions are constantly asked about the viability and relevance of such important aspects of our history. This happens while our deeply divided country struggles to become a cohesive, credible and proud nation.

Indeed, the recent events that have rocked our country have added to the steadily-growing loss of stature of the role that liberation history has enjoyed in the eyes of our people, who are faced with the most serious poverty, unemployment, crime and socio-economic crises since South Africa was created in 1910.

It is in times of crisis that all of us search for meaning and value in our lives. We find meaning in different ways, including concrete examples of our progress as a democracy.

Sadly, during the pandemic and the increasing instability, we have witnessed, these beacons of remembrance, valour and historic value have not inspired our people. Instead, controversies surrounding our heritage sites have added to our depression, lack of faith in our democracy, and loss of hope that things will change for the better.

Museums and similar sites of history, culture and symbolism convey to present and future generations what to value, how we see and understand ourselves in terms of the past. We, thus, appreciate contributions made to society, and increase knowledge, so that we can create a future that is inclusive, more informed, and better than the past and the present.

As an official of the Ex-Political Prisoners Association (EPPA), I am well placed to reflect on why these heritage sites have been allowed to reach this unfortunate situation, increasing the strain on the public purse.

I will, therefore, use the Unesco World Heritage Robben Island Museum as my point of departure. Of course, I am conflicted, and I am emotionally affected – as are the fast-dwindling number of former political prisoners, the majority of who have not been beneficiaries of the current system and who eke out an existence.

I’ve butted heads with public servants and appointed officials, most of who have no clue about the preservation of heritage, let alone the signal place in history that Robben Island enjoys. At best, most appear indifferent and ignorant of the essential value to South Africa and the world of this most-visited internationally-recognised heritage site. We may also be a threat factor to these officials because of the role we played in liberating our country and still play in advocating uncompromisingly for Robben Island and its few remaining inmates.

Robben Island boasts imprisoning three of the five Presidents of South Africa. Indeed, there does not appear to be appropriate oversight of the business of Robben Island, which should not be in the red. Alas, like much of our economy, severe extraction of profit is at play, with accountability and transparency being completely absent. So convoluted have processes been that there seems to be an inability in holding paid executives accountable.

Perhaps, because of fear of what will be revealed? This stalemate mirrors what has occurred in other public spheres. Conveniently, the terrible Covid-19 conditions have been the hook on which to lay the blame for what is clearly mismanagement, deterioration, self-benefit, impunity, and lack of will and vision to make our celebrated tourist destination work. But the public is fully aware of this as they know this from elsewhere in their lived experience over the years.

Perhaps, as in other areas of State-owned Enterprises, there’s the desire to privatise and outsource ownership and management of our history instead of putting plans in place that will ensure its sustainability. The EPPA has presented ideas – including 10 specific points – to the Robben Island Council. These have not been responded to, and we suspect these may form the basis for get-rich-quick entities to be hurriedly formed and given tenders. Make no mistake, public-private partnerships where value and viability are ensured work for the public good.

The world over, museums and other historic and cultural sites remain in the public domain. Competent professionals – not cronies and those who may be manipulated – are employed, and their performance is evaluated against international best practices. Funding comes from a variety of sources, without deploying tenderpreneurs nor providing jobs for incompetent pals when there is a wealth of talent that gets ignored.

Stakeholders are constantly engaged, and reinvention occurs, preserving this invaluable heritage for posterity without damaging the historicity of the singular role that Robben Island Maximum Security Prison played in destroying apartheid and ushering in the basis for democracy.

The EPPA continues to be positive, that together with the political and appointed leadership, we can turn the fortunes of Robben Island and our other heritage sites around to serve all of our people and the world. Commitment, ability, vision, and consequence management – not personal benefit – are key.

* Mpho Masemola is Deputy Secretary of the Ex-Political Prisoners Association.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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