Steve Biko was tortured and beaten in the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth, leading to his death in September 1977.

The once-infamous Sanlam Building in PE is a scandalously neglected national heritage resource, says John Lamola.

Johannesburg - As one of the key interventions in preserving the history of the Struggle for responsible heritage and educational purposes, the National Heritage Council launched a project on national heritage routes a few years ago.

This project, which encourages communities to honour sites and events that were of historical significance in the Struggle, has brought into focus the state of the Sanlam Building in Port Elizabeth where Steve Biko was tortured and beaten, leading to his death in September 1977.

In the spirit of Heritage Month, it is apt that as we set our minds on Biko and what he taught us, we also reflect on how we treat symbols in the memorialisation of our history.

The once-infamous Sanlam Building, at 44 Strand Street, Port Elizabeth, was the address of the regional command centre of the Special Branch in the Eastern Cape. Today, abandoned and dilapidated, it is owned by a foreign property developer.

This derelict site is a scandalously neglected national heritage resource and instructive of a challenge that democratic South Africa has to deal with in relation to its past of conflict.

In stark contrast to all the rhetoric and bureaucratic intentions with regard to the value of national heritage, this six-floor building, where at least four other political detainees are known to have died and hundreds of anti-apartheid activists of the “Border Region” were maimed, is abandoned, and in a marginal downtown street.

Broken glass and rubble are strewn all over the floor, doors, lights and fittings have been ripped out, and dust and rubbish lie everywhere.

There are few signs of its history, except for an old dusty sign in the lobby obliquely declaring it “Steve Biko House”.

On the concrete pillar of a bridge across the street is a haunting, life-size graffito portrait of Steve Biko, arms folded and staring at the door of the dilapidated building.

As a blogger posted, “for the time being, the site is simply an ugly, poetic ruin, filled with angry ghosts”.

Chillingly, this potential heritage site was exploited by the owner as rented student accommodation around the year 2005.

Students slept in the rooms where the security police had tortured and killed their captives, including the infamous Room 619, where the dying Biko was shackled to an iron grille on the nights of September 6 and 7, 1977.

On Peel Street, the quiet alley bordering it, the building boasts a steel-reinforced rear entrance that was used by the security police to deliver detainees for interrogation.

Peel Street adjoins what used to be Main Street, now called Govan Mbeki Street.

The upper part of Peel Street that joins Govan Mbeki Street has been neatly paved and turned into a pedestrian boulevard by the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.

It is disturbing and baffling why the rest of the historically significant Peel Street that intersects Strand Street at the Sanlam Building, through which Biko was certainly transported clandestinely in and out of the Sanlam building, was so blatantly ignored during the memorialisation that turned Main Street into Govan Mbeki Street.

With the protracted and apparent lack of intervention by state heritage agencies, the building is not only susceptible to becoming lost as a heritage site of international significance, it is increasingly becoming a symbol for the ideological pettiness that characterised the differing strands of the liberation movement – differences that the apartheid regime exploited.

In 1997, in marking the 20th anniversary of the death of Biko, the Azanian People’s Organisation unceremoniously declared the building “Steve Biko House”. The melancholic sign referred to above was affixed to the building then.

The reasons for the ANC-led municipal council’s remaining unmoved all these years by the significance and state of the building have yet to be researched.

Tithe treatment of this building clearly amounts to dereliction of duty by the relevant government agencies and a violation by the capitalist owner of a significant site on what is supposed to be a liberation heritage route.

It can be argued that this amounts to an inhibition of national reflection on a symbolic expression of the brutality of apartheid repression.

This thwarts the national healing process envisaged by the heritage jurisprudence and the ideals of the constitution – which alert our nation-building efforts to the horrors of potential violations of human rights by state security agencies.

Our heritage management legislation notes that one of the purposes of heritage observance, against the background of the political transition that South Africa experienced, is to facilitate reconciliation and national healing.

This conception of the healing dimension of heritage elicits the disturbing question: Is the derelict and neglected state of the Sanlam Building a symbolic representation of the wounds of our past, which are festering across the new South Africa nation?

One of the cases that could not be concluded at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings was that relating to the death of Biko.

The Biko family continues to maintain that the torturers who confessed about their roles did not tell the whole truth about what took place in the Sanlam Building during those cold nights in September 1977.

Sanlam Limited went to the TRC in 1997.

Its then-managing director, Desmond Smith, pleaded that the company did not have to know what its tenant, the South African Police, was doing in the building.

The lease agreement with the police included a special clause which said that due to the “lessee’s prescribed security measures” associated with the use of the building, the company’s natural right as the landlord to inspect it was proscribed.

Smith conveyed the company’s condolences to the families of the victims of what took place in the building.

According to TRC records, it also conveyed its condolences to the victims “of bomb explosions on our properties in Amanzimtoti and elsewhere in our country” – thereby equating the actions of liberation forces against security police establishments to the use of Sanlam properties as apartheid torture chambers.

As we mark another Heritage Month, I pray that there will be much more robust reflection about how democratic South Africa regards and supports historical symbols of resistance against apartheid, landmarks of a liberation struggle that has been elevated by Unesco to a historical event of universal significance.

The litmus test of any commitment emanating from this should be the successful adoption of the Sanlam building into the national heritage register, in terms of Section 39 of the National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999.

* John Lamola serves on the panel of experts of the National Heritage Council. The views expressed are his own.

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

The Sunday Independent