MPHO LAKAJE: What kind of nation allows its roots to rot?
Today marks exactly 27 years since South Africa’s first democratic election. But it appears that important parts of our history died along with legislated racial segregation. Eyewitness News contributor Mpho Lakaje looks at why the houses of some of our freedom fighters have been abandoned. Do we not care about preserving our history?
Having been driving for nearly three hours on a national road, I appreciated the greenery I saw from a distance. Finally, a sign of nature. It’s a commercial farm that’s obviously looked after. But this stunning view didn’t last long. I made a turn into a dirt road and drove for quite some time. The roughness of the terrain forced my car to shake. Keeping the steering wheel steady became a serious mission.
Welcome to Daggakraal, a rural village in the heart of Mpumalanga. On the side of the gravel road, the driver of a white bakkie patiently waited for me. As he saw a Gauteng registration number, the elderly man waved, quickly getting into his vehicle and led the way. I battled to see his bakkie because it was leaving behind thick dust.
After following him for about 10 minutes or so, I saw a rusted fence in the middle of nowhere. We parked next to it and got out of our vehicles. “How are you ntate Lakaje?” Mr Jackie Twala greeted me before walking towards a structure that appeared to be a crumbling house. Twala is a local resident who is respected for his thorough understanding of Daggakraal and its history. “This is it. This is the estate of the old man.”
He pointed to the dilapidated building we came to inspect. What I was looking at was what used to be the home of a pioneering lawyer, land activist and political giant.
Its dark brown stone walls fascinated me. As I walked from one room to another, carefully scrutinising the building, a few thoughts crossed my mind. “Imagine the political ideas that were conceived in these rooms, the profound conversations that were held here and the decisions that were taken, that shaped South Africa’s political landscape”.
But why did I drive all the way from Johannesburg to Daggakraal to inspect a crumbling building? To appreciate this ancient structure, perhaps we need to dig into the story of the man who lived in it in the early 1900s.
His name was Dr. Pixley ka Isaka Seme.
The crumbling remains of the home of Dr. Pixley ka Isaka Seme in Daggakraal, Mpumalanga. Picture: Mpho Lakaje/Eyewitness News
“He was an important figure in historical terms. He really came alive as a student at Colombia University. Seme then went to study in England,” author and top South African advocate, Tembeka Ngcukaitobi told me.
“When Seme came back to South Africa in 1910, he became an attorney. He was also influential on the political front, because he conceived of this idea of calling upon this broad nonracial alliance among African people, which he thought would be a catalyst towards the destruction of the tribe.
“What he wanted was an organisation that would descend tribalism, and he called this meeting under the banner of the South African Native National Congress,” said Ngcukaitobi. And Seme’s wasn’t just an idea. It became a political movement that officially launched on 8 January 1912, in Bloemfontein. It morphed into what is now known as the African National Congress.
But that wasn’t Seme’s only mission.
“He established the Native Farmers Association, which was then used as a platform to acquire land. His design was that if land was acquired in the form of private title and it could then be put on the schedule to the Native Land Act, and by doing so, it would then be protected from seizure by the government,” said Ngcukaitobi. In other words, Seme ensured black people who owned land in Daggakraal would be strategically protected from legislation that forced them to vacate their properties. And he succeeded. To this day, many families, including mine, continue to own land in that part of the country.
Now, remember Jackie Twala, the Daggakraal resident who led me to the rundown building? He told me Seme lived here when he attended the South African Native National Congress’s first gathering in Bloemfontein. This in itself tells you about the historical significance of this building. But given its dire state, one wonders why South Africa is allowing this treasure to perish?
Ngcukaitobi, who himself has been to Seme’s estate in Daggakraal, said he was part of a generation of stalwarts “forgotten by family, but I think most importantly, forgotten by society which, in a sense, is a bit ironical because the ANC was able to name a street after him, where its own headquarters, Luthuli House, is located. It’s Dr. Pixley ka Isaka Seme street”. But in addition to this, there is a factor that cannot be ignored.
Apartheid, Ngcukaitobi said, “was designed as a project of erasure. Its primary intention was to erase memory, to claim as if these people [Seme and other black intellectuals] didn’t exist. That project, in a sense, impacted on our own memories about people that were at the beginning, conceiving these [philosophical] ideas”.
WATCH: An abandoned legacy: Homes of SA’s political activists left to rot
But Seme’s relatives blame the ANC, the organisation their grandfather helped to establish, for these developments.
“We feel sad. As a family, we feel like the ANC has abandoned our grandfather. Right now we want to solve the issue of that place [in Daggakraal] and other issues about our grandfather’s properties. But we couldn’t reach the right person. Factional battles may be the cause,” family spokesperson S’fiso Seme told me.
But it appears Seme’s home isn’t the only significant building in limbo. Approximately 485 kilometers away from Daggakraal, there’s another important residence that appears to have been abandoned. Let’s walk into house number 902, Mothupi Street in Majwemasweu Township in Brandfort, Free State.
The history of this house goes back to 1977. At the time, the ruling National Party had had enough of an influential freedom fighter from Soweto. She was too powerful and commanded respect in her neighbourhood, the country and international community. So, in a desperate attempt to silence her, the apartheid government banished her to Brandfort. We are talking, of course, about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Upon her arrival in Brandfort in the late 1970s, she initially didn’t know anyone there. But one of the people who frequently visited her was Thabo Motau, a family friend from Soweto.
“I saw somebody who was pained. I saw somebody who was sad. But mama was not one to give you that satisfaction that she is hurting. I saw a lonely woman who missed to be like other women, you know… married life, somebody she can gossip with. That kind of stuff,” Motau said. When Madikizela-Mandela gradually became part of the Brandfort community, things did not become any easier. “Her life was just filled with drama. There was always one issue or another, one problem or another, a community member would come asking for this and that.”
FILE: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela's house in Brandfort in the Free State. Picture: Christa Eybers/Eyewitness News
But even in her darkest hour, the firebrand politician still served humanity. Motau said he and Madikizela-Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi, used to work at a humanitarian organisation called Operation Hunger. “We used to send food parcels for her to distribute to the community over in Brandfort. In the midst of her pain, she still found it in her to share the little that she had.”
This is just one example of the many things she did for the people of Brandfort. So, considering her place in history, it only makes sense to turn Madikizela-Mandela’s Brandfort home into a museum. It’s an idea that was conceived as far back as 2005. But to this day, it remains nothing but an idea.
Okay, let’s leave Brandfort and make our way to Soweto. Welcome to house number 8115, Vilakazi Street, Orlando West. Nelson Mandela and his wife at the time, Evelyn Mase, moved into this property in the mid-1940s. The couple lived there together for over a decade, before their marriage collapsed. Towards the late 1950s, Madiba married Winnie Madikizela, who later moved into house number 8115. But their union fell apart and the couple divorced in 1996.
FILE: Mandela House in Vilakazi Street in Soweto. Picture: Gia Nicolaides/Eyewitness News
Nelson Mandela established an NPO called the Soweto Heritage Trust. At that stage, his family home was to be turned into a museum. The NPO was tasked with the day-to-day running of the business. But in 2020, staff members at the Mandela House told me, the Soweto Heritage Trust was liquidated. This meant the future of Mandela House was in limbo. When the news reached the public, liquidators told me, the NPO was liquidated because it could no longer perform its duties. As you would imagine, staff members at the famous museum still don’t know what the future holds.
Do you see what I’m seeing? There seems to be a trend.
First the estate of Dr. Pixley ka Isaka Seme in Daggakraal was left to decay. Then the move to turn Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s Brandfort home into a museum hit a dead end. Now the Mandela House in Soweto may well perish.
These are just three examples. How many more significant points of history have we turned our backs on? “You look at people like Henry V, Henry VIII, who died hundreds of years ago. Those people continue to form the imagination of the British society,” said Ngcukaitobi. But why do South Africans appear to be less enthusiastic about preserving their own history? Do the houses of these key figures no longer matter? Are we gradually erasing their contribution in history?
But also, let’s look at it from a commercial point of view. Imagine the number of tourists Seme’s Daggakraal estate could attract if it was to be turned into a heritage site? But then, what chance do we stand to achieve this if we can’t even take care of the Mandela House, which is already up and running? What do these developments say about us as a nation?
The South African government, however, is adamant, that not all is lost.
It says, despite a 16-year delay, Madikizela-Mandela’s Brandfort home will become a museum soon. “A lot of progress has been made. The construction aspect of turning the property into a museum is complete and the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture is now working on the development and installation of its exhibition and equipping the museum with content,” said Masechaba Khumalo, Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s spokesperson.
On the pending liquidation of the famous Mandela House, Khumalo said “the three tiers of government are working with all the parties, including family representatives and the liquidators, to reverse the liquidation decision and to ensure the museum continues to protect and promote the legacy it represents.
But Seme and other stalwarts, Khumalo said, hadn’t been forgotten. “The contribution of Dr. Pixley ka Isaka Seme features prominently in recognising the legacy of [human rights activist] Saul Mkhize, which is at a feasibility study phase, and the study is meant to identify and commemorate other legacies of stalwarts who have influenced the contribution of Saul Mkhize,” concluded Khumalo.
The government has made many promises in the past. We will have to wait and see if these ones will turn into tangible results. Most importantly, as we celebrate 27 years of democracy, we need to question our attitudes towards preserving our history. Are we the kind of nation that allows its roots to die?
Mpho Lakaje is an Eyewitness News contributor based in Johannesburg.