Saving Liliesleaf: Millions needed amid battle to keep doors of iconic site open

Who is to blame for the closure of Liliesleaf Farm and what needs to be done to ensure this cultural icon is kept open for generations to come?

Liliesleaf Farm Museum. Picture: Lungelo Matangira/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - Twenty years ago at a reunion marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of the African National Congress's (ANC) armed military wing, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK), struggle stalwarts, combatants, friends and all their descendants gathered at the site central to where the armed struggle against the apartheid regime began - Liliesleaf Farm.

Back in 2001, few people knew about the farm's existence and what occurred there between 1961 and 1963, which sparked the idea in Nic Wolpe's mind - whose father, Harold, facilitated the legal work to buy the farm in 1961 - to do something about keeping the legacy of Liliesleaf Farm alive.

"I thought we couldn't just hold an event and allow this historical site to fade, given the fact that very few people even knew this place existed ... It became the hub of our struggle. Everything that was taking place happened here."

Liliesleaf was declared MK's birthplace by ANC veterans as it became the nerve centre of the congress's alliance. It was often a passage for young men and women who joined the military wing and went on to train in exile.

Wolpe told Eyewitness News on Thursday the museum was an important lesson on the selfless sacrifices made by the many people who fought for decades for the end of apartheid. So why is it experiencing money problems?

THE THREAT OF CLOSURE

The museum has seen countless visitors since it opened its doors in 2004. But 17 years later, the threat of it closing for good looms over the local arts and culture industry, which is already in dire straits.

COVID-19 and the resultant national lockdowns have had a devastating effect on many businesses that serve local and international tourists as travel, movement and recreational amenities have been opened and closed numerous times.

And while Liliesleaf was also not spared the impact, its financial issues cannot be laid at the foot of the pandemic alone, Wolpe said, adding that over the past decade, it faced financial issues but was always saved at the elenth hour.

This time, however, he says things are different.

The museum is privately owned and has over the course of its existence received part of its funding from the national Arts and Culture Department, which has committed fluctuating amounts over time. Things came to a head in 2015.

That year, the Department of Arts and Culture entered into a memorandum of agreement (MoA) with the Liliesleaf Trust to upgrade and enhance the facility's exhibition infrastructure.

Based on this contract of R9 million, a first tranche of R8.1 million was transferred to the trust.

The remaining R900,000 was not paid due to what current Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa on Thursday said was Liliesleaf Trust's failure to account for how the first tranche was spent. He added that the department budgeted an additional R1.8 million for the 2020/21 financial year, but that it couldn't commit any further funds until it received a report on the R8.1 million.

While Wolpe conceded the funds were not used according to the agreement, but instead to fund operations, he said Mthethwa's statement is incorrect.

"Despite the fact that we signed the MoU, there was a clear understanding that the money would be used to support Liliesleaf operationally. At the beginning of December 2015, which was a requirement of the MoU, I submitted a financial report setting out how that money was spent. The department came back to me and said 'this report and narrative does not speak to the MoU'... I never disputed or denied that what I signed for and how the money was spent did not tally."

"They then said 'you must resubmit a report that speaks to the MoU', to which I responded by saying I am not prepared to perjure Liliesleaf and submit a false expenditure report on something we did not do."

Wolpe said he submitted the 2015 expenditure to the trustees, which detailed how the money was spent.

"The only thing that was not done was that money was not spent in accordance with the MoU, but the board of trustees were very much aware of that and [so was] the department because I communicated that."

He also alleged that the department had an "obsession" with declaring Liliesleaf a cultural institution under the Cultural Institutions Act and a Schedule 3A Public Entity under the Public Finance Management, which guaranteed yearly funding. But the board of trustees, chaired by former President Kgalema Motlanthe, preferred to remain independent, Wolpe said.

While the department said this meant Liliesleaf Trust was ineligible to receive yearly operational funds from it, Wolpe said the Cultural Promotions Act, at the minster's discretion, made provision for it to receive funding as it was an institution that promoted something of cultural significance in South Africa.

"How do they justify saying 'you're not a cultural institution, we can't fund you' and the R61 million they've given us over the last 20 years?"

He said the museum wasn't solely dependent on government, but did need their support, especially amid the pandemic's economic climate.

Wolpe and the board of trustees have also butted heads. The board said through a statement on Thursday that Wolpe's media statement announcing the museum's closure on Wednesday "makes unfounded attacks against the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture... by explicitly attributing the museums closure to the failure of financial funding by the department".

"For the record, the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture has been the pillar of financial support since the establishment of the Liliesleaf Museum. In this regard, the board of trustees concurs with the details contained in the department's media statement released earlier today on the matter of Liliesleaf funding."

The board also began a forensic investigation to be able to account to the department for the R8.1 million.

"The final investigation report is expected by the end of business day today, 2 September," it said in its statement.

Wolpe said he took the decision to close the museum without consulting them, saying he was forced to do so as there would not be any funds to pay staff their September salaries. He did not inform the board because he was instructed earlier this year to "desist" from sending "voluminous emails and messages until further notice", he said.

In the board's statement, it called the Arts and Culture Department a "pillar of support agreed with Mthethwa's statement and was awaiting an independent forensic report into the 2015 funding. It also said it instituted a sustainability report into the long-term stability of the museum.

R100 MILLION NEEDED

When asked how much would be enough to keep the museum going, Wolpe said a bulk R100 million would allow Liliesleaf to operate over the long term without it having to keep going back to ask for more funding over a shorter period.

Whom should blamed for the impasse at the centre of Liliesleaf's closure is yet to be determined. But what all parties do agree on is that Liliesleaf is too important an institution to be allowed to die.

"The history of this country is the essence of who we are... we should be focusing on the imperative of protecting our culture, arts and heritage," said Wolpe.

For now, Liliesleaf's doors will remain shut.

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