Kliptown’s Sisulu heritage site left at mercy of vandals

The historic multi-million-rand Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Soweto, where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955, is in ruins and has become a haven for scrap metal thieves, vandals and loiterers.

The square, which was set to cost an estimated R163-million on completion, commemorates the signing and adoption of the Freedom Charter on June 26, 1955, during a multiracial Congress of the People attended by about 3 000 delegates.

The charter went on to form the basis of democratic SA’s Bill of Rights and Constitution.


In 2005, then president Thabo Mbeki lit a flame of freedom at the square to mark its official opening and to celebrate 50 years of the signing of the charter. But now the pounding of sledgehammers, chipping of chisels and smashing of crowbars have replaced the bustle of the retail section of the square, where once an internet cafe, shops, fast food outlets, the post office, a licensing department and other offices stood.

The Soweto Hotel and Conference Centre, which cost R23-million and was expected to generate tens of millions of rands a year for the local economy, has also shut down. Raw sewage swirls and meanders down the hotel’s basement parking.

The square – which was declared a national heritage site in 2019 – has not recovered from the riots of July 21, when some members of the public looted shops, destroyed property and disrupted the economic activity in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

A resident of Kliptown and a fresh goods seller at the square said the looting was a death knell for the site, which was already facing neglect a few years after the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Another resident, who is also an informal trader at the square, said when the DA took over the mayorship of Joburg in 2016, the shift in political power was also palpable with the reduction in the allocation of resources to protect and maintain the facility.

“When Herman Mashaba became mayor of Joburg we saw a decrease in the number of security guards in this square. With just a handful of security guards protecting such as large area, criminal elements were emboldened. The July lootings fuelled the flames of the fire that was already destroying parts of this place,” said the resident.


Interestingly, the Freedom Charter Monument at the centre of the square is the only structure that still provides visitors with a quiet space to ponder the importance of the square.

Through stripped light fixtures and cables, inside the long cone-shaped structure, the 10 principles of the Freedom Charter are inscribed on a concrete circle at the centre of which is a metal torch dubbed the flame of freedom.

“It is a matter of time before we find a child dead here one day,” said a man pointing to troughs filled with dirt and water.

The Walter Sisulu Museum dedicated to the life of the late ANC stalwart has also shut its doors. It’s guarded by a lone security guard armed with only a baton.

“Is this what the Freedom Charter means when it says, ‘the people shall govern’?” asked another resident.

The spokesperson for the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) Ben Mwasinga said they had engaged the square’s custodian, the Johannesburg Property Company (JPC), about its current condition.

“Sahra is responsible for regulating development at the site and for issuing permits for any alterations and modifications to the site. We have been engaged with the JPC on their plans for refurbishment of the site.

JPC spokesperson Lucky Sindane said they had advertised a tender for the refurbishment of the square but would not disclose details due to confidentiality issues.

Sindane denied the JPC was to blame for the wrecked state of the facility.

“It is the Johannesburg Metro Police Department’s responsibility to guard all the city’s facilities,” he said.

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