Hijacked buildings: our shame in democracy

The spectre of apartheid and its atrocities never escapes us; it lives with us, side by side – even when we have defeated it – it continues to become a dark area of our existence, nearly 30 years after the onset of democracy.

What with its desire to smudge the achievements of the new democratic order, throwing up remnants of its gremlins back at us, as if to spite us, mischievously trying to whisper into our ears that apartheid may not have been that bad, after all – a deception we must reject with the contempt it deserves.

Yet, the tragedy of the burning to death of nearly 80 mostly illegal national foreign nationals, must also remind us that the scene of deathly calamity – the hijacked building by the mafia property lords – constitutes a dark feature of our lives that used to be an engine of oppression and dehumanisation of black people.

The ugliness of the evil system of apartheid, contrived by the National Party from 1948 until 1994, had its oppressive machinery located at Number 80 Albert Street, manned by more than 3 000 apartheid foot soldiers as employees to ascertain that Johannesburg remained true to the designs and whims of its architect, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd – “to keep the black man in his place”.

To achieve this objective, the apartheid government officials, rigidly and meticulously handpicked the die-hard apartheid adherents to carry out the work of their unjust masters.

As expected of them, they executed the party’s nefarious policies to ensure that the City of Gold, through the notorious pass laws, closely controlled and curtailed the black person’s movement – in life and in death – with small margin of error or higher confidence levels of precision.

But the building we won from the oppressors by sweat and blood – and a democratic vote at the polls – has become a building of shame and great scandal, controlled by criminal elements – some of whom thought to be aligned to governing structures.

The custodianship of the Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality has today fallen under the control of criminal banditry described as “building hijackers”. The council has turned a blind eye to the shenanigans within its own ranks, allowing malfeasance, including the hijacking of buildings, to thrive unchecked.

We must ask with a heavy heart, what is the value of our political liberation, the immeasurable intrinsic worth, which is the project of human sacrifice and suffering and death of thousands upon thousands of freedom fighters, over many years, committed to the project of unseating the unjust oppressors?

The words inscribed on a plaque attached to the wall at the entrance of the burnt down building reminds us of the grisly intention of the apartheid regime.

“The central Pass Office was an infamous checkpoint of the influx control system under apartheid. The ‘dompas’, which controlled the movement of African people was issued here. Denied a place in the city, many were ordered to leave Johannesburg…”

We all know that Verwoerd was an evil man who did not like black people. He was clear they were not good enough to do anything other than to become “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

So, in the end, what do we make of this building of shame?
Verwoerd used it to oppress black people and deny them the right to flourish in the land of their birth.

On the other end of the spectrum, after blacks had gained their liberation, some black leaders not worthy of the title, sought to abuse and corrupt the democratic system for their own personal gain, and in the process devalued the noble liberation project “of the people”.

The Johannesburg council, the political principalities of different political parties, owe us an explanation why the council’s property was hijacked the way it was.

Number 80 Albert Street building was a place of shame and oppression for millions of black South Africans during the apartheid years. Today, in times of democracy and social justice, and with the deaths of nearly 80 people through neglect, incompetence, and crookedness, the local government in the City of Gold has not covered itself in glory.

The city’s officials must hang their head in shame.

Mdhlela is a freelance journalist, an Anglican priest, ex-trade unionist and former editor of the SA Human Rights Commission journals

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