South African shantytown residents have forced the closure of a museum honouring anti-apartheid heroes, accusing the authorities of building “a house for dead people” while they live in squalor.
Once a tourist magnet, The Red Location Museum in New Brighton, outside the southern city of Port Elizabeth, houses hundreds of “memory boxes” containing the life stories of anti-apartheid activists, including the late liberation icon Nelson Mandela.
The modernity of the $2m building, which won several international architectural awards, stands in total contrast to the plastic and corrugated iron structures which serve as houses for the neighbouring community.
The museum closed nine months ago in the face of threats by residents to assault visitors and efforts to reopen it have been met with violent protests.
Its website says only that it “is closed due to community protests”, in what is one of the oldest settled black townships of Port Elizabeth.
The building has now been stripped by people helping themselves to electrical wiring, water pipes, power sockets,fencing and wooden fittings for their shacks.
Like many of the poor around South Africa, the New Brighton residents feel they have not benefited enough from the end of apartheid and the rise to power of Mandela’s African National Congress.
“We raised this issue from the beginning - in 2005 when they started building this museum,” community leader Thembisile Klaas told AFP.
“Why build a house for dead people when us the living do not have a roof over our heads?
“We are living in shacks which get flooded each time it rains….and yet the municipality spends millions of rands building a museum.”
Community leaders say they have demanded houses for years but have only received empty promises from the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality—the local authority for the area.
Some security guards hired to patrol the perimeter of the building—which was also used as a research facility by historians—have abandoned their posts in fear for their lives.
“The conditions are getting worse. The fencing has been cut in several places and there is no lighting,” said one guard.
“Even the covers of the drains outside have been pilfered. It is dangerous, you don’t know when you will be attacked,” he said.
“The building used to be very busy and we used to mingle with international tourists here but now it’s a ghost.”
Deputy mayor Chippa Ngcolomba said the housing problem was being addressed but complained that the issue was being used as a “political football”.
“We have put in place a number of security interventions to make sure the museum is safeguarded,” Ngcolomba said.
“We are still investigating the situation so as to come up with a long-term solution.”
Port Elizabeth was a hotbed of the anti-apartheid struggle where ANC leaders such as Govan Mbeki, the late father of former president Thabo Mbeki, once lived.
Chris du Preez, the museum’s acting assistant director, says no artefacts or documents were stolen or damaged during the looting.
The museum’s ‘memory boxes’ were inspired by the boxes migrant workers used to hold their prized possessions when separated from their families. Each offers a different vision of the struggle in South Africa.
Large portraits of apartheid activists are also on exhibit, along with photographs of migrants labouring in South African mines and others depicting the horrors of apartheid such as black people being whipped by police.
“We are lucky that the thieves have not yet laid their hands on important and valuable documents, files and other materials inside or on display inside museum,” he said.
“They have been stealing things which form part of the building structure and not the records, files and other items kept inside,” said Du Preez.
The museum won the 2006 Lubetkin Prize awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects as the best new building outside the European Union.
Its open space design and saw-tooth roofs are seen as a reference to the port city’s industrial activity and strong trade union history.
City authorities could not say when the museum would re-open, while community activists said it would not happen until they had decent houses.