Johannesburg – The permanent closure of South Africa’s liberation monument Liliesleaf has been described as an embarrassment.
The announcement, that the heritage site will be closed, ironically comes at the start of Heritage Month.
Political analyst Sanusha Naidu said the imminent closure was indicative of the government’s lack of respect for the country’s heritage and failure to manage the public purse.
Naidu also added that it was disconcerting that the government could not afford to keep important heritage sites open.
Liliesleaf Farm served as the secret headquarters and nerve centre for the ANC, SACP, Umkhonto we Sizwe and the Congress Alliance, between 1961 and 1963.
It was at Liliesleaf farm that plans to overthrow the apartheid regime were discussed, and where leaders of the liberation movement took refuge in their Struggle for a non-racial, just, free, and democratic South Africa.
A police raid on July 11, 1963, saw the arrest of the underground leadership, which set in motion the infamous Rivonia Trial.
Post apartheid, Liliesleaf was home to extraordinary exhibitions that told the story of the journey to democracy in South Africa.
“Liliesleaf is more than just a national heritage site. It is a site of memory that keeps the history of our liberation alive.
“But we seem to have a government that only pays lip service to the memory of our struggle,” Naidu said.
She added: “If you look at how other countries never let the world forget their own struggle for freedom, this is completely embarrassing for South Africans. Future generations will never know our history,” she said.
Founder and chief executive of the Liliesleaf Trust Nicholas Wolpe said the financial crisis faced by the heritage site was nothing new.
Earlier this year, financial woes were compounded and exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19.
This resulted in a desperate attempt to keep its doors opened, through a Crowdfunding initiative.
“Despite the successful efforts in raising funds from corporates and the public, who showed great generosity in coming to the aid of Liliesleaf, the funds raised only helped so far. Liliesleaf has been living on borrowed time ever since,” Wolfe said.
The closure of Liliesleaf also means that about 30 staff will be left jobless.
According to Wolfe, the staff were not paid in January, February, and March this year.
In addition, staff members will not receive their retrenchment packages, as the coffers remain empty.
However, Wolfe said the entire arts, culture and heritage sector stood to be destroyed and forgotten, by a failing government.
“Liliesleaf is part of a systemic and endemic issue in the sector. Sooner or later, there will be nothing to protect or look back on.
“If we don’t act now, we are in danger of becoming heritage, culturally, and artistically dead,” he said.
Wolfe added the closure of Liliesleaf has yet again demonstrated the abject failure of the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, to provide the financial support so desperately needed by the sector as a whole, at this critical time.
He maintained that the decision, to combine the departments of arts, culture and heritage with sport “should never have happened”.
“Obviously the arts would get relegated, as sport is seen as the more glamorous sector. The government does not understand that it’s about preserving our rich history, and not about rands and cents,” he said.
The National Heritage Council of South Africa hosted a webinar recently, where speakers from across Southern Africa discussed the impact the pandemic has had on their liberation heritage sites, including Robben Island and the District Six museum.
The development and maintenance of these heritage sites was put on hold, as budgets shrank and money was diverted, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Meanwhile, Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa is set to officially launch Heritage Month on Thursday in Pretoria.