On Friday June 23 2006 at a London hotel some of the world’s best architects gathered to award the inaugural Lubetkin Prize, given by the Royal Institute of British Architects, to recognise the most outstanding building outside the UK and the European Union.
Competing were global works like the Canadian War Museum, the Terrence Donnelly Centre also in Canada and the Zurich airport in Switzerland.
The winner was The Red Location Museum of the People’s Struggle in New Brighton, South Africa.
A first of its kind in Port Elizabeth, the museum project by Noero Wolff Architects indeed was something special. It immortalised South Africa’s anti-apartheid heroes with memory boxes and picture exhibits telling their stories.
The three Lubetkin judges were mesmerised, saying the museum was an architectural tour de force. It would go on to be a proud tourist landmark for our city, raking in more global accolades.
Fast forward 12 years, the precinct is a shameful shadow of its former self.
With parts of it broken and vandalised with unsavoury graffiti on its walls, the museum is at the centre of a political stalemate which has shut its doors for almost five years.
Most significant, perhaps, is that it stands as a monumental depiction of how toxic, self-destructive politics often keep this city in a never-ending cycle of regression.
The story goes that as far back as the mid-2000s while the world celebrated the museum as an iconic landmark, its immediate community was aggrieved.
They felt that by ploughing in millions of rand building a tourist attraction in the midst of devastating poverty, the government was insensitive to their pressing need for housing and infrastructure development.
Their sentiments were best captured by a resident who told a journalist: “Why build a house for dead people when us the living do not have a roof over our heads?”
Although some houses had been built, they were not nearly enough to meet the ever-increasing demand.
And then came an even bigger bone of contention – the houses built by the government in the area years before began to crumble.
It would fall on the government to fix them.
Only, most of them were structurally unsound and would have to be demolished and rebuilt. But by then, the state had reduced its standard size for an RDP house from 48m² to 40m².
It would have to demolish the bigger crumbling homes and, as dictated by law, replace them with smaller new ones. After much convincing some families agreed to this plan. Others would not budge. And to force the government’s hand, they forcefully closed the museum, held violent demonstrations, declaring that it would not open until their demands for their preferred size homes were met. And so began a stalemate. With every round of negotiations with municipal leaders, the community placed new demands on the table.
Depending on which community leader they spoke to, the goalposts kept shifting.
There are a number of things to consider here.
First, it is undeniable that this community, like many others in this city, is a victim of a system that failed to adequately invest in its development.
Two, these families have every right to be angry at a government that promised in 1994 to deliver decent housing, only to hand them defective shells that would fall apart just years into their life span.
They also have every right to be angry about local politicians who spent years bickering over patronage instead of working to grow the economy. These are all valid grievances. But they do not justify what has happened in the last five years.
They do not justify closing down a public facility that is one of the few income generators in the area.
They do not justify the intimidation and violence which turned the once iconic precinct into a no-go zone. They do not justify depriving school children of the opportunity to use the only digital library that would have otherwise been available to them in their neighbourhood.
They certainly do not justify ripping apart a shrine of our history, piece by piece, in criminal acts that also demonstrate a sense of self-degradation. While many in this community seemingly want the museum opened, their voices have been lost in the anarchy.
Almost five years on, even the most defiant of this group must admit that this standoff has yielded no material results. If anything, it has robbed a community of a potentially beneficial facility, both socially and economically.
Indeed it exposes the government’s failure to meet the needs of its people.
But it is equally an indictment of citizens who thrive on dangerous populism to serve narrow political interests to the detriment of greater development.
Either way, nobody wins.