FOUR YEARS on, and the multimillion rand, first-of-its-kind Women’s Living Heritage Monument in the heart of Pretoria stands unused; a sore reminder of what has been described as flagrant incompetence by the government.
The monument is a stone’s throw from Tshwane House, headquarters of the city administration, and was unveiled to much pomp and ceremony on Women’s Day 2016, at a cost of millions.
It was to become the first site in the country dedicated purely to honouring women and their struggle for liberation. Officiating at the event in 2016 was then president Jacob Zuma, who had with him then deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, Cabinet members and government officials, along with VIPs from all walks of life.
They were there to celebrate a place that would take future visitors into the apartheid era, and the aesthetic beauty and symbolism of a place where temporarily stood life-size statues of the four women leaders of the iconic Women’s mmarch which had passed this spot 60 years earlier.
The monument was designed to tell the story of women’s contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa, represented by sculptures on the wall of four leaders of the 1956 march, Lillian Ngoyi, Sophie De Bruyn, Helen Joseph and Rahima Moosa.
Today only de Bruyn, is still alive. Aged 82, she reflected on this year’s Women’s Day that despite progress, women still faced many challenges.
“Shame on the government … this, their failure to honour women when they had the chance is what we see today, with the failure to deal with gender-based violence … this is exactly why no one will respect us,” said Pretoria gender activist and cultural expert Dr Lizzie Ramathuba.
The monument next to the State Theatre, was not only intended to be for people to walk through to view hours of documentation in print and on film, paying tribute to the strength of women, but it was also poised to be a gallery and house a leadership and training centre for women.
“You can imagine how excited we were, when we heard it would have dedicated walls for murals, artworks and artefacts telling the stories of women’s struggles throughout history. We visualised how we would spend days in that safe space … but, like everything that has to do with us, it went up in smoke,” Ramathuba said.
“We were told it was to give an emotional reflection on what women are capable of, to give us young people a leg-up, allow us to realise we are stronger than the horrors we live through,” University of Pretoria student Nonhlanhla Gumede said.
“But throughout my years of walking past it, that beautiful building made me realise we are being sold a pipe dream, we are on our own.”
Vendors nearby had also hoped to experience the boom that would have come from tourist visits to the site in the CBD.
“I sell South African history in the form of clothes, bags and accessories, and no one buys from me more than one who has been touched by the nostalgia of history,” said vendor MaDlamini.
“We dreamt we would one day supply people from across Africa and the world.” But, they said, they had been robbed of that sense of pride, and of income because the monument was yet to be opened.
By Friday, neither the Department of Arts and Culture nor Tshwane officials had responded to queries on the state of the monument, although the DA said they had been asking for clarity for years.
“We understand there are structural defects, so they have not received an occupational certificate,” DA spokesperson on Arts and Culture Kingsol Chabalala said. He said opening the building had been a mere PR exercise as it was not compliant… but surely there has been time to fix whatever the defects are?
“The first phase cost R54m, and phase 2’s initial contract was R51m, but it ended up costing government R160m. The project estimated dates were not met,” he added, saying they have been asking government why they have failed to spend money on what would change the conditions of people in the province: “Instead, they throw money into a bottomless pit.”
Meanwhile the whereabouts of the life-size statues, removed immediately after the event of 2016, has not been revealed.
The site of the Women’s Monument was at one time known as Strijdom Square and carried a giant bust of JG Strijdom, an apartheid-era Prime Minister.
his makes it doubly significant as Strijdom was the man to whom the women of 1956 wanted to hand their petition. The square was also the site in 1988 of a massacre, when a man known as the “Wit Wolf” indiscriminately shot and killed eight people and injured numerous others.
The Strijdom bust collapsed in 2001 and another sculpture titled “Prancing Horse”on the square was acquired by the University of Pretoria.