Thursday, July 10, 2008

On taking up articles I have been called on, often, to serve and file documents in many and varied corners of the greater Johannesburg area, and as any good clerk does, I have sought out ever more obscure routes to dodge traffic. On many of these trips, and recently returned from my first trip through historic Europe, I have found myself admiring our own architecture. When one scratches through the grime and looking back in time there are some very grand buildings, heavy with history lining our very own streets.
Probably the most familiar of these buildings is the High Court in Pritchard Street which was built in 1909 and cuts an imposing façade with its bronzed dome and grey stone pillars. The oldest public building in Johannesburg is the Post Office in Rissik Street built in 1897 during the time of President Paul Kruger (with the clock tower dated to around 1900). Others called to mind include the Ansteys Building on Joubert Street, built in the Art Deco style during the 1930s, which was the home of Cecil Williams who was an actor, playwright and member of Umkhnto we Sizwe. Nelson Mandela disguised himself as Cecil Williams’ driver when he was captured in 1962. The present day Rand Club was built in 1909, where members took brandies in much the same way as we still do today at certain establishments on Fredman Drive. And of course my favourite, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Joubert Park, built in 1911, which houses works by Rodin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Henry Moore, Gerard Sekoto, Batisse, Alexis Preller, Maud Sumner, Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae and Pierneef.
I was once called upon to serve a document at the Carlton Centre in Commissioner Street where I observed an American tourist carrying a tourist’s guide to South Africa, quite thick with attractions, enquiring how to get to the top of the Carlton Centre, being the tallest building in South Africa, which I am told, has an impressive view. Here I felt a little ashamed as, having worked in the Carlton Centre during 2001, I never actually ventured to the top floor whereas this tourist had travelled from a different continent to do just that.
It got me wondering what else I was missing out on and what was being done to preserve all this for posterity, the clerks in Johannesburg being too busy with serving, filing and other important duties.
The National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999 (the “Act”) established the South African Heritage Resources Agency (“SAHRA”), charged with identifying and declaring national heritage sites. The Act defines a heritage site as a place declared to be a national heritage site by SAHRA or a place declared to be a provincial heritage site by a provincial heritage resources authority.
The Act states that no person may destroy, damage, deface, excavate, alter, remove from its original position, subdivide or change the planning status of any heritage site or a provisionally protected place or object without a permit issued by the heritage resources authority responsible for the protection of such site (sections 27(18) and 29(10)) and anyone who contravenes these sections is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.
Section 34 of the Act states that no person may alter or demolish any structure or part of a structure which is older than sixty years without a permit issued by the relevant provincial heritage resources authority. And, in terms of section 51 of the Act, anyone guilty of this offence is liable to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years or to both such fine and imprisonment.
Further, in terms of section 51(8), it is stated that upon conviction of any contravention of the Act which results in damage to or alteration of a protected heritage resource the court may order that such heritage site be re-built or that the sum equivalent to re-building be paid to SAHRA.
Despite this our heritage sites are still being demolished to make way for new developments, the products of which most of us live in today.
I mention here the Rand Steam Laundries which were recently demolished without a permit, and also the matter of Dudley Court, 7th Avenue, Parktown North. Dudley Court, which was built in 1936, was placed on the list of conservation worthy immovable property in 1998 as a rare example of an Art Deco “modern style” maisonette or residential building. When a resident in the area became aware that the building was being demolished SAHRA was approached for advice. The resident was advised by SAHRA to report the matter to the police and a docket was duly opened. The matter was heard in the Magistrate’s Court Johannesburg and resulted in the imposition on the owner of a five year suspended sentence and a R300 000.00 fine.
It seems that residents’ associations across Johannesburg have taken it upon themselves to ensure compliance with legislation like the National Heritage Resources Act and it is worthwhile to take a look at the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust’s website at for information regarding tours and places of interest in these areas. The website also lists the properties in its area which fall under the protection of the Act.

Annette Thomson is a candidate attorney at Bowman Gilfillan.