Destroying the new and the old: The removal of a mural at the Durban Botanic Gardens depicting South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to Democracy

620x349

The Durban Botanical Gardens was established in 1849 and is the oldest botanical garden in Africa. The Botanic Gardens curates major collections such as cycads, palms and orchids and, in the true tradition of botanic gardens, is several gardens within one.

The Durban Botanic Gardens Trust runs the Botanical Gardens.  The Trust is an independent and discretionary Trust, established in 1993 to support the Botanic Gardens with various maintenance and development projects including projects with a focus on education, biodiversity, heritage, horticulture, research and people, plants and culture.

This week a mural reflecting South Africa’s old and new flags was removed from the Durban Botanical Gardens after the Ethekwini Municipality received complaints that it was offensive and provocative. I have written before about the desirability of banning the old South African flag or not. In my view, a ban will be counterproductive. However, I understand the association of the old flag with Apartheid and I, therefore, personally discourages people from displaying it in public, other than for historical or artistic purposes.

The following newspaper article covered the removal of the mural:

Old SA flag removed from Durban Botanic Gardens

I live in Durban and visits the Botanical Gardens often. It’s a place of tranquillity and reflection, and it often hosts music concerts and other events. Many many people have therefore since it had been put up twenty years ago, walked past the mural at the entrance to the Gardens witnessing its magical transition from the old flag to the beautiful new South African flag. A powerful symbol of transition from the old to the new and symbolising change and renewal. Walking from the other side past the mural and towards the exit of the Botanic Gardens, only the new South African flag is visible unless one looked consciously back over your shoulder to then view the old South African flag. The artist producing the mural created this effect to symbolise the need to look forward rather than backward to a South Africa that belongs to all, Black and White.

Sadly because of a few complaints and the random act by an administrative functionary, Mr. Thembokosi Ngcobo who is the Head: Parks, Recreation and Culture at the Ethewkini Municipality, this beautiful mural is now lost forever depriving patrons and visitors to the Botanic Gardens of its powerful message and symbolism. He instructed that the mural be removed, and this was done in a matter of a day. On Twitter, he describes himself as a seasoned public administrator and political activist who tweeted the following after the mural was removed.

IMG_9589

At the time of the complaints from a few people on Twitter about the mural, the Durban Botanical Gardens tweeted as follows about the history and background to the mural on display, which reveals that the mural was commissioned by the Ethekwini Municipality itself and one of its Public Museums, the KwaMuhle Museum. Mr. Ngcobo therefore not only destroyed something commissioned by his employer namely the Ethekwini Municipality but he did so without obtaining permission from the Municipal Council to do so!

IMG_9585

The random act of Mr. Ngobo raises many serious questions that require answers from him and the Ethekwini Municipality. These are the following:

  • How can an appointed municipal official usurp the power to take what I suspect is in effect an illegal decision, without due process and consultation and that without anybody even batting an eyelid?
  • What evidence does Mr. Ncogo, have to say that municipal protocol was not followed when the mural was put up 20 years ago, especially seeing that the Tweet from the Botanical Gardens indicate that the Ethewkini Municipality itself commissioned it?
  • Were the Trust of the Botanical Gardens consulted on the matter? Looks like not because the IOL article linked above quotes an anonymous employee who says they received an instruction from the Municipality to remove it.
  • What about the patrons of the Botanical Gardens? Were they consulted or don’t they have a say in the matter?
  • What about the person who created the mural? Was he/she consulted and what about the irreparable damage done to his/her intellectual and artistic property?
  • Was the matter submitted to the Ethekwini Metro Council for a decision? Clearly not given the timeline involved.

This act is a clear example of abuse of power by an official who I suspect did not have the necessary authority or delegation to do so. It speaks to how most senior officials at municipalities these days are beholden to the political ideology of the ruling political party, rather than serving impartially all the citizens at large and without fear or favour.

My municipal career started back in the Apartheid days and functionaries of those times are often unfairly accused of having been dictatorial or not following due process. I worked for some 18 years at municipalities in a senior management capacity, and remember, for example, the hoops the Margate Borough and I as its Corporate Service Manager had to jump through to obtain the necessary permission to demolish the old Margate town hall to make space for much needed public parking. It took months of applications to bodies like the Heritage Council and consultation with the public. No usurping of power to do what we thought was in the public interest. We followed the due process in the interest of transparency and proper governance.

Given the wide definition of property in our Constitution, this act is but one example of how as citizens we can be robbed of it without compensation if the Constitution is amended as the African National Congress is planning to do. Let this serve as a warning to us all.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.