Madiba's old offices a crime den

Old, tacky clothes lie all over the floor. A stench hangs in the air. The first and second floors of this downtown Johannesburg building are crammed with shacks.
The people who live here are homeless; some make a living guiding cars into parking places.

This is Chancellor House, which once housed the offices of South Africa’s most famous legal team — Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. Now it is rotting into oblivion. Unlike many other historical sites in the city that have been preserved, Chancellor House has been ignored.

Mandela and Tambo set up their offices in this building in 1952. Their aim was to help Africans under apartheid. In his autobiography, Mandela describes Chancellor House as a place where Africans could find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally in their battles against an oppressive state.

“We were not only African lawyers in South Africa, but we were the only firm of African lawyers. For Africans we were the firm of first choice and last resort,” he writes in Long Walk to Freedom. “To reach our offices each morning, we had to move through a crowd of people in the corridors, on the stairs and in our small waiting room ... Every day, we heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.”

Five decades later, and 10 years into democracy, few people know the significance of Chancellor House, which is situated in Fox Street.

Says Eric Itzkin, deputy director of Immovable Heritage, part of the Johannesburg city council’s arts, culture and heritage services: “It is regrettable that the building, which holds such significant memories in the history of South Africa, has not been developed into a heritage site.

“This is a unique place that should be given to heritage. It will serve as a reminder of the suffering and sacrifice that led to democracy in our country.”

But, with more than 300 squatters unlawfully occupying the building, Chancellor House has turned into a crime den. Police say they have recorded a number of criminal cases, including murders, in the building. Prostitution is rife.

The Mail & Guardian visited Chancellor House this week. All the windows are broken and the building has been divided into makeshift squatter homes. There is neither water nor electricity.

The South African Heritage Re-source Agency (Sahra), a government-sponsored institution established to look at the development of nationally significant sites, said Chancellor House was “never on our priority list”.

“Now that [the M&G] has raised it, we will have to get to the bottom of the matter,” said Sahra provincial manager Thabo Kgomommu.

Ismail Ayob, legal representative of the owner of the building, said there was no way the status of the building could be restored with squatters staying there.

Ayob, who is also Mandela’s lawyer, said: “The owner of the building has always wanted to restore [it], but these people have now occupied it without permission.”

Last year the Johannesburg city council’s attempt to evict the squatters was met with resistance from the occupiers.

The matter is now subject to litigation in the Johannesburg High Court, with the council arguing that the building is unsuitable for habitation.

The squatters argue that the council’s intention to evict them is a violation of their constitutional right to shelter.

Chancellor House is Lala Maphisa’s only home. “This place is not suitable for human beings, but I have no other choice,” he said.

Dick Mocomary has been living in the building since 1999. He lives with his girlfriend and their baby. “I came here because I was stranded and wanted a place to stay,” he said.

Council spokesperson Kgotso Chikane said: “We are waiting for a court order so that we can take action.” A date for the hearing is still to be set.

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