Anna Sihlali lives in a modest house in Jabulani, Soweto. Her dining room is just barely capable of housing a medium-sized table and chairs threaten to spill out of the cramped living room adjoining it.
But as much as the furniture needs to breathe, the walls are in even more trouble. Just about every available space holds an art work not that different to the one that fetched R26 000 on auction in June. In a secure storage space elsewhere, she has a trove of similar works, which could fetch somewhere in the region of R15-million. But that is only a small part of a national treasure her family lays claim to – one they fear may be in the process of evaporating.
In total, experts say, the collected works created by Anna's late husband, Durant, could be worth hundreds of millions of rands a decade or so from now, provided there is a strategic effort to build and establish his importance and a careful release of the works. If the art market is less receptive or the need to sell more urgent, it could fetch R60-million. Selling off even a small portion of that, though, would leave Durant spinning in his grave. "My husband wanted to make a museum," said Anna. "He was preparing for it; he said so even in his will, even in his diaries. He said he wanted the next generation to learn a lot about him and his work."
In a sense, Durant spent much of his life preparing to create a museum of his work. Although he produced art, especially watercolours of township life, at a furious rate, he sold only reluctantly, grudgingly. Despite struggling financially, to the point of being almost bankrupt at his death, he hoarded his own work for 50 years, even in the face of collectors keen to get their hands on anything by him that they could find. Durant simply was not interested.
"Money has no value," he said in a newspaper interview in 1976, unearthed by gallerist and friend Warren Siebrits some years ago. "My works that are very good and have great beauty I keep for myself."
It resulted in him leaving an unprecedentedly, unified collection when he died in 2004. His home in Soweto and a studio in Braamfontein in Johannesburg held, effectively, all his work, all under his ownership. It is a collection, art historians say, that captures and reflects South Africa during the apartheid years as no other does. But eight years later there is no Durant Sihlali museum – or certain knowledge of what has become of three-quarters of that collection. There is, however, mounting concern that his work is being sold off at bargain prices. "The whole work is gone, everything," said Anna. "Now we're seeing Durant's work selling so cheap. We think he is selling [it]. We have to get it back."
The "he" she is referring to is Mafika Sihlali, once a close confidant of the family and executor of Durant's estate. He now faces criminal charges of theft on top of a slow-moving fraud case that stems from a short, if storied, stint as lawyer for the SABC.
How Mafika is related to Durant, if at all, is not clear. Anna, who can barely utter his name in her contempt, describes him as a man who appeared out of nowhere after her husband died and confidently took charge of family legal matters.
Durant and Anna's daughter, Iris Sihlali, who worked closely with her father in his later life and is largely estranged from her mother, says Durant was introduced to Mafika by another family member when he needed contract advice. Other family members refer to him as an uncle, but cannot pin down the relationship. Despite repeated attempts, Mafika could not be reached for comment on this article.
What everyone agrees on, however, is that Mafika not only took charge of settling Durant's affairs, but also held what could be several thousand of his works by 2007.
"Here in the garage there were 11 crates, or 13 crates, full of works," said Anna. "Even upstairs in the storage there were works. After Durant died, the studio said we had to clear it within six months and we didn't have anywhere for it, so two floors of his work there and everything we had here went to Mafika. He said he would store it for us in his house."
Various people who had sight of the works have broadly corroborated a sequence of events that ultimately saw Mafika store works ranging from watercolours to rare metal statues in an otherwise empty house in Sunninghill, in northern Johannesburg, in 2007. At the time the family was happy with the arrangement, believing their patriarch's wish for a museum was about to be fulfilled.
But unbeknown to Durant's family, 2007 was a turbulent year for Mafika. Even as a retrospective of Durant's early work started in Rosebank, Mafika was under investigation for fraud and corruption at the SABC, an investigation that would finally see him charged five years later.
"When I first met Mafika I thought the family was lucky that they had this guy, a savvy lawyer, who could help them," said Siebrits, who organised and funded the exhibition after years of dealing with the morsels Durant allowed to be sold. "The warning signs came a little too late. We'd be dealing with him and he'd say he's a little short this month, that he needs money. And we'd wonder: Why is this successful guy with his successful business asking for money?"
News of Mafika's troubles at the SABC only surfaced later, after he obtained a court interdict to prevent the Mail & Guardian from publishing details of an internal audit at the public broadcaster. In hindsight, both Siebrits and Anna trace the breakdown of their respective relationships with Mafika to that time and cite a sudden inability to get hold of him. That, they say, is also when a large number of Durant's works started to appear on the market.
"You would have three or four of Durant's pieces on auction every year if you were lucky," said Siebrits. "There were always a few changing hands, but you had to look out for them. Suddenly there were three or four on every auction – just this flood coming out. We realised the only source could be the family."
Iris is convinced that at least some of the works that came to auction had been among those stored by Mafika, and both Siebrits and Anna make similar allegations. The final proof of that, however, is with Mafika.
'When we documented the collection, we shot it all on film, on transparencies," said Siebrits, in a partially corroborated account. "Now it seems like an unusual question, but at the time Mafika asked who else would have a copy if we did it on film, and I said there would just be the one copy. He requested those films, just before things got bad, and he still has them."
Slow to build as it was, the breakdown of trust came shockingly fast. When Durant Sihlali: The Pioneering Years, 1952 to 1979 opened at Siebrits's Johannesburg gallery in March 2007, it was accompanied by a limited-edition book in which Mafika speaks on behalf of the family.
"For me, it has been two-and-a-half years of the best labour of love working on the estate of the late Durant Sihlali," he wrote. "We look forward to a long-term relationship [with Siebrits] – this exhibition is a start, until the final realisation of the Durant Sihlali Museum, which Durant left specific instructions on."
When Mafika demanded that the gallery return the works included in the show four months later, complaining that the estate would not benefit from it and that storage fees were mounting, he was bluntly rebuffed. In a sequence of emails, which the M&G has seen, the gallery said it would not be releasing any works "due to ongoing irregularities".
That was the start of two long and costly sets of legal disputes. One was between Siebrits and Anna. They finally settled issues with Anna borrowing the better part of R76000 to pay the gallery for more than half a decade of storage and other costs involving the 2007 exhibition, and leaving her with the works that were on display, estimated to be about a quarter of the total collection. Both parties are happy with the arrangement, if not with what it cost them; Siebrits says he is still out of pocket and Anna is concerned that she will need to sell some of the art.
The second dispute is between Anna and Mafika. Because the bulk of the collection has not been located, lawyers acting for Anna formally demanded the return of the works from Mafika as early as March 2008 and she was appointed as executor of her husband's estate in October that year. In correspondence, Mafika seems to claim the right to sell some of the works to cover his costs, with strong warnings to the contrary from Anna's representatives. With a theft case now laid against Mafika, the family hopes a resolution is in sight.
"If we can just find him [Mafika], then he can tell us we owe him money and we will pay that money," said Anna. "My husband must have his museum."