Desmond Tutu’s home, Jo’burg’s heritage: Revitalising St Mary’s Cathedral

St Mary’s Cathedral is to be declared a national heritage site and the surrounding area developed into the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Precinct. The archbishop will also be posthumously honoured with the City’s highest accolade — Freeman of the City of Johannesburg. 

 “This was a request put to the previous two or three mayors, but there wasn’t much headway on the City’s side,” Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Phalatse said, adding that when the current dean of the cathedral, Reverend Xolani Dlwathi, approached her on the day the archbishop’s death was announced, she responded immediately.  

Eric Itzkin, at the City’s department of arts, culture and heritage marvels at how the church remains a hugely impressive landmark, with spectacular interior spaces and a very imposing  façade onto Hoek Street. 

“The task is to create an environment that is attractive and conducive and safe and even beautiful.  With all the challenges, there is a lot of potential and importance attached to the project.  We are focusing particularly on the block immediately surrounding St Mary’s Cathedral, and it includes Darragh House, which is also associated with St Mary’s in its history, and even its ownership today.”

The state of the precinct speaks to the failure of the government, Dlwathi said. “The precinct has been decaying over time, and there have been adverse effects on the sustainability of the cathedral.  You have to really have guts and heart to drive into the area. Most of my predecessors have engaged the City unsuccessfully. Since 2015, when I came in as the new dean, we began to reflect on how we can sort out this precinct once and for all. But it was very clear that the City has to be a major partner.”  

The proposal from the Anglican Church cites four major areas of concern. Since there are no municipal waste bins in the area, a large rubble skip at the corner of Wanderers and de Villiers Street is used for garbage and rubble from neighbouring flats, businesses, and the Darragh House community, posing serious environmental and health risks.

Public toilets in Hoek Street, next to the main entrance of the cathedral, have not been maintained by the City and, as a result, members of the public relieve themselves against the walls of the cathedral and shop fronts. The toilets have also been a site of crime, including rape.

Storm water drains are repeatedly blocked by refuse emanating from street trading, neighbouring businesses, and a homeless community living at the corner of Rissik and Plein streets.

Robberies, including the theft of handbags and cellphones belonging to congregants during church services, are a continuing aggravation  

Illegal parking; pop-up taxi ranks; the flaunting of traffic regulations and altercations between meter-taxi operators are par for the course.

A significant slice of Tutu’s life and ministry took place in this part of town. Professor Barney Pityana, representing The Archbishop Desmond Tutu Intellectual Property Trust remembers how Tutu was a Johannesburg boy and moved to Cape Town only in the final stage of his life. 

Dlwathi laments at how embarrassing it has been that Tutu has not been honoured in Johannesburg, where his ministry began. 

“Cape Town got the last of his life. He  was ordained, priested and consecrated and installed as dean in the cathedral.  Before he joined the South African Council of Churches, all his major ministry and his prophetic messages were made here.”

Phalatse also laments the fact that Tutu’s first choice was to be buried in Johannesburg, but because of the urban decay, he realised it would not be possible.

“Arch was a national figure; in fact, he was a global figure. It is true:  Jo’burg was his first choice to have his funeral. Unfortunately, because of the urban decay, he felt it would not be possible at the time.  He was part of the funeral planning committee, so he did have a say, and at the time he felt that Cape Town was more of a city. He was the first black dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in 1975, so he made history. He taught there and fought against the regime: he carried out his activism from that pulpit.  So it is something that cannot be erased from his history and it is something that we need to try to preserve.”

St Mary’s Cathedral, built in 1929, was originally an extension of an existing chapel, the All Souls Chapel, which is now more than 100 years old.  

“If you look at great cathedrals of the world — in London, the US, Paris — they don’t only celebrate heritage and history, but also offer avenues for tourism and the development of small businesses,” Dlwathi said. 

“Major heritage interventions will be in the Hoek Street area at the entrance to the cathedral. “We want to make that into a real point of arrival and a destination place,” Itzkin said.

Public artworks are part of the vision.  “It is something that artists will need to engage with. It may be sculptural forms. One idea is to have arches — arches for the Arch — perhaps at each end of Plein Street,” Itzkin said.

Dlwathi added that they are still wrestling with the kind of artefacts to include, with some suggesting a bust and others an arch for the Arch, which was the approach in Cape Town.  

“There could also be boards celebrating his life and prophetic ministry. We are thinking about what would work in our context, and of course looking at standards for cathedrals in other parts of the world.”

A deacon snuffs a candle at the end of a memorial ceremony in honour of the Arch. (Marco Longari/AFP)

The public toilets will be demolished and vendors will be relocated.  Part of the vision for the Phalatse said, is to regularise informal trade and support informal traders to continue trading.

A number of government departments have committed to cleaning up and developing the precinct.

The City’s department of public safety will continue to deploy significant numbers of Johannesburg Metro Police Department officers 24-7, giving maximum attention to the cathedral precinct.

An extensive transport action plan is being implemented by the Johannesburg Transport Agency and the Johannesburg Development Agency.  Taxis will be rerouted and designated appropriate taxi ranks; Wanderers Street will be closed to traffic at the corner of de Villiers Street and be made into a two-way traffic road between Plein and de Villiers streets, and Wanderers Street parking will be reserved for cathedral visitors only. 

The process of renaming streets is already underway.  After this is effected, Phalatse said that the City will be able to solidify the plans, secure funding, onboard partners and in the next financial year start rolling it out.  

 “The precinct is principally about the great legacy of Desmond Tutu, together with the history of St Mary’s as a great place of worship, a great architectural edifice, but also as a bastion of struggle through the apartheid period. Key themes connected with this are expressed in the proposals for street renaming,” Itzkin said. 

Proposed street name changes are:  Plein Street, which is one of the major arteries of the city going east-west to be renamed Desmond Tutu Street;  Wanderers Street, which is often the way in for accessing the cathedral and Darragh House to be renamed Simeon Nkoane Street; and de Villiers Street to be renamed Trevor Huddlestone.

Both Huddlestone and Nkoane were leading clergymen and anti-apartheid figures, who had a close relationship with Tutu.

The church proposed that Hoek Street, be renamed after Anglican clergyman and human-rights advocate, the Very Reverend Gonville Aubie ffrench-Beytagh, but has conceded to Cathedral Street, because of its positioning between the Anglican cathedral and the massive, evangelical Universal Church of the Kingdom of God — a vast site just west of St Mary’s and a marked contrast in terms of its architecture and theology.  

Dlwathi said, “We will celebrate ffrench-Beytagh inside the Cathedral.”  

Plans for transforming the interior of the church include a dedicated Archbishop Desmond Tutu room to be used for a ministry in reconciliation and mediation, and a wall dedicated to the celebration of  human rights and social justice activists.

Apart from a statue of Hector Pietersen  donated by St Martins in the Fields in London, there is currently no record of those who gave their lives in the struggle against apartheid in the cathedral itself, Dlwathi said. At the moment it is still “very, very colonial”.

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Melody Emmett
Melody Emmett is an independent researcher, writer, editor and workshop facilitator.

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