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The Madiba centenary – midday at Healdtown college

While Thabo Mbeki was turning the first sod at a new hotel in ultra-posh Houghton at the home in which Nelson Mandela lived between 1992 and 1998, others were going about their daily business in the rural Eastern Cape without the slightest sign that on the occasion of the centenary of Mandela’s birth they could give a damn.

The house in Houghton is to be turned into a hotel with a centre for meditation as its main attraction. How droll! Rich tourists will pay top dollar to sleep where Madiba slept for a short period during which he was president of South Africa.

Back in the rural Eastern Cape, I found myself on a shopping expedition to Fort Beaufort on the 100th birthday of the great man, hurrying along to be home at Hogsback in time for Barack Obama’s Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture, the sixteenth, honouring the legacy of reconciliation and justice for all, which Mandela built in his latter years.

As I entered the dusty little town I noticed an hourglass on a road sign – presumably some sort of heritage symbol – reading “Healdtown College 10 km”. Of course, I thought, the school at which Madiba was educated before moving about thirty kilometres down the road, probably less as the crow flies, to Fort Hare for his tertiary education.

The road sign drew me in, it’s allure so poignant on this special anniversary of the greatest son of the South African soil. I decided to rush through the shopping and make the time, the spur of the moment time, to visit Healdtown College in the hope that it would be the scene of some local celebration that would not be televised but would be more real than the glitz and glamour of the bullring at Wanderers in Jozi where a cricket ground was turned into a 15,000 seater auditorium for a man wearing long johns under his smart suit to ward off the winter chill of the Highveld. I wanted to see Madiba’s old school for the first time on his 100th birthday.

Shopping done in record time, I headed down the side road, negotiated the four-way stops at which courtesy and impatience vie for precedence, and headed out for Healdtown. About a kilometre into the journey a T-junction off to the right hove into view. “Straight on or turn right?” I pondered as I approached. No comforting “Healdtown College” sign here, only a much smaller one reading “Healdtown”. Well, logic dictates that the college should be in the town, so I took a right turn and headed on past large graveyards and larger modern schools until the tar ran out less than five kilometres into the journey, still in the outskirts of Fort Beaufort.

“Is it possible that so historic a school with such celebrated alumni is not served by a tarred road?” I wondered. But I ploughed on over the potholes, through the dust and across ever narrower concrete bridges crossing streams that no longer flow. Round a bend in hilly wooded country Healdtown came into view. There was absolutely nothing going on in the warm midday sun. Swallowing my disappointment, I soldiered on past the modern school, where classes were in progress in routine fashion, with windows wide open for ventilation.

Coming up to the college itself, one is first struck by the expensive modern security fencing, clearly designed to keep all intruders out with its great height and razor-sharp trimmings. Peering through the fence at the scene of abandonment it encloses, I spied buildings in states of disrepair varying from dilapidated, to derelict, to ruins. Walls collapsing here and there, window frames ripped out and rusty corrugated iron roofing sheets in places but not in others. Only the chapel, in the heart of the campus, looks habitable from the outside. Indeed, it looks cherished, used and well endowed, completely out of character with the rest of the buildings. Could it be that the church is showing the state the way to treat an historic monument that nurtured and educated one of the, if not the, greatest statesmen of the twentieth century? Could it be that the state simply does not care at all that Mandela was educated at Healdtown College?

Anyone who decides to make the trip should prepare to be disappointed by what they see and disillusioned by what has to be inferred from the state of the place only ten kilometres off the beaten track. The campus at Fort Hare, Madiba’s alma mater, is at least still in use. Its main entrance bristles with security personnel and damage to the road surface bears mute testimony to the burning of tyres by angry, violent protesting students.

Happy birthday Tata, thank goodness you did not live to see your old stamping grounds as they are today. You would have been amused to see the expression on Cyril’s face at the Wanderers as he tried to square his attachment to the National Democratic Revolution, invented by Lenin, with the spirited defence of capitalism and the rule of law which was presented so charmingly by Barack Obama later the same afternoon. As for sod turning Thabo exhorting folk to “Be the legacy!” – enough said. DM

Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now

Opinion editorial published in the Daily Maverick on 19 July 2018.

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