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News Room

Heritage Horror Stories – The Black Plaque Programme

The Gauteng Heritage Action Group launched their Heritage Horror Stories campaign last month. These are the properties on their ‘Black’ list.
Concerns regarding the state of Gauteng’s heritage have been growing for the last decade. In several ways, the province has failed in the implementation of the National Resources Act. The purpose of this act is to ensure that heritage resources in South Africa are nurtured, conserved and well-managed, so that we may pass them down to future generations. In particular, conservation-worthy buildings, places or areas are supposed to be protected and maintained. In many ways, this hasn’t been happening. So, fed up with the way things are being done – or not being done, as it were – various heritage conservation bodies have established the Gauteng Heritage Action Group.
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The Purpose Of The GHAG

Almost ten years ago, the Underpressure Agency prepared a report for the Gauteng Department of Sport, Arts, Culture and Recreation. In this report, the UA identified a number of institutional, organisational and policy weaknesses obstructing provincial heritage management. Since the report’s completion, almost nothing has been done by the Provincial Heritage Resources Authority Gauteng (PHRAG) to address the problems. So, the GHAG was established to tackle the PHRAG on pressing issues facing heritage. The action group is made up of representatives from the following:
  • Alberton Heritage;
  • Cullinan Heritage Society;
  • Egoli Heritage Foundation;
  • Greater Alexandra Tourism & Heritage Association;
  • James Mpanza Legacy Foundation;
  • Johannesburg Heritage Foundation;
  • Old Pretoria East Residents’ & Ratepayers’ Alliance;
  • Modderfontein Conservation Society;
  • Pretoria Institute of Architects;
  • Sandton Heritage Association, and;
  • Tshwane Building Heritage Association.
This last heritage month, the GHAG launched its Heritage Horror Stories campaign – also known as the Black Plaque Programme. In the past, Blue Plaques have been placed in places and spaces or upon buildings of significance. The purpose is to commemorate these sites, and invite the public to discover more about the history. Blue plaques are seen as a prestigious honour, and promote a sense of pride in the local community. They’re intended to increase the emotional attachment of the residents to their city. The plaques are usually round, have a blue background and contain a little bit of info about the site and its history in white writing. The new Black Plaques, however, are the total opposite. The goal of the programme is to name and shame apathetic owners into restoring their neglected properties.  

Heritage Horror Stories

To date, Black Plaques have been placed at six sites around the city of Johannesburg, with the GHAG planning on expanding the campaign into surrounding towns and cities. The plaques have been installed where anybody passing by can see them. Owners of the property may remove these physical markers, but will remain on the official Black Plaque list until the site is brought back to life Most of these sites, or properties, have been allowed to go to ruin. Demolition by neglect. The owners have made a number of promises of restoration in the past, but have failed to deliver. Here are the properties currently on the Black Plaque list, with the inscriptions that appear on site.

1. CNA Building (owned by Urban Ocean)

Bought by Urban Ocean in 2005, who promised to restore it and its neighbours. This significant Art Deco heritage building was left without security, leaving it to be vandalised. All steel windows and any other metal was removed. DEMOLITION BY DECAY is an utterly unacceptable practice, completely anti-social, yet the authorities do nothing. Designed by John Waterson in 1933, each soaring vertical was topped with a flagpole.

2. Rissik Street Post Office (owned by the City of Johannesburg)

Fire! Fire! rang out in the middle of a November night in 2009, but it was several hours before a fire engine arrived, and the secret report on the tardiness of Johannesburg Emergency Services has never been made public. The City of Johannesburg owns this building and had left it empty and unguarded, leading to the fire. The City has promised to restore it, but is seeking a private investor to share the costs and find a new use for it. For now money is forthcoming for consultants, but not for restoration. So who is the beneficiary?  Designed in 1895 by Sytes Weirda for the Z.A.R.

3. Marshall Street Barracks (owner by the Department of Public Works)

The Department of Public Works (DPW) or more truthfully, NO WORKS, owns this property. The building was decaying but usable until the DPW left it empty and unguarded. Fire broke out in 2002 and the Red Ants who arrived to move the people sheltering in it contributed to the destruction. For 15 years it has remained open to the elements with promises of restoration along Marshall Street, but no action. The historic site included a Charge Office, an old hotel and the Police barracks dating back to 1913/14.

4. Hospital Superintendent's House (owned by the Gauteng Department of Health)

Collapsing in front of our eyes, this prestigious old home of the first superintendent of the old Johannesburg Hospital belongs to the Gauteng Department of Health. A private sponsor offered to restore the building at no cost to the Gauteng Province, but on condition it would be used by an NGO involved in health care. This was refused because the Department insisted it had to be for their use. Since they have an appalling record when it comes to maintaining their buildings, there was no point in investing millions of Rands, considerable skill and effort in restoring a building for an inappropriate use.

5. Queen Vic Maternity Hospital (later Transwerke)

Left vacant for decades, this building is wasting away, sacrificed to a vision of commercialisation of Constitution Hill. When the new Johannesburg Hospital was first built, the Queen Vic was converted to flats and residents enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine, just as nursing mothers had before them. Designed by Gordon Leith in 1943, with gloriously rounded balconies, this fine building should be pulsating with life, providing much needed accommodation.

6. Rand Water Board (owned by the Gauteng Provincial Administration)

This shattered beauty belongs to the Gauteng Provincial Administration, who applied for a demolition permit and when that was refused, started working on it without a permit, hacking out the brass window frames and damaging the polished granite surrounds. The DESTROYERS are the very people entrusted with protecting the heritage of Gauteng. Designed by Gordon Leith in 1939, an architectural historian describes it as unsurpassed in the Johannesburg townscape. You can find a list of celebrated Blue Plaque sites in South Africa HERE.