Botshabelo’s historical stone church, with original stained glass panels, yellow-wood chairs, pulpit and stone baptismal font, is busy imploding.
A back wall of the church has already crumbled with signs of more destruction evident throughout the church, built in 1868.
The unholy mess on arguably Middelburg’s holiest site, was borne from a land claim.
The church, like Botshabelo, was a sanctuary for late 1800 Christian converts – from there its name, “Place of Refuge” was born.
Botshabelo, which was handed over to 1000 families in a land claim in 2005, are in dire straits with no prospects for salvation.
The historical village also comprised a general dealership, large mill, bookbindery, blacksmith and school, with the original buildings in tact until 2005.
As a result of the land claim the village’s historical buildings have systematically been vandalised and burgled, while funds totalling millions, from among others the National Lottery, has simply vanished.
The maladministration resulted in an order of the High Court, disbanding the board of Botshabelo trustees, rendering the Place of Refuge without any proper management structures for the past two years..
Not even a single Velvet Monkey can be found on the thriving game reserve, once overrun by Blesbuck, Klipspringer, Oribi, Springbok, Eland, Zebras and Black Wildebeest.
Fort Merensky curator, Mr Arthur Barlow, believes the land claim should never have been awarded, prompting him to engage with the Public Protector, to investigate whether the Land Claims Commission caved under political pressure in awarding the claim.
“The matter regarding ownership of Botshabelo has been dealt with by the Supreme Court in 1905, when the Berlin Mission Society’s ownership was upheld – Source: History of the Berlin Mission Society 1824 – 1924 by Julius Richter (Berlin 1925),” Mr Barlow says.
“The awarding of the land claim is nothing less than contempt of a court order, a ruling against which the Botshabelo Development Trust or Land Claims Commission first had to appeal, and successfully overturn,” Mr Barlow argues.
“The restitution epitomises Botshabelo as South Africa’s most notable land claim disaster, and its demise is a crime against democracy and the country, as well as international stakeholders like Dr Klaus Merensky, whose legitimate claim on Botshabelo was simply ignored by the Land Claims Commission” Mr Barlow fumes.
He also accuses the office of the Public Protector of being politically biased – “The Public Protector’s office issued a report explaining why they would not investigate the Botshabelo land claim any further. I’m however relieved to say, that the report has been formally retracted, and the investigation relaunched,” Mr Barlow says.
The Public Protector’s flawed findings hinged on the fact that the land claim was Gazetted and therefore above board. The Public Protector however failed to investigate whether the claim was lodged fraudulently, with the assistance of former Mpumalanga Premier, Mr Thabang Makwetla.
Former Premier and current Deputy Minister of Justice, Mr Makwetla, is one of the restitution owners of the heritage site. The Botshabelo land claim was awarded during his Premiership.
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Apart from Minister Makwetla, a number of other prominent figures also grew up at Botshabelo, like political analyst and veteran journalist Harald Pakendorf, former member of Parliament, author and senior Institute for Security Studies researcher Mr Peter Gastrow, and current Mpumalanga Democratic Alliance leader Mr James Masongo.
Two of the historical buildings, the Pakendorf house and the Gastrow house, have been named after the prominent families and still bear their names today.
Last year, local historian Ms Yolandie van Rooyen, struck an agreement with the Botshabelo Development Trust (claimants), the local municipality and Nkangala District, to remove whatever historical artifacts were left in the parsonage,built in 1865.
The parsonage was converted into a museum after the Middelburg town council bought Botshabelo for R191 000, from the Berlin Mission Society in 1972.Since 2005, almost all historical artifacts have been stolen from the museum, including pieces on loan from other museums.
Under the municipality’s watch, Botshabelo quickly evolved into a self sustaining international tourist attraction, drawing up to 2000 foreign visitors a day.
The municipality however withdrew all support after the land claim was awarded, alongside the SA Heritage Resources Agency who, likewise argue that nothing can be done as the heritage site is privately owned. Existing heritage legislation however compels any owner of a heritage site to protect and maintain it.
A brief history on the establishment of Botshabelo – a Place of Refuge:
In December 1858 two young Berlin missionaries, Alexander Merensky and Heinrich Grützner, arrived in Natal to spread the Gospel among the Zulu’s.
Two years later, they were sent to Swaziland and after experiencing problems with the chief, they decided to establish a mission station at Gerlachshoop, in the region of Pedi Chief Maleo.
Continuous harassment however forced them to resettle near Mashego, the village of Chief Sekwati. Sekwati was succeeded by his son, Chief Sekukhuni after his death in 1861.
Sekukhuni begun persecuting Christians and on 21 january, 1865, the missionaries bought a farm, approximately 11km North of Middelburg for 500 Prussian talers.
Merensky named it Botshabelo, or Place of Refuge.
Merensky built a home for himself and his followers, including Chief Sekukhuni’s brother, Johannes Dinkwanjane. A parsonage and stone fort, Fort Merensky was declared a national monument, was later constructed followed by the church, general dealer, mill, bookbindery, blacksmith and school.
The heavyweights say:
Deputy Justice Minister Thabang Makwetla: Did not respond to the Middelburg Observer’s request for comment before print.
Mr Harald Pakendorf: “I was born and christened at Botshabelo. My daughter also got married in the church. Myself and the Erfenisstigting have exhausted all avenues to get the SA Heritage Resources Agency to do their job. One of SAHRA’s executives flew down to Pretoria especially to meet with the Erfenisstigting and a faction of the Botshabelo Development Trust, who urged SAHRA to come to the table, sadly that was the last we heard of the agency. I have personally tried to make fire under the national media in regards to Botshabelo, but unfortunately they would not bite. The demise of the church is sad news indeed. I simply don’t know what to do anymore”.
Mr Peter Gastrow: “I fully understand Ms Fraser’s sentiments, one feels one has to shut Botshabelo out of one’s mind. What is occurring there is deeply saddening. The house I grew up in alongside my brother Hans, has deteriorated so much, and every time you return to Botshabelo, the situation has got progressively worse. Its counterproductive to say the least, going backwards and not forwards. If one looks at the important role Botshabelo plays in the history of the Transvaal North of the Vaal River, there’s simply no excuse for the ongoing degradation. Botshabelo is in a state of decay and no one wants to do anything about it, not the government, not the heritage agencies, not the community nor the claimants themselves”. Hans Gastrow, brother of Peter: “I predicted that the church would cave more than a year ago. I also heard that the claimants had sold off all the game, to cover expenses. Its a disgrace”.
Mpumalanga DA leader James Masango: “I actually grew up alongside Deputy Justice Minister, Mr Thabang Makwetla, at Botshabelo. I agree that what is occurring there is a travesty and crime against the collective. The only way South Africa can be salvaged is by overthrowing the ANC at the polls. Everything is falling apart and in Botshabelo’s case, I believe we’ve moved beyond the point of no return. The DA will lay formal complaints against government and the Botshabelo Development Trust, for breaking the law, which clearly states that heritage sites must be protected”.
SA Heritage Resources Agency: The Middelburg Observer was referred to SAHRA’s communication manager, Mr Thomas Khakhu, who did not respond to the newspaper’s request for comment before print.
Public Protector’s office: The Middelburg Observer was referred to the media office, the phone just rang the entire week, without being answered.
Former Botshabelo curator Ms Jeanette Fraser: “There’s one reason for Botshabelo’s demise and that is the lack of maintenance! The claimants just don’t care. As curator I inherited historical buildings and I can assure you we regularly did restoration work, dirtying our hands because it was a labor of love. I visited Botshabelo three weeks ago, and I can honestly say I just want to purge Botshabelo from my system, because what is happening there, is a heartbreaking disgrace. Botshabelo was my child. And that child is dead”.