As the anniversary of the Freedom Charter looms, Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication is changing significantly from the original dusty meeting ground of the Congress of the People.
June is a momentous month in South Africa, with much history to remember, commemorate and celebrate. Famously, it is Youth Month, to observe the student uprising that began in Soweto on 16 June 1976. But it is also the month in which, 21 years earlier, the Congress of the People congregated in Kliptown to “carve into stone” a list of ideals they wished would one day govern the country.
On 26 June 1955 – 59 years ago – members of the Congress Alliance met to lay out the vision of the people. People flooded the bleak, dusty square in Soweto, later to become known as Freedom Square. They represented the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, and the Congress of Democrats.
Some 3 000 people attended the two-day affair, including 320 Indian, 230 coloured and 112 white South Africans. They ratified the Freedom Charter, which developed into the manifesto of the ANC and the country’s liberation struggle against apartheid. Most famous for its opening statement, “The People Shall Govern!” the charter is seen as the foundation of the country’s Constitution. It called for democracy and human rights, land reform, labour rights, and nationalisation, as well as the commitment to a non-racial South Africa.
Renamed Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in 2002, the space was declared a national heritage site on 26 June 2005. Kliptown is one of the oldest urban multiracial areas in Johannesburg. It was part of the Klipspruit farm and was laid out in 1891. The farm was named for the nearby Klipspruit, which means rocky stream in Afrikaans. Once an informal settlement, it is now a mix of purpose-built housing and shacks.
A Struggle veteran, Sisulu was one of the delegates at the Congress of the People in his capacity as the deputy president of the ANC. On his death in 2003, a R160 million project was initiated to convert the dusty area into the memorial square.
DEVELOPMENTS AT THE HERITAGE SITE
The history of development proposals for Kliptown extends at least as far back as the early 1990s. Emergency services were provided to the area in the early 1990s, and a plan was developed for the region in 1996, the Greater Kliptown Development Framework. It made proposals for boosting the square as a historical tourism site, with a museum, public spaces, a park and a mix of shops and informal trading.
In November 2001, a new plan was drawn up that was partially implemented over the next five years. The Greater Kliptown Development Project, also referred to as the Greater Kliptown Regeneration Development, was established under the auspices of Blue IQ, the provincial programme. The Johannesburg Development Agency was appointed the implementing agent.
The initial impetus for a Kliptown project was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the Freedom Charter. This commemoration would centre on an architectural upgrading of Freedom Square. The development project began with an architectural competition for the design of the square in April 2002.
In the years 2001 to 2006, the project deliverables included:
- The Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication was developed and at the end of August 2006, it was handed over to the City’s managing agent, the Johannesburg Property Company;
- A taxi rank was built;
- A portion of the K43, extending from Potchefstroom Road to Kliptown was built, providing direct access from Kliptown into the heart of Soweto;
- Various environmental initiatives were undertaken along the Klipspruit, including clean up campaigns and rehabilitation of the wetlands, which have been incorporated into the ongoing projects of the City’s department of environmental management;
- A major upgrade of the sewer system was completed;
- Human development and training programmes were undertaken, including environmental education programmes, a metalworking manufacturing project, a reed harvesting and craft making project, arts and crafts projects, and a women’s support project;
- A community forum, the Greater Kliptown Development Forum (GKDF) was established;
- A business support centre was set up in the square;
- A visitors’ centre was established in the square;
- A community centre was established along Beacon Road;
- A museum commemorating the Congress of the People was established;
- A traders market was developed in the square for informal traders there and along Union Street;
- Businesses operating along the northern side of Union Street were relocated to newly constructed facilities along Klipspruit Valley Road, to make way for the construction of the south block of the square;
- An additional business strip was developed north of the square, alongside the taxi rank;
- A social housing complex was developed to the north of the square by Joshco, the Johannesburg Social Housing Company;
- Work began on a subsidised housing development along the golf course; and,
- A subsidised housing estate was built on the Pimville buffer strip, north of the square, to house residents relocated from the Chris Hani informal settlement and this settlement was removed.
In 2009, the JDA commissioned an evaluation of the Kliptown Urban Development Framework. This report recommended that the impact of the catalytic investment over the last 10 years should be extended to the surrounding areas, that further investment and facilitation was necessary to ensure that the use of the square and public open space was optimised, and that priority development needs identified by the local community should be addressed. In 2010/11, the JDA implemented the first phase of a new multi-year project to upgrade the public environment. Work included:
- Upgrading the Union Pedestrian Bridge and installing new ramps and pedestrian linkages across the railway line;
- Paving 200 metres along the western side of the railway line;
- Refurbishing the study centre, crèche, and community hall;
- Upgrading the public environment of Union, Beacon and Main roads, leading to significant economic integration of Kliptown with surrounding areas; and,
- Installing CCTV cameras on and around the square.
The project continued in 2011/12, when more outputs were delivered:
- Refurbishing the youth centre;
- Installing dual sports facilities with basketball and netball courts;
- Upgrading the public environment of First, Second, Third and Fourth avenues, as well as Future Road and Daffodil Street;
- Paving of 400 metres along the western side of the railway line;
- Repairing the tower mast and installing new cables at the visitors centre; and,
- Installing public art to improve the quality of the environment and strengthen the identity of the area.
PUBLIC ENVIRONMENT UPGRADE
The main strategic focus of the Kliptown Public Environment Upgrade is:
- To facilitate a visibly improved public environment in Kliptown;
- To improve investor and community confidence in the area; and,
- To provide pedestrian infrastructure to make the pedestrian experience safer and more pleasant.
The implementation phase in 2012/13 included projects from the Kliptown Business and Urban Design Master Plan of September 2010:
- Upgrading the Lower Station Pedestrian Bridge across the railway line;
- Installing a pedestrian walkway between the bridge and the railway station;
- Urban upgrade around the eastern side of the station;
- Upgrading public parking outside the station; and,
- Urban upgrade of the northern side from Klipspruit Valley Road to the railway line.
Project outputs will include:
- Paving of pavements, repairs to drainage and kerbing and repairs to tarmac along at least five streets;
- Installation of street lighting on at least five streets; and,
- Upgrading the railway bridge which will be user friendly for people with disabilities.
In 2013/14, the JDA will complete work on the upgrade of Fifth Avenue and Union Road soccer facility, and the construction of a small park opposite the Soweto Hotel. Once the country celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, the gathering place of one of the most poignant moments in South African history will be transformed into a breath-taking, beautiful space filled with memories of the transition to democracy.