Fire has shaped Port Elizabeth and its development, as it has shaped many of our cities. South Africa’s violent history has granted its cities more than their fair share of fires, often sparked by the conflicts between protesters and state forces. In many instances, the communities most affected are unable to ever fully recover from the devastation of these fires.
In the 1970’s, New Brighton township was besieged with the flames of the many protests against the apartheid regime. One of the buildings that were torched is TC White in the Red Location zone of New Brighton. TC White was a hall used as a theatre and bioscope to foster the talents of New Brighton, which included such famous groups as the Serpent Players. The hall placed New Brighton on the national and international culture map, so when the hall was burned down, the country lost far more than a building.
The torching of TC White happened at a time of unrest, and although there is little evidence that points to the building being torched by community members, the speculative narrative of arson has been spread far and wide. Such speculation has become the norm in conversation around incidents of fire in township settings. Though recorded history is littered of white operatives who drove into townships with missions of malicious hate, it remains custom that whenever incidents of arson and/or sabotage on buildings that proved to be useful in black community’s progress, specific white perpetrators do not feature on the suspects lists. Since these fires took place in the township, an invisible law was enforced that the suspects should be black, young and drunk.
But fire did not confine itself to the townships. One building in the centre of town that felt the effects of fire is the Port Elizabeth City Hall. Like TC White, the city hall also went ablaze during the turbulent seventies. A plaque at the entrance of the city hall documents how “The City Hall was damaged extensively by fire in the early hours of 22 September 1977”.
Just as there were white saboteurs in black spaces, so too were there black saboteurs in white spaces. But unlike the operatives of the Apartheid government, these black perpetrators are more understandable and their motives born out of injustice rather than superiority and malice.
The months of August and September 1977 were a time of great defiance from these black assailants. Riding high on the wave of the 1976 Soweto Riots, black youth were becoming more militant in their approach. They were inspired by Bantu Steve Biko, and his own disregard for his sentence of house arrest. Tragically, his subsequent arrest for violating house arrest triggered a series of catastrophic events, as Biko their leader would later be announced dead on 12 September and buried on 25 September 1977, almost certainly murdered in police custody.
So mobilized were the black youth and nation at this point that the then government set up road blocks around the country to curb black people from attending Biko’s funeral. This restriction would undoubtedly rise the level of frustration in Blacks and, as the common narrative would have it, frustrated young, Blacks burn things. Yet strangely, when the PE City Hall burnt in 1977, no-one connected the flames that engulfed the city hall to this rising. They are not capable of heroically burning instruments of oppression in defiance.
Unsurprisingly then, it remains today that when one researches the cause of the fire that burnt down the city hall in 1977 one is met with dead end accounts of the fire itself, but never a face of who or what caused it. We can only assume that either the city hall set itself a blaze, or conjecture the existence of some valiant black hero.
From 1977 to 2016 Fees Must Fall protest, there are more incidents of buildings being engulfed in flames. The Melody Club House and Boma Campus on then Nelson Mandela Metropole University (NMMU) mysteriously burned in the height of student protests. The protests are characterized by heavy police presence in the university – similar to the conditions one imagines of New Brighton in the 70’s, with the black students are targeted and criminalized much the same. Like the absolving of possible white sabotage and arson in the burning of TC White Hall, possible white sabotage of the Fees Must Fall Movement is again pardoned in the burnings at NMMU. Yet while possibility of black participation is denied in the burning of the city hall long ago, we now find that although there were no sightings of any black people near the NMMU fires, suspicion is directed squarely at them as student protesters.
The suspicions directed at the movement carry with them an accusation of stupidity and unnecessary violence, almost to the point of a constructive effort to rid the movement of all heroism, and tarnish it with barbaric criminality. These fires are classified in the same category as that of TC White – irresponsible self-sabotage. Where once ‘they’ burnt down their own cultural hub, they now burn their tertiary institutions and places of learning.
It is the criminalization and forced invisibility of blacks, as in the case of the city hall, that is the method for continued denial of a people’s heroism within the context and cause of their struggle. This acknowledgement of understanding is at continued risk as long as a people’s struggle is contextualized by ‘another’ but the people for whom the struggle was intended for.
“The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity… Part of the approach envisaged in bringing about “black consciousness” has to be directed to the past, to seek to rewrite the history of the black man and to produce in it the heroes who form the core of the African background.” Bantu Biko