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MP calls for recognition of Pretoria shul’s heritage

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When Madeleine Hicklin recently viewed the dilapidated state of the Old Synagogue on Paul Kruger Street in the Tshwane city centre, she was moved to tears as she realised that a “heritage icon for Jews and South Africans” now lies in ruins.

Along with being a shul and a place of simchas and memories, the building was converted into a court and was the site of the start of the treason trials of 1960 and 1964 as well as the inquest into the death of Steve Biko.

Now, in her role as Democratic Alliance shadow deputy minister of the department of public works and infrastructure, Hicklin is fighting for the shul to be restored, and for it to house a memorial, museum, education centre, archival collection, or aspects of all of these.

But it will be an uphill battle, as there are plans to accommodate the department of sport, arts and culture’s (DSAC’s) head office on the property. This means that the building should be restored, but Hicklin is worried that it won’t honour the history of the site. She says she will continue to push for at least a corner of the space to be dedicated to the past.

Hicklin says that in May, she wrote to Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille asking what the Heritage Advisory Services was doing about the shocking state of the building.

She also asked whether the department would “restore the building to its former state either as a synagogue or a monument to be used as a heritage education centre for both the Jewish and the South African community at large in Tshwane”.

Finally, she queried “whether the department will enter into a public-private partnership with interested individuals with a view to opening an education centre, where educational tours could be offered to tourists and scholars interested in the history of the Rivonia Trial and South African Jewry”.

In her response on 6 July, De Lille said that plans for restoring the building were underway. “In this regard, a redevelopment proposal as well as a pre-feasibility study have been conducted and recommended the best use for the facility. Notwithstanding the fact that the synagogue building envelope isn’t in a good condition, the building’s roof has been refurbished to ensure that the interior is kept stable and dry until it is restored. There is furthermore a 24-hour security presence on the site,” she wrote.

De Lille said that “the restoration will be guided by established conservation principles” and “will recognise the different historic layers embedded in the Old Jewish Synagogue. The feasibility study supported the option to redevelop the property and maximise state land. In this regard, the recommendation is to accommodate the DSAC’s head office on the property. The Old Jewish Synagogue is proposed to be used as both a monument and as a multi-use centre for conferences and exhibitions, open to the public and tourists. The proposal has been submitted to DSAC, and is awaiting its concurrence.”

She added that “the execution of this project via a public-private partnership is subject to the completion of the feasibility study and associated procurement plan for National Treasury’s approval. The required feasibility study will be commissioned on receipt of concurrence from DSAC for the proposal presented.”

“Even if the government doesn’t look at the building from a Jewish perspective, it has significance from a South African perspective,” Hicklin says. “Accommodating a head office is fantastic, but what are they going to do to preserve the history that the building signifies?

“It was the first synagogue to be consecrated in Tshwane, which means it has tremendous significance to the Jewish population,” she says. “Then, by memorialising the South African history, we will ensure that future generations understand that our democracy ‘started’ in that building. So there needs to be a space that celebrates that, as well as the Jewish contribution to the evolution of South Africa. This contribution is immense, and should be honoured. “My promise is that as long as I’m in this department, I will ‘hold their feet to the fire’ to make sure this happens,” she says. “We won’t let go of this as Jews or South Africans. Sometimes in South Africa there is selective memory, but history cannot be re-written, and it needs to be recorded. The treason trial and the Steve Biko inquest hold a ‘dark place’ in South African history, but we can’t just let them ‘disappear’. We need to preserve all parts of history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the

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1 Comment

  1. ken lemon

    Jul 23, 2021 at 1:30 pm

    i would like to assist in the restoration.

    A few years ago i drove past and was really shocked at the deterioration.

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