‘Let our ancestors rest in peace’

Some Garlandale residents have called for work to stop on the exhumation of the remains of 2 500 people buried at an old Athlone cemetery, saying it is part of the area’s heritage (“Exhumed from the tombs,” Athlone News, April 19).

They met with the Athlone News to complain about the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town’s decision to exhume the remains.

One of the residents, Caroline Jamal, said she and her neighbours were all concerned that this “heritage burial ground, with the long history”, will be no more.

Ms Jamal started a petition, which 36 of her neighbours have signed, as well as an online petition.

“Residents started asking questions when the fence came up. We were told that they did a public participation exercise in 2012, but we’ve now learnt that they said that they advertised it in the newspaper, and they had a small sign which faced Klipfontein Road,” said Ms Jamal.

Ms Jamal said: “According to them, they did their work, but as far as we know, there was no public participation. The relatives of the deceased were never contacted.

“They should have notified us by a letter in our post boxes at our homes because we sometimes miss things in the newspaper, and the sign along Klipfontein Road was insufficient.

“The history of the people buried here dates back to the 1800s, and most of them were probably slave labourers. They had to rebuild their lives. This is part of our history,” Ms Jamal said.

The Bishop of Table Bay, Garth Counsell, said, however, that the church’s decision followed complaints from homeowners in Garlandale about dumping, vagrancy and crime.

Another resident, Kenneth Fortuin, said dumping, crime and vagrancy, “is a normal thing happening in any community”. Mr Fortuin feels the church’s action is not justified.

“The church’s duty is to restore lives, and right now they are not dealing with restoration. They only consulted a handful of residents and their clergy. They came with their plans and had all their ducks in a row.

“They manipulated the people. Why not restore the graveyard and make it a garden of remembrance? People have been shoved around during apartheid, now it is happening even with the deceased. We come from a history of turmoil, now we need to restore it. This long history of ours is being marginalised, and this is part of it, “ Mr Fortuin said.

Frank Williams agrees that the cemetery should be restored with a garden of remembrance.

“I see they are moving fast. I don’t think they did adequate public participation, because I was wondering what was happening when I saw the fence going up.

Zaiboonesa Sadien said what the church was doing was “totally wrong”.

“For me, this is disrespectful to the families of the deceased,” Ms Sadien added.

Rochelle Lewis said her husband’s ancestors were buried there.

“If they are saying they spoke to the community, but in fact only spoke to the parishioners, then this is wrong. My husband grew up here. He found out that his paternal great-grandmother was buried here. If my father-in-law was still alive, he would have been 90 years old. If Caroline did not inform us about what is happening currently, then we would not have known about it,” Ms Lewis said.

Ms Jamal said she had done some research and had found that a heritage site could not be redeveloped if the community refused to give permission.

The cemetery, adjacent to Klipfontein Road and the Black River Parkway, was first used as a church burial ground in 1867. The last recorded burial was in 1946.

In response to the resident’s concerns, Bishop Counsell said: “Beyond the question of ‘heritage sites’, I can assure everyone that the church has, and will always treat this and similar situations with great sensitivity and respect – recognising the sanctity of any burial site.

“Hence the protracted due processes, followed in terms of legislation and our religious protocols. The fact that all the necessary permits to proceed have been issued by the relevant authorities (including the South African Heritage Resources Agency), should answer the heritage question.”

He said the complaints the church had received, had been “over an extended period of time”, and because of that, the church had carefully considered various options for the possible future of the cemetery.

“The idea of a ‘park of remembrance’, as with any other option, would involve significant financial outlay to create in the first instance, as well as to maintain appropriately in perpetuity.

“Since there would be no family participation in its upkeep, as has been the case for years now, the church would simply not be in a position to carry the responsibility of such an option into the future. Over time, this would inevitably lead to a return of the proposed ‘park’ to an unkempt state with all the present complaints and risks recurring.”

Bishop Counsell also refuted claims that there had not been sufficient public participation.

“The claim of not being aware of the public participation process is unfortunate. If indeed so, responsibility for this can certainly not be laid at the door of the church. During 2012/13, notices of intention, the call for affected families to come forward, and information of three public meetings were well advertised, not least in your own newspaper. There are residents who can attest to this. Notices to this effect were also posted on the actual site. A few years prior to this, the local parish had also similarly advertised for interested parties to make contact. This elicited no response, hence the decision to do so again in 2012/13. Alongside this, meetings were also conducted in the four neighbouring parishes to inform Anglican members who might have a direct interest in the future of the cemetery.

“I wish to once again assure all concerned of the church’s wholehearted commitment to an open and transparent process and complete compliance with the necessary regulations throughout this sensitive project.”

He said the church believed that placing the exhumed bones in a columbarium at St Marks Church, Athlone “will provide a most dignified, respected and sacred alternative with little prospect of deterioration as has unfortunately happened at the present site”.

Sub-council 17 chairman George March said he had requested, at short notice, a meeting with the church’s representatives, after doing a site visit.

“The meeting was just for information purposes. They told me that they had done public participation in 2012 and 2013, but how far the reach was, was not immediately available. I am glad we could meet and that the church representatives made themselves available at short notice.

“At the meeting, we learnt that the land belongs to the church, and we reiterated to them, that they must keep the community informed about their next step. Public participation is very important. Last week, they were basically just determining how deep the graves are,” Mr March said.