Student arrested for attack on church

The reception area of St Marks Church was set alight, during student protests last week.

St Mark’s Anglican Church management has decided to secure the building with security gates after a section of the building was set alight and damaged, allegedly by a Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) student during the recent protests.

Reverend Austen Jackson said for weeks the community had borne the brunt of the stand-off at CPUT. “Two weeks ago, the students threatened to burn the church down, but they didn’t manage to do it until now.”

A 20-year-old student has been arrested for the arson attack on the historic church, which is situated on the campus of CPUT.

St Mark’s was one of two buildings which were set alight last Wednesday – the other an engineering building.

In other reports, CPUT spokesperson Lauren Kansley said the protests on campus stemmed from a small group of students and workers, who wanted the suspension of other students lifted.

The attacks on the church have been condemned by CPUT and other entities, including the District Six Museum, who is a partner of the church and works to preserve the heritage of District Six, of which the church plays a big role.

The director of the District Six Museum, Bonita Bennett, said the organisation was very disturbed by this “act of vandalism”. “It is unfortunate that St Mark’s location – a result of the encroachment into its space by CPUT development under apartheid – has created the impression that it is part of the campus which has now been to its detriment.

“Having said this, I by no means wish to create the impression that we are condoning the destruction of buildings which form part of the CPUT campus because we do not. The fact that St Mark’s has been conflated within the CPUT identity just makes the senselessness of such destruction seem that much more apparent.”

While the church is on the CPUT campus, it is on its own grounds as the campus was build around it following the District Six evictions. Ms Bennett said, listening to the responses from the public of the incident, it was clear that some people did not make the distinction between the church and the campus. “People expressed the view that CPUT should be more self-aware of how it benefited under apartheid from the destruction of people’s homes – and this was in response to the bombing of St Mark’s.”

She said any remnant of the destroyed District Six was precious and to be celebrated and protected, from District Six Museum’s point of view.

“We have seen the ways in which engagement with the tangible remains of the District have been an inspiration to the displaced community as they continue to struggle with their own sense of loss, pain and trauma, and as they struggle to ensure that the memory of the area continues to be an inspiration. “St Mark’s has been one of the significant keepers of the memory of the area and has continued to be active both now and in the past, in ensuring that the past is not forgotten.”

St Mark’s was also part of the Heritage Day celebration walk last week. The church was one of the sites which were referenced on the route and has been captured in the artwork of Lionel Davis as one of the iconic sites that still exist after the forced removals (“Residents celebrate colourful heritage,” CapeTowner, September 28). “This is indeed a loss at a time when so much human investment is being made into building community against so many odds, and now a back-step needs to be taken in order to both make sense of this attack and also to ensure that repairs take place and that the money is found to do so.”

Reverend Jackson said while the church did not burn to the ground, the reception area was damaged and the building had suffered smoke damage. “We will have to redo some of the walls as the soot stained it and the church smells of smoke. It will be like this for a while.” Despite this, however, the church will still be functioning as normal. “We haven’t missed a service in the 150 years the church has been in existence, and we invite the community and everyone who has been influenced by the church to come and celebrate with us.” Asked what it will cost to repair the damages and who will pay for it, Reverend Jackson said they were waiting on an assessment from the insurance company, who will probably liaise with CPUT about costs of repair.

Ms Kansley said it was unclear whether CPUT would assist the church with repairs. “I have no clarity on that at this stage. It is important to note that CPUT has been enjoying a very fruitful relationship with the St Mark’s congregation as we endeavoured to build relationships with the displaced District Six community.

“We are hugely remorseful that a savage act like this could have happened to what has always been a beacon of hope and sanctuary.” Last week, when Judge Siraj Desai visited the church to show his support, he appealed to South Africans to reject “such mindless acts”. The church has been part of the conservation of District Six history over the recent years, including its involvement with the annual February 11 commemoration of the declaration of District Six as a White Group Area, which took effect on 11 February 1966; discussions about District Six as a national heritage site, and last year when Reverend Jackson was welcomed into the parish, at his request the District Six Museum set up a small display at the church entrance.

The police did not respond to queries on the progress of the case at the time of going to print.