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A charge has been laid after two ohels – one in Braamfontein and one in Brixton cemeteries – were demolished. Both were over 60 years old, and so protected as heritage buildings.
IN mid-April, two heritage buildings were illegally demolished in the city’s oldest cemeteries, Brixton and Braamfontein, resulting in a charge being laid with the police.

The flattened site of the Brixton ohel, after demolitionThe flattened site of the Brixton ohel, after demolitionThe two buildings, or ohels, belonging to the Chevrah Kadisha, the oldest Jewish organisation in Joburg, were older than 60 years. They were therefore protected under the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999.

A spokesperson for Chevrah Kadisha, who refuses to be named, says: “The buildings were so badly vandalised, there was nothing left to salvage. We wanted to protect the dignity of those buried there.”

A permit is required for any demolitions, but more so if the structures are older than 60 years, after which they have heritage protection. In this case, an application has to be made to the Provincial Heritage Resources Agency (Phra). The agency has now laid a charge with the police, for the unlawful demolition of the two buildings.

"We have to point out, notwithstanding the unlawful demolitions, the PHRA(G) regards the sites as historical sites of historical importance," writes the Phra in a letter to Chevrah Kadisha.

The Braamfontein ohel was probably around 120 years old, while the Brixton ohel was about 99 years old. 

Herman Bekker, the owner of the demolition company responsible for the work, Protector Build, confirms that no demolition permit was obtained. Protector Build has been in the building industry for 22 years, and doing demolitions for the past six years.

Bekker says he was in the process of applying for a permit, but a problem arose because the plans for the buildings could not be traced. “If we knew it was a heritage building, we would have stopped [the demolition].”

Huge loss
Eric Itzkin, the deputy director for immovable heritage in the City’s arts, culture and heritage directorate, says: “This is a huge loss, it is quite horrifying. There are other buildings in the Brixton Cemetery that are intact, although it is a passive cemetery.”
Both cemeteries have long been dormant, except for second burials.

The chairperson of the Parktown & Westcliff Heritage Trust, Flo Bird, is equally outraged. “I am absolutely furious. They should have got a permit – they just defied the law.”

She adds that the Jewish community is “very distressed” by what has happened. “This just isn’t the way you behave.” Bird is also upset that the demolishers smashed a gate post at the entrance to the cemetery.

A cast iron gate, donated by one of the early Joburg entrepreneurs, Sammy Marks, has also gone missing from the cemetery.

Established in 1888
The vandalised ohel in the Brixton CemeteryThe vandalised ohel in the Brixton CemeteryAccording to its website, Chevrah Kadishawas established in 1888, during the city's gold rush days. Its role is to take care of the welfare and burial needs of the Jewish community. The ohels were used to prepare bodies for burial, and from where the funeral service was conducted.

“We were here when Joburg was built; we have a tremendous appreciation for things that are old,” says the spokesperson.

Alan Buff, the horticulturist specialist in the technical support department in Joburg City Parks, says that when Braamfontein Cemetery was laid out in 1887, the Jewish community applied to President Paul Kruger for permission to build an ohel in the cemetery. When this cemetery closed in 1911, another ohel was built in the nearby Brixton Cemetery.

Buff expresses dismay at how quickly the two buildings were demolished. The Brixton building was demolished on 15 April, while the Braamfontein building hit the ground on 18 April. The rubble from the buildings was removed on the same day as the demolitions, and the sites now consist of two flat, sandy wastelands.

Buff says he was away on 15 April, but when he was told of the demolition on 18 April, by the time he got to the cemetery, which is a few kilometres from his office, the building was already demolished.

Bekker explains that he was originally approached by Chevrah Kadisha in November last year to supply them with a quote for the demolitions.

Chevrah Kadisha had guards in place at the two sites until a year ago, when they were removed, Itzkin points out.

Buff confirms that vagrants had moved into the Brixton ohel, which was stripped of its windows and doors. Over the past three years, more and more vagrants had moved into the Brixton Cemetery. Chevrah Kadisha was told that this was happening.

But the building in the Braamfontein Cemetery was still in good condition.

When he asked Protector Build for the demolition permit, Buff says, he was told that he would get the permit later, but he is still waiting. “I am sorry that the buildings are gone, they were part of our heritage,” says Buff.

“There was a time you could plead ignorance of the need for a permit,” says Itzkin, “but everything has now been made watertight and clear.”

He adds that Chevrah Kadisha has approached him, seeking redress and a way forward. It has also approached Bird. She considers that “some kind of a shelter” would be appropriate, although the organisation has suggested a memorial.

Michael Sieff, the group chief executive of Chevrah Kadisha, said in a 20 May letter to Phra: “It is our intention to attempt to rehabilitate, commemorate and sustain the above sites and we request your blessing to set in motion a process by which we can achieve that.

“Since this is not an area in which we have expertise, perhaps we should appoint a Heritage specialist to consult with us and recommend the proper route to be taken.

“Once we have his/her recommendations we would be in a better position to submit those to the Heritage Committee and to gain the approval of the PHRA(G).”

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