Vandalism of historic city cemeteries

Vandalism of the city’s old cemeteries is robbing the city of its heritage and a major potential tourist attraction.

July 10, 2014

Metal Thieves hauling away stripped graveyard railings.

Metal Thieves hauling away stripped graveyard railings.

One of Pietermaritzburg’s greatest historical assets is rapidly on the path to becoming no more than history as vandals strip and plunder the city’s oldest cemeteries on either side of Chief Albert Luthuli Road.

Metal thieves have been stripping the graves of their ornate iron railings, smashing the gravestones in the process.

They were recently photographed carting away the railings by a concerned local historian, Eckhard von Fintel.

“When I entered into Miller Street onto Prince Alfred Street, I noticed these two guys carrying metal surroundings of graves walking towards Prince Alfred Street.  I passed them, stopped, got my camera ready and turned around.  Stopping opposite them I quickly took a photo, but they had already noticed me and hid their faces. They turned right into Prince Alfred Street and walked at a fast pace.  I passed them and stopped to take another photo. When I looked back, they had disappeared, leaving their haul on the pavement,” said Von Fintel.

“A number of us are very worried about the vandalism that takes place at the old Commercial Road Cemeteries,” he says.

So concerned, in fact, that after repeated calls on the municipality to protect the historic old cemeteries an organisation called the Commercial Road Cemetery Action Group was formed to safeguard the graves by raising funds to fence the cemeteries securely. It included living descendants of forebears buried there.

More than R200 000 was raised for the project, including money which had been paid by these families for the up keep of the graves as well as public donations, and palisade fencing was erected around the cemeteries in 2010.

But the cemeteries are once more in a dire state of neglect with over-grown grass and weeds and dead trees and branches that have not been removed.

“The fence was never given as much as a drop of paint by the municipality during the past ten years.  The rust on the palisade fence bears witness of this,” says Von Fintel.

The depredations of metal thieves have hastened the degradation of the cemetery. The hand-wrought iron railings and ornamentations erected at great cost have been plundered from the graves.

As one of the first cemeteries in the city – the earliest burial recorded there dates back to 1839 – it chronicles an important early period of Natal history and the infancy of Pietermaritzburg. Where most people just see old graves, the cemetery provides historians and genealogists (who study family history) with a wealth of information about the past.

“When you walk through the graveyard you will see many of the names associated with early settlers to this city. For example, there is a large tombstone and burial plot for the Davis family who owned the Natal Witness before the Craib family,” says John Deare, chairman of the Natal Inland Family History Society.

“Since then we have found squatters living in the Lych Gate building. Eventually the municipal security services evicted them. The building still remains and I am sure it is still used by squatters. Metal grave surrounds have been torn up and stolen. Grave-stones have been removed, stolen for re-cycling,” Deare told the Sun.

Von Fintel says he is dismayed at Msunduzi Municipality’s lack of concern for the historic site.

“The fence was never given as much as a drop of paint during the past ten years.  The rust on the palisade fence… bear witness of this,” said von Fintel.