Of concern to me was the 3 known graveyards that existed on the site, and the uncertainty that there may be more unmarked graves or burial areas in the affected area earmarked for development. The biggest problem that we all faced was a lack of records regarding the burials at the site, these were supposedly destroyed by a fire many years ago. There was also evidence of a Jewish cemetery that did not show up on maps. Unfortunately boots on the ground did not show where this cemetery was, although so many years after the fact it is possible that any physical evidence has been destroyed or removed.
One of the main issues raised was the possibility of a pathogen being released by the construction work, and I have to admit I was concerned about it myself. A number of experts were consulted by the consultants who performed a number of tests around the site, and the conclusion was that there no real risk as long as the correct protocols and procedures were followed. The main one being the non disturbance of the existing graveyards, and if graves were uncovered what was to be done. I am not a biologist and much of what I read was way above my head, however my fears were allayed somewhat. The major concerns were for an outbreak of Anthrax and Smallpox, but the evidence shows there is a minimal risk, as long as no active pathogens were encountered. What was disturbing was the results of tests done in the water of the Jukskei River that runs parallel to the highway, and that points to a breakdown of services.
Once the graves and diseases had been dealt with it seemed the usual spectre of crime, lack of services, property values, traffic, noise, air pollution, and overcrowding raised their heads. And here there were many valid concerns, all of which were dwelt on by the consultants in the report. Unfortunately they were dealt with in a way that seemed to indicate that the city of Johannesburg was competent and that the many departments associated with infrastructure would do their job, that money was available, and that all the substructures were in place at the building site, as well as the required reticulation, sewerage, water etc was handled as proposed. We all know that this rarely happens. South Africa is already facing a huge issue with electricity generation, and adding another 8000 light bulbs is not going to make the load smaller.
Unfortunately, I have always been of the opinion that the development will go ahead irrespective of all the objections, and some of the comments that I read in the report just serve to further my opinion. I will however admit that the consultants did a good job with the report, and that they were really facing a very difficult task given how heated the debate became. Again though, it is their report, it is not the final rubber stamp.
I am pretty sure the residents will still continue the fight, as is their right to do so. I am also sure that in the 8 years that it is going to take to complete all phases of the project they will continue to object and raise Caine. But at the end of the day, whether the development is anything like what has been proposed and whether all the services are provided as proposed will remain to be seen.
Fortunately it appears as if the graveyards will be safe as they are not in the area to be developed. They will probably be fenced and a monument will be erected to the nameless that are buried here. It appears as if that number may be roughly 7000. Sadly, parts of the Sizwe hospital will probably be demolished, and the site which has seen so much suffering and death will cease to serve the community that it has served for so long. Realistically this hospital played a very large part in the history of Johannesburg, but because it was not in the northern suburbs has not had the attention it deserves from a heritage point of view.
And there you have it. Rietfontein has not been forgotten, it is really just at a point where a nameless bureaucrat has to apply a rubber stamp, and I suspect that rubber stamp will read “approved”. Johannesburg will loose an important part of its history, the traffic will flow even slower than it currently does. Crime will get worse, people will move away from their homes and new people will move into the area. 10 years down the line the cemetery will once again be neglected, the infrastructure will be inadequate, and each time it rains heavily floods will occur downstream in Alex, and I know that the heritage of Dr Mehliss will be just another page in a history book, and I will be staring at my computer screen and saying “what did I tell you?”
© DRW 2015-2021. Images migrated and links corrected 27/05/2016