To the memory of K. C., who died for – and at – the Drill Hall
The Drill Hall is a heritage site in the middle of the city centre of Johannesburg. A former army barracks, it is best known for the preliminary hearings of the Treason Trial which were held there in 1956. Once a symbol of British colonisation, it has, over time, become known as a site of the struggle against the apartheid regime. However, the Drill Hall has not been maintained or protected by public institutions. This is in contrast to other heritage sites in the city, such as Constitution Hill, the former fort and prison that was transformed, after the end of the apartheid regime, into a museum and the new South African Constitutional Court.
This has allowed the Drill Hall to be appropriated by independent and alternative cultural and social organisations since its rehabilitation in 2004. The commitment of these stakeholders has, so far at least, contributed to keeping the place alive. Thus, in addition to becoming a place of creativity in the city centre, the Drill Hall has maintained a heritage dimension. The word ‘heritage’, used here in the sense of a complex and ‘invented’ construction, references the concept of an ‘invented tradition’; it is made up of history, memories and architectural and urban spaces, all linked with artistic, social and residential activities. Memories, in particular of the fight against the apartheid regime, are seen by public actors not only as the vector of national reconciliation but also as a marketing tool of a ‘world-class African city’. The tension between a weak institutional commitment to the site and the liveliness of the memories and practices of the people and associations engaged with the Drill Hall makes it an interstitial and fragile heritage site. In 2019, it was allocated to the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) for the establishment of a police station, a decision that will maintain this fragility.
Our fieldwork in January 2016 aimed to understand the complex relationship between different conceptions of heritage and the city of Johannesburg. This involved an analysis of the transformation of the Drill Hall as part of a future renovation plan and study of local artistic interventions. Since the renovation of the Drill Hall, public authorities seem to have adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards the artistic and social dynamics developing in the building.