A Pan African Human Rights Organisation challenging the misrepresentation of African people, culture and history in the British media.
Sun 17 April 2011
Pan African resistance to sale of Africa Centre grows
The planned sale of the African Centre in Covent Garden faces resistance from across the African world as high profile figures offer opposition to its relocation plans.
The decision by the Trustees of the Africa centre to sell and then relocate the location of the historic Africa centre at 38 King Street, has been widely condemned by Africans in the UK and across the Pan African world. The historic venue which has become the centre of much dispute has since 1961 had a stalwart history linked to the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movements of the Motherland.
Desmond Tutu is one of many who disagree with the decision to move the centre from its iconic central London base. The idea of the Africa Centre was conceived by Margaret Feeny and registered as a charity in 1961. In what some see as an act of restitution, the building chosen to house the centre is said to date back to 1776 and has at one point held illicit auctions for looted African artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes. It was chosen for being a ‘central point that was near business, the universities and not far from the Houses of Parliament’ and inaugurated in 1964 with a ceremony led by Kenneth Kaunda, the President of Zambia amongst many other dignitaries.
It rapidly became a key hub for Pan Africanists and served the independence struggle by forging non-governmental links between politically active Africans resident in the UK and the Motherland. The Centre has an implicit mission to promote greater awareness about the cultural and socio-political developments across the Pan African world. The Trustees claim that this remains unchanged.
The Trustees have also cited the fact of the Africa Centre being a Grade 2 listed building as the main reason why they have struggled to elevate it from its currently poor condition. In a public statement they claim;
“[A] Grade 2 listed building is costly to modify and is subject to heritage restrictions which limit how it can be used. Since 2004, we have strived to reenergise the Africa Centre by seeking to refurbish its present site, and we have spent substantial sums on redevelopment plans and fundraising studies. Having undertaken the extensive work we do not feel that the current site is viable as the home for a rejuvenated Africa Centre. “
Save the Africa Centre
Many critics of their reasoning epitomised by the stance held by Boko Inyundo (one of the Africa Centre Trustees) express the view that the decision to accept a purchase offer made last year at “open market” value where the sale of a long leasehold interest in the 38 King Street building would mean the Trustees only retain the freehold is wrong.
Inyubndo states; “We are calling on the Trustees of the Africa Centre to think again. We need an open, honest and transparent process in which we can agree a viable future for the Africa Centre.”
A campaigner from the Save the Africa Centre Campaign is reported as claiming that the potential buyers of the site are Capco and ‘they have plans to make Covent garden into an upmarket shopping area’.
The remaining Trustees defend this decision by stating;
“For nearly seven years the Council has been investigating how to put the Africa Centre on a sustainable footing. Until last year the focus was on funding a refurbishment of 38 King Street. Members of Council have come to the conclusion that staying in the 38 King Street site is not the best option. If we do, the Charity will become primarily a property management company, relying on rents from office tenancies to survive. This is not the mission for which we were established.“
Yet it is the Trustees’ slogan “Programmes not Property!” that many feel betrays the intent to subvert the original mission and legacy of the centre. The Trustees have declared a plan for some of the sale proceeds to establish a new base in London working in partnership with other charities and corporate bodies.
It is believed that this misses the point and reminiscent of how several short sighted leaders in African nations across the Continent and Caribbean are too quick to sell off the assets of the people for short term financial gain, an act that is tantamount to Parliament making a decision to sell and relocate the services of Big Ben online because it would be more cost effective.
A joint letter to the Times newspaper on the issue read;
“Since Kenneth Kaunda opened it 50 years ago, this iconic building has hosted a myriad of cultural activities and key political meetings: 38 King Street, Covent Garden, has been the social, artistic and commercial face of Africa in Britain. Now, because of a questionable decision by its trustees, the site has been offered for sale to a commercial property developer without any public discussion of plans for the centre’s future.
We wonder why the building has been allowed to fall into decline in recent years, why there has been no consultation with the centre’s many supporters about the sale, and why this is being pushed forward at such speed. And we are anxious about the secrecy surrounding the moves.
This building — now worth millions of pounds — was originally a gift from the Catholic Church: there could not be a worse time to risk losing it."
The letter was signed;
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead
Richard Dowden Director, Royal African Society
Mo Ibrahim, Founder, Mo Ibrahim Foundation
Hadeel Ibrahim, Director, Mo Ibrahim Foundation
Youssou N’Dour, musician
Elsie McCabe Thompson, President, Museum for African Art, New York City
Speaking on behalf of the Ligali organisation, Toyin Agbetu said; “Some things that are more important than money, the property that hosts the Africa Centre retains significant cultural heritage and political value despite the state of disrepair the site is currently in. The venues availability and huge potential as a supportive space for Africentric voluntary and community based organisations is even more critical during times of financial hardship not less. It would be wrong and a betrayal of our Ancestors valiant struggles as well as a new and younger generations of Pan Africanists to commercially prostitute the only space in central London dedicated to the cultural and socio-political renaissance of Mama African and her children.“
What price African history and integrity? Are the Trustees right to seek to relocate the Africa centre against the wishes of its original founders and supporters? Does the iconic Africa Centre deserve to become a protected space of national heritage?
This iconic building at 38 King Street, Covent Garden has hosted a myriad of cultural activities and key political meeting. Now, because of a questionable decision by its trustees, the site has been offered for sale to a commercial property developer.
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