Chancellor House at Risk of invasion

Chancellor House in the CBD is the location of the law offices of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, who first established their legal practice here in 1952.

The location of these offices was carefully chosen – directly across Fox Street from the Chief Magistrate’s office in the Magistrates Court – and was intended to affront and annoy the Chief Magistrate who could not get them removed as, at the time, Ferreirasdorp was a ‘grey area’ that included apartments and workplaces for people of all races. 

The Chief Magistrate was thus forced to face two of his greatest foes daily for 10 years, until Oliver Tambo was sent overseas by the ANC and Nelson Mandela was jailed on Robben Island, after which the partnership lapsed. Until then, on any given weekday there would be long queues of desperate people lining the pavement of Fox Street awaiting their turn for an interview; their one hope of relief from the Apartheid system.

In short, Chancellor House was where these two great leaders worked day after day, handling the sad and often grim problems of people who had been arrested or imprisoned under the apartheid regime – not to mention seeking justice for all the parents, spouses and children who had disappeared into the jails of South Africa. Several times a week, one or the other of them would appear in the courts right across the road to argue their cases. And, while the cruel apartheid-era laws were often upheld in the courts, Mandela and Tambo were able to deal with sloppy prosecutions and alleviate some sentences. Even throughout the Treason Trials, Nelson Mandela would return from his own court proceedings to Chancellor House and continue working through the many cases brought to the partnership.

Chancellor House was later purchased by new owners and suffered severe neglect until the building was taken over by the city and carefully restored in 2011. This included the installation of info boards on the ground floor and the stabilisation of the original ‘Mandela and Tambo – Attorneys’ sign that was painted on a second floor window (which is obviously fragile).

For the last 15-odd years, however, Chancellor House has been standing empty. The Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) is the organisation tasked with managing the property, but has been unable to find a suitable tenant in over a decade (despite its convenient location across from the magistrate’s court).

As the JHF, we firmly believe that an empty building is a building at risk – especially in terms of heritage. And this has proven to be the case with Chancellor House, which currently has a growing number of homeless people living along the pavement. Although it is not our intention to demonise or dismiss the plight of the homeless in Joburg, their continued presence has deterred tourism to the site and prevented the JHF from putting up a blue plaque to commemorate this architecturally and historically important building.

Furthermore, we are concerned that it is just a matter of time before the building is invaded – with potentially disastrous consequences.

Our concerns have been raised several times with the JDA and the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg but, as yet, we have not received a response. Consequently, we have issued an open letter to the Gauteng Premier, stakeholders and members of the press (see below).

We strongly encourage the relevant agencies to fulfil their responsibilities with regards to Chancellor House (and indeed all the heritage properties under their control). We also suggest that the city address the pervasive homelessness problem in the inner city in a way that is both compassionate and effective.

See the open letter about Chancellor House below, followed by some photos of the current situation as well as some items that have appeared in the press:

1 thought on “Chancellor House at Risk of invasion”

  1. It’s time a bill is passed to criminalize vandalisers squatters illegal occupants who are deliberately destroying infrastructure private public and government.

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