Historic Lovedale Press facing closure

One of three custodians of the Lovedale Press, Cebo Ntaka, gives a tour of the building. All photos by Sandiso Phaliso

The 198-year-old printing press published isiXhosa texts, much of which at its inception was Christian, but African literature from around the continent was later part of its output.

Lovedale Press is on the brink of closure and it seems there is no plan to rescue the historic printers. Founded in Alice, Eastern Cape, almost 200 years ago, the press is now in shambles and lacks funds to operate. It owes over a million rands to Eskom and its landlord, a fruit and vegetable store which occupies a section of the building.

Chairperson of the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) in Alice, Unathi Ngcume, described the turn of events at Lovedale Press as an “unfortunate demise and dilapidation”. Ngcume said it was with “utter disappointment” that he learned of the financial struggles at Lovedale Press. Three custodians, Cebo Ntaka, Bishop Nqumevu and Bulelwa Mbatyothi have kept the historic place open every day of the week for almost two decades no matter how dire the situation, without drawing a salary. Numerous fundraising campaigns to save the press have not succeeded.

When this reporter visited the building, there were dusty boxes, books, broken pieces of equipment dating back more than a century, and papers scattered all around. Lights don’t work because electricity has been cut off and there is no running water. “If it is not preserved it can all abruptly vanish. We understand what Lovedale Press means for future generations and I feel something must be done to save it. We are in dire need of funding. We are unable to pay rent and we owe the electricity supplier huge amounts. We have not been getting salaries for almost 20 years now and that is affecting our wellbeing as parents and heads of households,” said Ntaka. 

Ngcume said: “It is common knowledge that Lovedale Press is a treasure and heritage to us people of Alice and to a larger extent the province of the Eastern Cape can claim that heritage. In our quest to protect and jealously guard what we call our heritage, we have taken numerous strides to salvage what is left of what was once a very vibrant and exuberant printing facility,” said Ngcume.

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He said Sanco’s efforts to save the press had yielded no positive results. “This truly dampened our zeal and enthusiasm around this issue. It was in 2012, that we again raised some concerns with the state the press was in, and we went further… calling a community meeting to craft how we can assist. That too was in vain. The operational staff at the press have always raised their heartfelt pain at the state the press was in. Due to some bureaucratic dictates, they too
had made efforts to save Lovedale Press.

“These people have sacrificed a lot for this institution. It is very much unfortunate that our government has turned a blind eye on this. It shouldn’t be that, as a government of the people, with a very key responsibility of preserving our heritage and history, they have not assisted in this regard. I am however hopeful that not all is lost; government can still play a pivotal role in saving Lovedale. This is a government that listens to its people. I trust that
their humble admiration of the inimitable history of this country will evoke some senses and fast give
assistance and guidance herein,” said Ngcume.

He said what needs to be done is to establish a committee comprised of stakeholders from the private sector, government and community, and media and higher education institutions. “Part of its immediate responsibility would be to craft a plan that will best respond to the dire needs of Lovedale Press. This has to be done with immediate effect. Only then can we say we have tried our utmost best to save Lovedale Press. Until then, there is still hope.”

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Initially there were 18 custodians who took it upon themselves to buy Lovedale Press when it was auctioned in 2001.
Including Ntaka, they used their pensions to buy the place but their investment did not bear any fruits; instead they continued to struggle.

Ntaka said they had hoped that the government, business sector and the public would support them to keep the heritage alive. Seven of the 18 custodians have since died and eight were no longer active in the day-to-day running of the business. “Life for us, the remaining three, is a struggle without an income for all these years,” Nqumevu chips in as Ntaka is busy with the tour. “We come here every weekday to keep guard of this heritage site because the day we don’t come we could be locked outside,” said Nqumevu.

The Department of Arts and Culture and the Heritage Council know about their plight but nothing has been done. “This national heritage deserves to be protected either as a business or a heritage site. We refuse to let it vanish just like that. Any kind of help is welcome,” Ntaka said.

Bishop Nqumevu and Cebo Ntaka at Lovedale Press, in Alice, where they spend weekdays watching the building.

The landlord, the manager of the fruit and vegetable store, Juan Harlgreen, confirmed that Lovedale Press owes over R500,000 in rent. “We own the building. My boss is trying to get the space they are using through legal means but it is taking long. We have been lenient with them for too long. We tried to settle out of court but still there are no funds at Lovedale Press,” said Halgreen. 

Both the provincial and the national departments of arts and culture did not respond to questions sent to them by Elitsha.

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