Jürgen Witt, Museum Man of Tzaneen


Born 26/08/1930 Charlottenburg (Berlin), Germany – died 03/01/2019 Tzaneen, South Africa.

Despite having led a remarkably varied and eventful life, Jürgen Witt seemed destined to be a forgotten man who died in a forgotten corner of South Africa – but Noseweek could not allow that to happen.

The oldest of four children, Witt went to school in Germany and Ukraine. He left school early to join the army as a volunteer in 1944 to help defend Ukraine’s border against the Russians. He was arrested and imprisoned, but managed to escape and fled to Sweden where an aunt of his was living. There he worked on a farm, studied agriculture, went to the North Pole as an assistant prospector, worked as a forester, a colporteur and even for a short while in the diplomatic service. In Stockholm he met his future wife Hilda.

 Jürgen Witt and his successor as curator of the museum, Florence Tshibeyahope

In 1952 he came to South Africa in search of an uncle. He worked for a while on the roads in Botswana (then Bechuanaland) before joining a foreign trade business in Johannesburg, where he and Hilda got married. They had a daughter and two sons, all still in South Africa.

In 1960 the family settled in Tzaneen, where Witt stayed till his death. Initially he worked as a bookkeeper for several companies before starting his own accounting business. In March 1962 he acquired South African citizenship.

Always interested in the world around him, Witt joined the Archeological Society. In 1969 he was employed part-time – along with a number of well-known international academics – by the German Research Council. Archaeology, geology, geo-morphology, ethnology and plant geography were amongst the disciplines involved.

Exhibits cover every bit of space in the tiny museum

Witt became scientific assistant to Professor Otto Fraenzle, a position he held until the latter’s death. He was also co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Sahara Research Society, and a member of the Institutum Canarium, concerned with the cultural heritage of the Canary Islands. In the course of his research, he was able to identify nearly 200 sites of archeological interest from Tzaneen, along the escarpment to the Indian Ocean.

In his spare time, he had discovered about 200 sites of archeological interest between Tzaneen and the Indian Ocean. In the process he covered a large part of the Kruger National Park on foot.

In 1970 he was persuaded by the town council of Tzaneen to sell his large collection of African art and artefacts to them for a nominal sum, with the promise that they would erect a proper building where the whole collection could be displayed and properly cared for, with Witt as permanent curator.

The building was also supposed to include a gallery for regular exhibitions and lectures.

Great was his shock and disappointment when he discovered shortly afterwards that a new town council had sold the collection to Potchefstroom University.

 The Museum in Tzaneen

Not only did Tzaneen lose this precious heritage, but the university, having just bought the collection, then closed the relevant department and sold the Witt collection to a member of staff. This man in turn sold off items to collectors.

Witt only became aware of this when people from all over the world started to contact him for information about items that they had acquired.

Unbowed, this spurred him on to starting a new collection. This time, the art and artefacts he acquired were not limited to those from the Limpopo area, but from Africa as a whole.

In 1995 the new museum was started in a very small dilapidated building made available by the Tzaneen town council. Witt had to spend his own money and that of private donors.

The inadequately small grant from the town council for the museum’s running costs was stopped when Witt complained in his monthly report about the large amounts of money being spent on soccer stadiums while art and cultural museums suffered. What peeved the council especially in his report was the comment: “What we need is quality children, not quantity.”

This forced Witt to start selling some of his precious book collection to help pay for the museum’s expenses. When he was also forced to cancel his subscription to Noseweek, reporter  Nicci van Doesburgh investigated. Noseweek not only published an illuminating article about the museum in August 2012 (nose154), but also gave Witt a free two-year renewal of his subscription. Later he reciprocated with a generous donation to Noseweek.

Fortunately the collection belongs to a trust. Jürgen Witt’s trusted assistant Florence Tshibeyahope is still looking after the museum. One can only hope that his dream will be realised in that the collection will eventually be housed in the building and environment it deserves.

The Jürgen Witt Trust has been established by friends and family to help fund care of the collection. It pays  the curator’s salary.

Witt is survived by his widow, Hilda, and their three children.

• Readers wishing to contribute to the trust should contact Noseweek for details.
 

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