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Saving the Africa Centre

It has been a roller coaster year for the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. Once regarded as the “face of Africa” but now run down and barely used, it looked like it had reached the end of the road in March as news leaked out that its board of trustees was preparing to sell it off to property developers who wanted to turn in into a shop.

Amid accusations from the membership that the deal was being sneaked through, all hell broke loose. Following a noisy campaign to halt the sale backed by high profile figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Youssou N’dour, a counter scheme to refurbish the Georgian building was put on the table in August.

Since then, trustees have been studying the two proposals in detail. “We are taking our time over this – we want to make the right decision,” said Kaye Whiteman, vice-chair of the Africa Centre Council of Management, which had originally planned to buy a new building with the proceeds of a sale. 

Whatever the outcome, the war of words has raised the profile of Africa Centre once again and brought to the fore the young professionals who now wish to have a greater say in its future.

Given to the people of Africa by liberal-minded Catholics in 1962, 38 King St quickly became a place where politics, art, music and food seamlessly converged to create a home from home. Its palatial central hall, known as the Auction Hall after its original use, was famous for its lively parties. At one of them to celebrate Tanzania’s independence day in 1974, an exuberant President Julius Nyerere cast all formality aside to strut his stuff on the dance floor.

A regular haunt of exiled members of southern African liberation movements, it was said their debates would continue over hot pepper soup in the basement Calabash restaurant. 

The Africa Centre also hosted book launches, exhibitions, film shows and talks. In an event to discuss African music in 1972, the president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor, unexpectedly turned up in the audience and, once spotted, agreed, to deliver an impromptu lecture on rhythm. 

 “A lot of different people have their own Africa Centre story,” said writer and television producer Onyekachi Wambu, one of the supporters of the Save Africa Centre campaign. “As a young guy in the 1970s I saw my first African film there, Ceddo, which changed my ideas of what cinema could do. It has been an important building in bringing Africa closer to us.”

In the early days, Covent Garden was still a fruit and vegetable market and a bit scruffy around the edges. But as the area was transformed into the smart tourist haunt it is now, the Africa Centre seemed to go the other way. Poorly managed and lurching from one financial crisis to another, the rear of the building in Floral St was sold off to raise funds in the 1980s, but to no avail. The upkeep of the 18th century grade ll listed building proved too costly and it began to deteriorate. 

 “I have been a trustee since 1999 and I hung in there because I believed something could be made of it,” said Whiteman who attended the Africa Centre’s official opening as a young reporter by Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda almost 50 years ago. “I feel a deep attachment to its history and its legacy, but I also have a strong personal concern that it should have a more sustainable future.”

It is what both sides want. But at the beginning of the year, Covent Garden property developers Capco made an offer to the trustees, which, it seemed, could not be refused. This was to buy the building for £10.5 million to turn it into a high end men’s clothing store, enabling the board to purchase new premises in central London.

Opponents of the sale believe a move away from its historic base is unthinkable.  “So much of importance happened there that it cannot just be swept away, as the trustees wish to do, by selling this building to a property developer,” Tutu wrote in the Guardian at the time. 

Then, just as board prepared to confirm its decision to sell in June, Hadeel Ibrahim, daughter of Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese mobile phone magnate and philanthropist, proposed a motion for a stay of execution at an extraordinary general meeting. She was given six weeks to come up with a refurbishment scheme.

Her £12m package involves a coalition of African investors and the building’s restoration and redesign by architectural wunderkind David Adjaye, the man behind the Whitechapel Idea Store. “We believe this a commercially viable proposal and hope that the trustees take it seriously,” said Dele Fatunla, spokesperson for the Save campaign, which now has more than 4,000 supporters.  

“Africa as a whole is experiencing a renaissance, economically, and in arts music and literature too. It would be ironic if, at the very moment the rest of the world takes Africa seriously, the Africa Centre closed.”

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