Heritage Month 2009

By Dr Mathole Motshekga, Chief Whip of the ANC

Since the advent of democracy in South Africa, we have made it an annual tradition to celebrate September as both the Heritage and Tourism Month. In doing so, our government selects an appropriate theme for each year, and the theme for this year is “Celebrate crafts”. Crafts in their nature form part of tangible heritage which is the heritage that we can see and feel.

Throughout the years, we have come to realize that there is another form of heritage which we should cherish, treasure, protect and promote. That is intangible heritage, which includes oral traditions, memories, language, mythology, customs, rituals, and indigenous knowledge systems that enrich our lives.

Crafts also have intangible values of African myths, stories and traditions associated with them. We therefore ought to celebrate both the tangible and intangible heritage as our collective inheritance from past generations of mankind.

The distinction between tangible and intangible heritage is almost artificial because every tangible heritage has got intangible values associated with it. This means that we ought to look at heritage in its totality as it provides our communities with a sense of cultural identity which underpins our cultural diversity and creativity as human beings.

Heritage is our legacy from the past which has shaped and influenced our lives today and this is what we will pass onto future generations as irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.

There is a need to leverage South Africa’s cultural and natural heritage for poverty eradication and socio-economic development.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted a convention for identification, recognition and protection of World Heritage Sites as areas of outstanding natural, historical and cultural values.

To date, 890 sites have been listed and South Africa boasts 8 World Heritage sites, namely, the Craddle of Humakind (Sterkfontein), Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, Robben Island, Richterveld, Ukhahlamba Drakensberg, Cape Floral Region, Isimangaliso Wetland Park and Vredefort Dome. We should be proud that our country is well-endowed with heritage resources as these sites represent unique cultural landscapes and fairly pristine areas rich in biodiversity and natural resources that are only endemic to South Africa.

As South Africa is a signatory to the World Heritage Convention, we made a commitment to protect these heritage sites through appropriate management plans and are expected to report to UNESCO regarding the state of conservation of these sites. So far, our authorities such as South African National Parks, the National Heritage Council and the South African Heritage Resources Agency are doing a spending job in fulfilling our obligation of protecting and developing these heritage resources which are of an immense value not only to our country but to the entire universe as well.

The greatest challenge for the ANC government is to transform the heritage sector as it is primarily exclusive of the majority of black people in terms of ownership and management of heritage sites. Unless there is collective ownership of the heritage sector in South Africa, the existence and survival of heritage sites will remain threatened as the majority of the black people will perceive these sites as fiefdoms to enrich those unscrupulous individuals who exploit the poor as cheap labour.

South Africa, like any other developing country has been grappling with the issue of mass poverty for a long time and this situation is extreme in the rural areas where most people live in abject poverty. It is therefore extremely important that we leverage our natural and cultural heritage as one of the pillars for job creation, poverty eradication and socio-economic development in our communities.

Our efforts on the promotion and protection of heritage sites must result in ample opportunities for the empowerment of local people through skills development and job creation. Local people must not only be hired as general labourers, cleaners, game rangers and gardeners in these sites, we must deliberately capacitate them to be managers and owners of some of these sites.  

Ownership and custodianship is an important issue considering that some of these sites are in areas affected by the land-claims process. The biggest challenge in this regard is to ensure that our communities are adequately prepared to own and manage these sites when the process of land restoration is finalized. The process of skills development and training should be begin well in advance so that these sites can be handed-over to their rightful owners and custodians without compromising or endangering their continued existence.

Heritage sites are important attractions to tourists. For this reason, local people should be trained as tour guides and tour operators so that they can derive tangible benefits from the promotion and conservation of these sites. It is also vital that as much as possible, goods and services are sourced from local entrepreneurs so as to stimulate local economic growth and eradicate poverty. 

We must guard against the continuous theft and plagiarism of indigenous knowledge by people who suck valuable traditional knowledge out of ordinary men and women in the rural areas and later claim to be experts on traditions and heritage without acknowledging that they gleaned this knowledge from our elders.

We should cherish and respect our elders as reservoirs or fountains of knowledge and heritage. When old woman or man dies, it is like a library is burnt down especially if we do not take measures to record ancient knowledge for our own use and transmission into generations to come. We should learn from the generations of Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, ZR Mahabane, Charlotte Maxeke, Oliver Thambo and Nelson Mandela who steadfastly defended, promoted and protected our African humanity, values and heritage over the past decades.

Indigenous people must be duly recognized and financially rewarded for their knowledge which benefits major industries such as health as knowledge about medicinal properties of plants and animals has been inherited from indigenous knowledge systems. Cases such as the one involving the San people and pharmaceutical companies are unforgivable.

These companies harvest Hoodia which is a plant with medicinal properties to suppress hunger and therefore valuable as a source of medicine for those who wish to control their diets by eating less. The only source of knowledge on Hoodia’s medicinal properties has been the San people but they are not adequately acknowledged and economically compensated for in this regard. Government should prioritize this matter and deal with this case swiftly so that there will be redress and equitable sharing of benefits.

Equally important is that we have valuable heritage properties in the city centres such as Johannesburg. We must revitalize old buildings such as dilapidated church, school and library buildings so that we can use these for community mobilization and empowerment through social education for development. This is an important opportunity through which we can utilize government funds provided under the Expanded Public Works Program to rehabilitate and renovate buildings whilst creating employment, business and skills development opportunities for women, youth and those who are poor and vulnerable in our communities.