Destroying heritage for money's sake

Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa (SM): Everybody has a thirst for knowledge about one’s own country. However, this thirst should not only happen during Heritage Month but take place every day of our lives. Our national pride, our heritage, is something we could not do without.

Dr Amanda Esterhuysen (AE): One of the key questions we must ask is whether we must destroy our heritage for the sake of economic development? Unfortunately, until such time as the heritage sector is valued independently of the rest of the market, it will be destroyed. In South Africa, we do not have sites and communities properly protected in terms of development.

Heritage Day isn’t just a day for South Africans to get out the braai tongs—it’s a time to celebrate our great diversity and culture. And this year the celebrations started early.

We require good governance, which in turn requires a sound, legal framework. Currently, there are multiple acts which are very poorly integrated. This extends to the three levels of government. On a local level, implementation of heritage regulations does not exist. Very few provincial agencies have implemented any regulations. And while the National Heritage Council exists in Cape Town, it has limited competency and funding.

Heritage practitioners are also very poorly paid in this country. We simply cannot attract people with the competence and experience necessary to evaluate what is going on in South Africa.

Furthermore, we do not have capacity to ensure that developers do not break the law. In my experience, the loss of ancestral land causes massive stress and often splits families and communities from one another. In most instances, the hands of investors are strengthened by government.

However, there is a groundswell coming up from communities who use human rights lawyers to take their cases to the Constitutional Court. But still heritage obligations are easily shed or lost in the face of development.

My message would be that we need to recognise heritage for its social value. Give people the right to speak about it and empower them to take a stand against development that is perhaps not warranted or wanted.

SM: In 2005, SA felt that Africa was suffering because of an under-representation at Unesco. SA led the Africa positioning paper which resulted in the creation of the Africa Heritage Fund. Last year, South Africa went to Paris for 35th session of the Unesco World Heritage Committee.

It was interesting to note that whilest Africa has few World Heritage sites (eight in total), the continent itself faced delisting from Unesco because of the fine line between heritage and economic development. But we feel that there needs to be a balance between protecting one’s heritage and developing the resources in those areas.

How do we ensure that our heritage is protected while development is still taking place? At next year’s 36th session of the Unesco World Heritage Committee, Africa will be approached to see whether the Unesco guidelines are friendly to a continent facing challenges of underdevelopment and poverty.

However, we are yet to quantify the importance of heritage in the economy. Are heritage sites creating livelihoods for communities surrounding them? What empirical evidence exists? Despite some perceptions, SA is the most regulated heritage sector of the continent.

I feel that preservation of heritage can take place at the same time as development. Conservation and development together form sustainable development. In Africa you cannot separate the two. While people here try and copy what Europe is doing, Europe does not have the same poverty challenges which exist here. So how do we ensure that economic development takes place while still protecting our heritage?

Kenneth Denton (KD): Some years ago, I purchased properties in Port Elizabeth for investment reasons. I was charmed with the city and the potential of these properties. But I have had difficulties in this environment because I believe we should not destroy heritage for the sake of economic development.

Heritage can be used for economic development but we need to identify what heritage is. I am in favour of being able to keep heritage buildings or heritage zones that make a statement. But this is not without its difficulties. The Heritage Act of 1999 causes problems because it is very one-sided. It places lot of responsibilities on the owner. As an example, we have had 26 applications going into provincial heritage over the past five years. Not one of them has had recognition of receipt.

We would like liberal planning laws when it comes to building development. Just as in international markets, I feel that there should be tax relief when people occupy heritage buildings. Buildings need to be kept alive. But this cannot happen without modernising and keeping them safe. Without these heritage properties, cities would simply become soulless shells.

Wilson Sigwavhulimu (WS): We are faced with a big problem. When we as Africans speak of heritage, you cannot separate it from religion. When Mapungubwe started as a national park, the SA National Parks involved the communities to understand what this would be all about. When we had our first meeting in 2000, we decided to call a general meeting in which every community would be represented.

The problem came with an Australian company and its intention for a coal mine. The greatest problem is that mining has immediate results for communities, unlike tourism which has more long-term benefits. But you cannot do away with mining and you cannot do away with tourism. We have to find a way in which these two disparate elements can go hand-in-hand. So the community reached an agreement with local government that mining should go on, in addition to the tourism in the area which is driven by our heritage.

The concern is that the lifespan of mining is not very long but tourism has more long-term benefits. But how do we convince the community about this when the unemployment rate is very high?

As Sonwabile Mancotwya pointed out, this is where the problem comes in with Unesco. The organisation declared Mapungubwe a World Heritage Site. If the mining goes ahead we do not know what Unesco will do. Do we withdraw the area as a World Heritage Site or not? A lot of work needs to be done to get to the traditional leaders and explain to them the economic development bought by the World Heritage Site and by mining.

How does mining affect tourism? This is a complex problem which we must face now. We must get the mines together to try and solve this problem. The alternative is too concerning to consider.

Goolam Ballim (GB): In economics, just as in life, it is rare to uncover a solution that makes somebody better off while not make somebody else worse off. The economics of heritage are fairly novel. The literature has grown over the past decade but most of it emanates from lobby groups.

Heritage on its own—as purists argue—is larger than just economic value. It has both monetary and non-monetary benefits. Heritage is bequeathed to our children and our children’s children. In the hierarchy of needs, most South Africans will state that food, shelter, personal safety and security will rank higher than charm, memories and the aesthetic qualities of an area. Drawing from empirical literature, we can say that heritage solutions tend to be location-specific.

There is not enough evidence to be making generalised statements of support for or against heritage. People need to be convinced about the benefits of heritage. Today, the pro-heritage group finds itself with an even tougher task than in the past.

We live in a society where the single most important threat to democracy and economy is poverty. Over the next few years, economic development is likely to be slower. Choices are going to become even harder and public finances are going to be built on even shallower foundations. While that which we bequeath to our children might be without palpable value, it is still something which society needs to consider.

AE: The issue of legislation is about wanting a set of rules applied fairly across the board. We need to give people a fair opportunity to lobby for themselves or at least get involved in the decision-making process.

We set out and applied for World Heritage Status. It is not something that just happened from Unesco. We developed the management plans and set out our own parameters. It is more important for the country’s purposes to develop a World Heritage Site. But if tourists do not come, we simply just go mine the hell out of it.

There is a perception that poverty is a big problem and heritage is the least of our worries. But does development really solve poverty? Where are we taking the moral fibre of our society by just focusing on economic development?

SM: To add to what Amanda Esterhuysen has said, there is an observation that Unesco guidelines are unfriendly to Africa. The issue is not about not caring for heritage. We are proud of and protect our heritage.

But at the same time, this is done in a manner which resolves the socio-economic problems we have. Heritage is a commodity. People want heritage protected. Above that, places are historic, but what can be done to attract tourists without damaging the intrinsic value of heritage? So we are sensitive about Unesco conventions.

Once heritage is protected, it markets itself. But even now, there has not been a proper heritage impact study conducted examining the impact of mining on buffer zones at World Heritage sites.

KD: Buildings are insignificant but memories are permanent and powerful. People care about the memories of the buildings. Balance needs to be maintained in terms of economic development and maintaining the heritage of the buildings and their associated memories.

As developers, we are capitalist by nature. But having visitor centres at heritage buildings greatly enhances the value of the area and therefore increases business. But we need to be supported if we want to develop a building and have parts of its heritage which have historic significance open to the public.

To this end, we need to be rewarded, for example through rates exemptions, grants and good cooperation in terms of heritage support. In return for the limited development that we undertake, there is a request that there are rewards for that. Over the last 12 months, I spend in excess of R7-million in developing heritage communities in PE.

WS: Yes, taxation is necessary on heritage properties, but the proviso is that more studies are needed. We are developing people. These are the people who have been neglected for too long. When we spend money developing these people, we are not wasting money.

That is why talks of nationalising mines will not come to an end. The mines should not go away and the heritage sites must not go away. We must find a way in which the two can exist in juxtaposition. If this is not possible, then technology is not developing.

GB: There is room to argue that heritage can be more economically viable than other development opportunities. A lot of arguments can be made in favour of heritage preservation to new economic development.

But one has to recognise the importance of location dynamics. It is unlikely for seductive pro-heritage numbers to translate into outcomes for a specific local market. We are trying to socialise cost but will benefits be equally socialised?

After all, financial institutions make decisions on the capacity of a lender to repay debt. More savvy investors will make lending decisions on buttressing real economy and the industry’s ability to develop and grow jobs.

SM: Communities are sometimes disempowered when a mining company comes and makes promises of economic development. Often, these communities have no choice but to believe those promises. However, we have no empirical evidence on the extent to which heritage sites are contributing to economic development.

Let us move away from anecdotes and start looking at the empirical value of heritage on social and economic development. The main issue about heritage is social cohesion for communities. It creates value to communities. Heritage keeps us together. The issue of preserving heritage is very important. Communities should own their heritage. As institutions, we cannot just dish out heritage where we see fit.

KD: The properties I have acquired in PE happened as a result of financial crisis and a lack of confidence in people. It has been open season in terms of economic development on most of the housing stock in large suburbs. I have taken a long-term view that things can turn around.

This is why I am investing R7-million in the community. Banks were quick to lend in mid-90s to develop office blocks. However, those office blocks became slums which we took over and vacated instead of them being used improperly. As an example, to get the right people living in that environment, we offer them free rent.

We will encourage sustainable growth. It makes a big difference if you have sufficient creative arts people in an area. We have been requesting minor things in certain areas - such as street lights, wider pavements, landscaping and the like. These small investments from local government will make a huge difference.

If you develop heritage really well, it will be there long after the mines have disappeared. I cannot see the long-term value in excavating some valuables out of the ground versus the risk of damaging the heritage associated with an area.

AE: Development planning for heritage has not happened. Firstly, the Heritage Act has not been acted on correctly yet. Secondly, in terms of mining and development there does not seem to be a plan either.

For example, many communities in Limpopo see government subsidising properties. So these communities have no bargaining power in terms of mining companies. They simply have to leave when government accepts offers for the land. And the remuneration they receive is not adequate for the value of the properties on which they live. Relocation becomes a huge social problem for communities

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