Risk of losing heritage sites

Booming urban development and a lack of awareness among South African citizens puts our heritage sites at risk. We may end up losing them forever. Legislation acts as a safeguard, but implementation is a problem. The fight for preservation is a constant battle.

The South African Heritage Resources Agency is responsible for the preservation of heritage sites and objects of national significance. Sibongile van Damme, the agency’s chief executive, said the task is monumental.

“We need to help people understand the significance of heritage sites,” Van Damme said. “People may not want to co-operate if they feel threatened or the reasoning is not well explained.”

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.

When a site is identified, owners have to agree to have it declared. There is a negotiation process that happens, but if an owner is unco-operative the agency can force protection of the site. Heritage expert Webber Ndoro agreed that there is a lack of awareness. People who own heritage sites do not always realise the importance of preservation.
“In most places locals are ignorant of the law,” Ndoro said. Heritage managers are trained to preserve sites but they may not know how to spread awareness of the significance of the sites.

Owners of heritage sites are required to submit permits when they extend or alter the property in any way. Owners have to seek permission to renovate buildings older than 60 years—“but most people do not do that”, Ndoro said.

Urban development
Although any structure older than 60 years is considered a heritage site, to get an official declaration the site must first be nominated. Researchers examine the site and compile a dossier. This is presented to the heritage resources agency’s council, which either approves or declines the declaration. “The community must derive some sort of benefit from a heritage site,” Van Damme said. “It has to have some sort of significance.”

Ndoro said because development was happening to such a large extent, South Africa is in jeopardy of losing some sites if they are kept merely for preservation’s sake. “Developers need to know that they can still make money and protect heritage.” Unfortunately, there is little incentive for this in South Africa. In countries such as Italy tax exemptions are given to developers that endeavour to preserve heritage.

Ndoro said some countries, such as Japan and China, have booming urban development but still manage to preserve their heritage. “South Africa, and indeed Africa, needs to learn that we don’t need to throw everything away from the past to move forward.”

According to the National Heritage Resources Act, the minimum penalty is a fine and/or three months imprisonment, and the maximum is a fine or five years imprisonment. He said penalties for contravening the Act are not severe enough. “There is definitely room for improvement. If you lose something, you lose it forever.” Contravention of the Act is often not reported. “People who break the law need to be penalised and held up as examples.”

Capacity and resources
Van Damme said that although many heritage sites and objects do not belong to the state, the heritage resources agency strives to foster relationships with owners and oversee the care of nationally or universally significant sites and objects.

A great deal of work goes into preserving South Africa’s national heritage and it’s done on a shoestring budget. “We receive R36-million a year and it barely covers our needs,” Van Damme said.

Ndoro said South Africa has done well in terms of regulations on preserving heritage. “The biggest challenge is capacity, not necessarily at a national level but certainly at a provincial one.” South Africa has some of the best legislation, but there is a shortage of capacity—trained manpower—he said. Six thousand heritage sites were declared before the 1999 National Heritage Resources Act. Ndoro estimated that number had tripled. However, he said it is an ongoing process. The Voortrekker Monument, for instance, was declared a heritage site only this year.

The chief executive of the Liliesleaf* heritage site, Nicholas Wolpe, said he believes it’s not just a lack of resources but rather that heritage is not adequately promoted. “We as South Africans just do not grasp the significance of these sites.”

Untapped opportunity
People need to know the benefits of preserving heritage, Ndoro said. “It’s not just social identity. Italy has no gold, diamonds or oil, but one in three people is employed in the heritage sector. It is a whole other economy we are not tapping into.” Ndoro said the Sterkfontein caves at the Cradle of Humankind are an excellent example of how employment opportunities can be created around heritage.

“It is a huge industry,” he said, but figures are not available, making it difficult to gauge exactly how big a business it could be. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot if we do not attempt to compile those figures. We need those figures to take to policymakers.”

Ndoro said it is not enough to conserve places of historical significance. Opportunities needed to be created around them. The onus is not just on government. “Universities need to come on board and generate heritage entrepreneurs.”

Wolpe said one of the problems in South Africa is that history and heritage institutions are not elevated to the level they are in Europe. “Even in places like the United States national sites have an enormous sense of value. Millions of Americans flock to see the liberty bell each year.” Tourism of lesser-known heritage sites in South Africa, he said, is simply not promoted.

“Jo’burg wants to become a tourist destination, but it needs to first realise the value of its historical sites. It has the largest man-made forest in the world and possesses beautiful architecture. We need to try to promote sites through their uniqueness. “We are sitting rich with historical assets and doing nothing about it.”

Liliesleaf* is a farm in Rivionia where key debates were held on political and military policy and strategy. The most prominent leaders of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid—Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo, among others—sought shelter and attended meetings there. Many of them were discovered in a police raid on the farm and were subsequently tried in the Rivonia treason trial. Owned by the Liliesleaf Trust, the site is now a museum recording part of South Africa’s sociopolitical past. It was declared a heritage site this year.

Underwater museum proposed
A new era is dawning for the South African Heritage Resources Agency, which has proposed the creation of a world-class underwater museum. This had placed a new focus on South Africa’s maritime and underwater cultural heritage (Much).

The proposed museum will be within 30km of the Mozambique border. It is hoped the initiative will create a unique diving experience that preserves heritage and attracts tourists. The underwater display will comprise a series of submerged statues among coral reefs, representing aspects of history such as slavery, indentured labour and the South African Native Labour Corps.

Recently, underwater museums have been constructed in places such as Mexico, Egypt and even China. Until recently South Africa’s maritime and underwater sites have enjoyed little protection and investigation.

But, through training programmes and awareness campaigns, the Much initiative—with funding donated by the Dutch government—aims to build capacity within institutions such as environmental protection agencies, museums and universities whose day-to-day operations include the marine environment. The programme seeks to broaden the scope of Much to extend beyond shipwrecks and include other sites that are associated with water and maritime activities.

Visit our special report.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn


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