Heritage: The management of the past and future

Anyone who has used South African public transport will have stories to share of the people they encountered on their journey

Anyone who has used South African public transport will have stories to share of the people they encountered on their journey

The Gautrain project has been a success for Gauteng, a project that marks a concerted effort to take the province into the future that will, of necessity, rely more and more on public transport. The questions of its future, its role in South African heritage and its role in society were raised at the Gautrain Public Transport Heritage Critical Thinking Forum, which was held at Liliesleaf, Rivonia on September 22 2016. The Critical Thinking Forum was hosted by the Mail & Guardian and moderated by Nozipho Mbanjwa, chief executive of The Talent Firm.

“There’s often a misconception around heritage and what it is. And the definition that I prefer is actually that heritage is the management of change,” said Jacques Stoltz, independent consultant at Place Matters, and a co-founding member of The Heritage Monitoring Project.

“We’re not trying to preserve everything because we can’t,” said Stoltz. “So it’s about people with knowledge, like archaeologists, making the call to say, ‘Yes, this site is so special and so significant that development should not occur.’

“Unfortunately the reality is that communities may become defensive when they see development coming, and they often use ‘heritage’ as the lever to try to stop development, and for me that’s not heritage management,” he said.

“Heritage management is about saying, ‘Development can do good, but it can also do bad.’ I think the approach that I prefer is what the City of Johannesburg is currently doing around the Corridors of Freedom. And it’s about saying, ‘Well, let’s do a survey of all of the suburbs in the Corridors of Freedom and understand what heritage is there.’ ”

So we must actually understand not just the potential impacts but also how we can incorporate heritage and local place identity into the new systems and spaces we are creating, and start thinking ‘how can we use heritage as an opportunity?’

“As a good example, we’ve been doing work in Noordgesig, where there’s this old, disused railway bridge, but the two parts of Noordgesig are cut off from each other by a wetlands system and the pedestrians are forced to walk along quite a dangerous highway section. Why not repurpose the historic rail bridge as a pedestrian bridge? If we use opportunities like this then heritage becomes used for a good purpose.”

Intangible heritage

Dr Natalie Swanepoel, senior lecturer in Unisa’s department of anthropology and archaeology at Unisa spoke about what she calls “intangible heritage”: a sense of ownership and affection that people begin to feel about, for instance, certain modes of transport. For example, they may begin to enjoy travelling on a particular train at a particular time because they know who else will be on that train at that particular time.

“These are the values that we attach to places or things or events that come to have meaning, so that in 20 years’ time you may be telling your children about how you used to get from point A to point B and this is what happened, and these are the people you met. I’m sure anyone who has travelled on any form of public transportation has stories about their encounters that they’ve had and how they brought South Africans from different backgrounds face-to-face; I think that this one of the things moving us forward as a country.”

The will to preserve

The idea of what makes a transport system truly public must be interrogated. Swanepoel said that once people identify with a form of transport they might also feel proud of it and wish to protect and preserve it. “If people feel a sense of ownership of something, then they will want to protect it against people who want to destroy it or who target it. There are probably a variety of ways to create that sense of ownership, which include making things accessible, making things affordable, and encouraging a sense of community.”

Jack van der Merwe, chief executive of the Gautrain Management Agency, made the point that once you have created infrastructure, it is far from the end of the project. Infrastructure by its nature will decay through use. “So you can’t say ‘it’s there’ — you have to maintain it. You have to spend money on it,” said van der Merwe.

Part of keeping public transport running is a sense of pride, he claims. “I went to Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. In East Berlin they had a train system that was run down, with graffiti, they were breaking the windows, it was total chaos. On the West German side they had one train. When the wall came down they said they were going run the trains. These guys on the western side were horrified, they thought their trains would go to the east and come back broken, but they went to the east and the people were so proud of having this new train, they came back better.

“If you can get the spiral going up, I predict that when Prasa brings their new trains in, people are going to say, ‘This is comparable to the best, it’s the same quality as the Gautrain’ and they’ll preserve it. But it’s once a thing goes down, it goes into a dead spiral. People don’t like it anymore, the service is bad, there’s a lot of delays and that’s when it goes down.”

Expansion and accessibility

The balancing act between preservation and expansion was a key point in the discussion.

Catherine Warburton, who has more than 20 years of practical experience in the relatively new field of sustainability law in South Africa, and has been involved in the environmental-legal aspects of the Gautrain project as specialist advisor since 2002, said: “I’m sure many of you will be aware of some of the future [train] lines that have been reported in the press and are currently under feasibility study. For example, there will be an East-West link from Mamelodi all the way to Naledi.

“Any public transport system has to start somewhere and with this project the start was at central spine, and of course the ideal now is to branch that out and to be able to make this system much more accessible to a much broader section of the province.”

Warburton also highlighted that improved access to public transport requires a focus on a variety of projects that work together as an integrated system — one that is broadly accessible.

“There was a recent, very important legal judgment, which places a very clear duty of care on public transport operators. In this case it was Prasa, where there were no doors on a train and they were left open to various criminal activities, and the really key judgment, I think, for public transport generally is that there’s certain standards that simply have to be maintained and people wish to have a sense of safety and security when using a public transport system.

“The Gautrain needs to be extended and made more accessible and more useful. However, you have to elevate and improve the other forms of public transport at the same time, otherwise that’s simply not going to work,” said Warburton.

“Regarding the Bus Rapid Transport system, it is really important, and I think the aspects of it that have been unrolled have worked well, but one needs to see more than that and happening at a faster pace, if I dare to say so. I think it’s often a multi-pronged approach and it simply has to be done in that way, otherwise it’s not going to be successful.”