Fund to maintain African heritage

13 July 2005

The Unesco World Heritage Committee has approved a fund to help maintain threatened World Heritage sites on the continent. Of the 35 sites on the World Heritage endangered list, 14 are in Africa – 40% of the total.

The 29th Session of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) is currently under way in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. The committee unanimously approved the African World Heritage Fund on Monday.

The WHC seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of “outstanding value to humanity”.

World Heritage in South Africa
Did you know that Table Mountain has more plant species than the British Isles? Or that the Drakensberg has Africa’s richest concentration of rock art? SA is home to six Unesco World Heritage sites, places of “outstanding value to humanity”.

Internationally, there are over 788 World Heritage sites, in 134 countries. Africa has 63 sites and South Africa a total of six – three cultural, two natural and one mixed. These are Robben Island, St Lucia, the Cradle of Humankind, uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, the Cape Floral Kingdom and the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape.

The African World Heritage Fund is the culmination of a series of discussions between South Africa, Benin, Nigeria, Egypt and Zimbabwe. The countries represented the continent over concerns that Africa’s heritage sites are in dire need of funding for maintenance, capacity building, awareness-raising and to implement the World Heritage Convention on the continent.

China, the Netherlands, India and Israel have already pledged financial support for the fund. A number of other countries have expressed willingness to share skills and other resources, with more expected to follow suit. So far, US$50 000 has been raised.

The funds will finance a feasibility study as part of the first phase to establish the African World Heritage Fund.

Themba Wakashe, WHC chairperson and deputy director-general of SA’s Department of Arts and Culture, said African states have realised they cannot ask the rest of the world to pay for their own conservation.

They should rather wield the financial power of the African business sector, he said.

Heritage and development
In announcing the fund, Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan said the preservation of heritage has a role in African development.

“Conservation and heritage can be moved from the periphery to the core of the development agenda,” he said. “There has been a tendency to see conservation and heritage in relation to monument preservation.

“Although monuments are contained in the list, heritage must include intangible heritage in the form of customs, practices, traditions and forms of indigenous knowledge not classically considered heritage.”

‘Custodians of first histories’
Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Martinus van Schalkwyk pointed out that the people of Africa are the custodians of “first histories”.

Africans should therefore use the past to enrich the future and enable its communities to actively manage, preserve and benefit from the continent’s sites.

“We have to protect the uniqueness of our sites,” Van Schalkwyk said. “South Africa is fortunate that it has a good mix of cultural and natural sites; this will allow us to provide a quality African experience to visitors for the 2010 World Cup.”

The African World Heritage Fund will be formally launched in February 2006.

For the full text of the proposal and the position paper, visit the WHC 29th session website.

SouthAfrica.info reporter