Africa takes charge of its heritage

Minister of arts and culture in South Africa, Paul Mashatile, bids delegates farewell at the closing ceremony of the four-day conference.

Alaphia Wright, director of Unesco’s Southern African regional office in Windhoek, Namibia reflects on the event.

Ministers and representatives of African governments pose for a group photograph to mark the end of the event.
(Images: Valencia Talane)

The Maropeng visitors centre at the Cradle of Humankind, which is one of South Africa’s eight world heritage sites
(Image: MediaClubSouthAfrica.com)

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Valencia Talane

Participants at Africa’s first-ever international world heritage conference, held under the auspices of the Unesco World Heritage Centre, have declared the event to be a success.

Under the theme Living with world heritage in Africa, the event was co-organised by the African World Heritage Fund and formed part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of Unesco’s World Heritage Convention.

South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture, with the support of the Department of Environmental Affairs, was the official host for the event, which ran from 26-29 September at the Kopanong Hotel and Conference Centre in Benoni, east of Johannesburg.

Government ministers and policy makers engaged community leaders from all over the continent, as well as academics and civil society, to discuss the most amicable ways to manage and protect existing and new world heritage sites on the continent.

A joint statement released by the ministers present helped set the tone for the conference. In it they condemned the destruction of world-famous and irreplaceable heritage sites and objects by Islamic insurgents in Mali.

A call was also made to the international community to support a cause to curb the trafficking of cultural objects and manuscripts from the historic town of Timbuktu in the same country.

“We call upon all parties to the conflict to desist from destroying cultural heritage,” read the statement.

Opening the conference, South Africa’s minister of arts and culture Paul Mashatile said: “The recent events in Mali are of concern not only to the people of Mali, but the entire continent and the world.”

The Malian history, he added, opened a new chapter in the understanding of African civilisation, instilling significant pride in all Africans.

“This conference has reminded us of the importance of ongoing dialogue in finding lasting solutions to challenges facing the continent and the world,” said Mashatile.

The way forward

With that said, participants in the conference’s various themed discussions deliberated on ideas to help protect Africa’s heritage sites and secure their preservation in future years by drawing up recommendations on the way forward.

One of the statements of principle that delegates arrived at was the recognition of world heritage properties as unique and irreplaceable resources, meaning that states parties have a responsibility to ensure their long-term development and management.

The term ‘states parties’ refers to countries which adhere to the World Heritage Convention and have agreed to identify and nominate properties on their national territory to be considered for inscription on the World Heritage List.

Sustainable development and world heritage, according to another principle statement, should coexist, with neither being sacrificed for the benefit or survival of the other. The management of the sites should be central to development agendas and be integrated into larger plans by authorities.

Delegates also called for communities living around heritage sites to be incorporated into management plans, as the role of the communities is central to the survival of the sites.

Educational, social and financial support for the proper management of the properties has to be given in good faith because it is these communities that have historical and cultural knowledge of the sites.

“This conference reaffirmed that all our world heritage properties belong to, and must be accessible, to all,” said Mashatile in his closing speech on 29 September. “They must first and foremost be managed in a manner that benefits communities living in and around those properties.”

Private industries and heritage sites

One of the recommendations made for the sustainable management of world heritage sites was that the private sector – particularly industries whose work can have a direct impact on the preservation of the sites – should connect with communities and implement best practices for doing business in those regions.

The mining industry, represented by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), acknowledged that stronger working relations between the sector and governments would benefit the sites.

In addition, states parties needed to respect and recognise the ICMM’s principles for non-members and therefore not grant licenses at world heritage properties to non-ICMM companies. Going this route, went the argument, would ensure that governance of the properties would remain within the standards set by the ICMM and states parties.

Responsible communities

Once the concept of a local community has been defined within the context of listed world heritage sites and those that are yet to be listed, its dynamics – which would include cultural awareness of the site in question – should be taken into consideration in the planned listing.

This will ensure that when the government steps in to empower such a community, the strategy will be built on already existing knowledge and will endeavour to equip future generations with that knowledge.

Another recommendation was that the responsibility of strengthening organisational capacities of local communities, so that they can effectively participate in the management of sites in their areas, should lie with governments.

For this to be possible, sustainable funding for conservation of the sites is also necessary, and would boost the development of the communities.

Measures should always be in place to protect heritage properties from unlawful acts or decisions, through protective legislation that keeps up with changes within the communities.

Delegates also concurred that there is no reason why world heritage sites should not drive the sustainable development of the communities around them. The 2006 Charter of the African Cultural Renaissance was cited as a benchmark that could help guide communities’ understanding of this role of a heritage site.

Tourists bring value

Heritage sites can be developed as eco and cultural tourism destinations, which will then bring more benefits to surrounding communities. For this move to be feasible, however, the community should be educated about successful tourism ventures, and using their surroundings to improve their livelihood.

Another recommendation was that proper monitoring processes be put in place to ensure that the community has the proper tools to keep up with changes in the socioeconomic environment of their bigger surroundings, such as their country and the world at large.

Taking stock of issues

Once the deliberations were over and recommendations noted down, it was the turn of the collective political leadership of the continent to declare the way forward on the issue of protecting heritage sites.

Cirino Hiten Ofuho, the minister of culture in Africa’s youngest country, South Sudan, expressed his gratitude at having been included in the process of drawing up solid resolutions for the protection of the continent’s heritage.

“We have a privileged position as South Sudan, because we can learn from mistakes made by other countries in the past,” he joked, adding that his country could also be viewed as a clean canvas on which to focus efforts to save the country’s heritage.

In a gesture that received booming applause from delegates at the closing ceremony, the Nigerian representative government made an announcement, on behalf of that country’s minister of culture Edem Duke, of a pledge from his government of US$1-million towards the Africa World Heritage Fund.

Mashatile said Africans must work to develop long-term plans on the sustainability of the continent’s heritage properties.

“We emerge from this conference more convinced that we must protect our heritage sites and ensure that they also contribute towards the socioeconomic development of our societies,” he said.

The resolutions and declaration of the conference will be tabled during the final occasion celebrating the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, scheduled for Japan in November 2012.