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Saturday, October 1, 2016 - 15:48

On 15 September 2016, the South African Heritage Resources Agancy (SAHRA) hosted a colloquium on 'Heritage and Development'. Heritage expert Herbert Prins attended and presented a paper arguing that the heritage resources management system has failed to achieve its purpose and that until equlibrium is restored there is no chance of achieving a balance between heritage conservation and development. The full paper is published below.

After the 1994 democratic transition, the importance of heritage conservation was recognised and a new law was promulgated to ensure the management and conservation of heritage resources. 

The National Monuments Act – the NMA  - reflected on the less democratic nature of the political order that preceded 1994.  It was intended to conserve monuments, often endowed with political symbolism. In the NMA “Monument” means “any property declared under this Act to be a national monument…”  In other words a decision by the Council is all that was required.

This is replaced in Section 3 (1) of the National Heritage Resources Act - the NHRA - by a more egalitarian assessment of “cultural significance” as defined under the “national estate” as: 

“… those heritage resources of South Africa which are of cultural significance or other special value for the present community and for future generations must be considered part of the national estate and fall within the sphere of operations of heritage resources authorities.”

This implies that cultural significance or other special value is derived by taking cognisance of what the community deems to be culturally significant.

Accordingly the National Heritage Resources Act – the NHRA - was drafted in order that there should be transparency and “…to introduce an integrated and interactive system for the management of the national heritage resources.” These innovations constituted a radical post-1999 changes to the legislation. 

The NHRA sets out a system for the management and promotion of the national estate that is methodical, and logical. It suggests a sensible way of achieving objectives, namely to encourage development in accordance with a defined organic framework, as set out in the various sections of the Act.  

According to the Oxford Dictionary – a “system” may be defined as a group of things that are connected or work together.  This implies that if any part of the system fails then the system is likely to be compromised, and simply will not work as intended.

There are many sections of the Act - that are fundamental to the conservation of heritage - which have been neglected, but suffice it to say that time constraints limit the discussion to those sections that impact on the topic of “Heritage and Development”.

Section 7 (1) of the NHRA states that SAHRA MUST “by regulation” in consultation with the Minister and the MEC of every province, establish a system of grading of places and objects that form part of the National Estate and that distinguishes between at least Grade I, Grade II and Grade III heritage resources.   

Section 8 (1) then explains what the grades signify, namely Grade I (national) the responsibility of SAHRA; Grade II - the responsibility of provincial heritage resources authorities and Grade III - local level - to be implemented by local authorities.

In Gauteng, Section 8 (1) has been ignored as far as Grade III heritage resources are concerned. No provision for the separate identification or management of Grade III heritage resources as defined in Section 7 (1) has ever been implemented. Local authorities have not set up dedicated Grade III authorities in rural villages and impoverished areas where development is a priority.  As a consequence heritage conservation suffers.  

Development will improve the lives of communities materially - but the Preamble to the NHRA seeks to address the spiritual well-being of South Africans.

The NHRA makes the apparently irreconcilable elements of development and spiritual wellbeing a reverse side of the same coin – a difficult task at the best of times but made worse by not recognizing the importance of Grade III heritage resources.

I quote from the Preamble to the Act:

“Our heritage is unique and precious and it cannot be renewed. It helps us to define our cultural identity and therefore lies at the heart of our spiritual well-being and has the power to build our nation. It has the potential to affirm our diverse cultures, and in so doing, shape our national character.

Our heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us wwwto empathise with the experience of others. It facilitates healing and material and symbolic restitution and it promotes new and previously neglected research into our rich oral traditions and customs.”

The Preamble explains, eloquently, the importance of heritage conservation.  It is an integral part of the system for the conservation of the national estate, not merely a nice to have as an add-on of development.                          

Without the necessary protection of the national estate in the areas under threat, Grade III heritage places are being eroded and are disappearing in the face of “development” pressure.

SAHRA has offered no explanation for the state of affairs that persists – and has allowed it to continue for 17 years, since the Act was first promulgated.

The Act also envisages that civil society will be empowered “to nurture and conserve their heritage resources so that they may be bequeathed to future generations.” This may be the intention – but there is certainly little evidence of it happening – especially in the rural and impoverished areas where heritage is at risk.

Notwithstanding that the neglect of Grade III resources is critical to the well-being of the National Estate, the crux of our heritage crisis relates to Section 23:

The establishment of provincial heritage resources authorities.  To quote:

“An MEC may establish a provincial heritage resources authority which shall be responsible for the management of the relevant heritage resources within the province, which shall be a body corporate capable of suing and being sued in its corporate name and which shall be governed by a Council constituted as prescribed by regulations published in the Provincial Gazette:”

The fact that the majority of PHRAs are not “corporate bodies” means that they are not autonomous and may not possess funds with which to run their organisations. They are invariably subservient to provincial departments that dole out funding derived from departmental allocations.  This results in a shortage of financial and human resources to run the authorities.  

Sadly, the post 1994 vision to promote the “new ethos in the management and conservation of heritage” has failed, because adequate funding has never been forthcoming.

Without adequate funds, it should be clear that PHRAs will be understaffed and without the capacity to fulfil their allocated functions, namely to deal with Grade II heritage resources.

Section 8 (6) (a) states that:

“A provincial heritage resources authority or a local authority shall not perform any function in terms of this Act or any other law for the management of heritage resources unless it is competent to do so.”   

Section 8 (6) (d) goes further in this regard:

“The assessing authority may at any time, and shall at least every two years, reassess the competence of a subordinate authority and review the assumption of functions and powers under this Act.”

If indeed this happens at all, there is lack of transparency in the way the procedures are handled.  

These two sub-sections of Section 8 seem to be ignored and incompetent PHRAs are allowed to continue. Heritage Conservation suffers and the system has failed to achieve its purpose.

In Conclusion

How do we strike a balance between heritage conservation and development? The answer is – that we can’t - until we restore the equilibrium of the system; the delicate balance that the NHRA attempts to achieve when it proposes a systematic approach to the co-ordination, identification and management of the national estate. 

Section 8 and Section 23 are crucial to the functioning of the NHRA. The consequences of their neglect have led to a breakdown in the systematic approach to heritage resources conservation in South Africa. Until this can be remedied, there can be no meaningful debate about balancing heritage and development.

Under the circumstance, my advice to this conference of conservation devotees is to retrace the non-compliant steps taken over the past 17 years, and ensure that the logical system laid out in the NHRA is taken seriously.  Only when this happens can the lofty ideals of the NHRA be achieved. This is the challenge presented to this conference!  However, because the NHRA is not working efficiently and delay is the enemy of development, I fear that the reform of the system will give way to condonation and we will return to the arbitrary ways of the National Monuments Act, but with a different political ideology that changes as governments rise and fall.


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