Embracing our roots


Why heritage tourism can have significant economic benefits for South Africa.

Heritage Month is celebrated annually during the month of September in South Africa. With our unique and diverse cultural backgrounds, our physical and natural environments reflect our rich history and culture.

The National Heritage Council (NHC) is mandated with the task of creating more awareness and the promotion of our national heritage to create a South Africa that is unashamedly proudly South African. This may also have significant economic benefits for the country, explains NHC CEO Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa in an exclusive interview with BBQ.

Originally from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, Mancotywa began his leadership training as an activist and cultural worker at the University of Transkei obtaining his B.Juris and LLB degrees in 1990 and 1993 respectively. “I later obtained a certificate in Management and Legal Practice. I completed the Management Advanced Programme (MAP) with the University of the Witwatersrand Business School in 2005. I am an admitted Advocate of the High Court of South Africa,” he says.

Beginning his journey at the NHC in 2004 when he was appointed as the founding CEO, Mancotywa’s first challenge was driving transformation of the heritage landscape which has been characterised by acute marginalisation of African heritage. Some of the other challenges that had to be addressed in the heritage landscape included underfunding, uneven levels of skills, fragmentation of co-ordination and mandates.

“Through civil society engagement, one was able to mainstream the heritage agenda for the country and sought to bring the distinctive rural bias dimension to the heritage sector and lead the radical transformation of the sector through a Heritage Transformation Charter. Ten years later, several key milestones on heritage programming have been reached, among others: the mainstreaming of the Liberation Heritage Route, Ubuntu, Heritage in Education, Support for Cultural Expressions, Draft Policy Position Papers on Heritage, heritage publications, opinion pieces in the newspapers, public lectures, conferences, commemorative events, as well as funded community heritage initiatives,” he says.

According to Mancotywa, the mandate of the Council is provided for in the founding legislation, the National Heritage Council Act, 1999 (Act No. 11 of 1999), which includes but is not limited to: Policy advice to the Minister on heritage matters including repatriation of heritage resources; co-ordination of the heritage sector; research and promotion of living heritage; disbursing funds for heritage initiatives; lobbying to secure funding for heritage activities (resource mobilisation), advocacy and creation of awareness of heritage.

In terms of what heritage means to South Africans, Mancotywa says it is that which a particular society or nation identifies with and values as worthy of protection, preservation and promote for the present and future generations. “Definitions previously given are not all-inclusive and, in this regard, African and the liberation heritage typologies had been left out of the conventional ones by Unesco and other authors. The NHC, through public participation, has gone a step forward and provided a definition that it would like the public to engage with.

“To that end, NHC adopted the following definition for public discourse: Heritage is what is preserved from the past as the living collective memory of a people not only to inform the present about the past, but also to equip successive generations to fashion their future. It is what creates a sense of identity and assures rootedness and continuity, so that what is brought out by dynamism of culture is not changed for its own sake, but it is a result of people’s conscious choice to create a better life,” he says.

He also refers to different kinds of heritage that can be delineated in a South African context. Natural heritage such as biodiversity; Cultural heritage including buildings, graves, monuments and memorials, orature, music and traditions. This can also be defined as tangible (physical and can be touched) and intangible (mostly cultural) heritage. Other typologies of heritage include underwater (marine) heritage; political heritage; industrial heritage, which includes mining heritage; sports heritage; and religious heritage.

Mancotywa refers to heritage and tourism as Siamese twins, hence the reference to heritage tourism nowadays, but notes that heritage in itself extends beyond tourism. Tourism consumes products that are by and in heritage, according to him. “Tourism packages and presents, for public consumption, heritage materials. It is a downstream benefit of heritage. Our view as the NHC is heritage drives tourism and for that reason the latter thrives to the benefit of the country in terms of the contribution to GDP. That notwithstanding, we always raise this concern that tourism revenue and other spin-offs, of which heritage is the major input, do not benefit the latter significantly.

“There is, therefore, a need to quantify the contribution of heritage to the GDP with demonstrable and verifiable statistical data to sustain this argument. NHC is in the process of developing a policy position paper on this issue, anchored on two indicators which would then inform the desired outputs: a declaratory statement that heritage indeed directly contributes to economic development; and the business case that validates the assertion so made,” he says.

Heritage in particular can be used to empower local communities through heritage initiatives, according to Mancotywa. He says that heritage tourism packaging could be localised in all the provinces and access to the markets widened. Soft issues such as knowledge production; new models of engaging in diversity; Transnational Social Cohesion dialogues; peace-building missions (including post-conflict social reconstruction and leadership development are some of the issues that, if addressed, could harmonise relations and make the ground fertile for heritage economic development in the region, he says.

On the topic of the advancement and promotion of heritage in South Africa 20 years into democracy, Mancotywa says that a lot has been done in this regard, but there is still more to do. According to him, the fact that we have a dedicated Ministry of Arts and Culture of which heritage is a part, separate from the Ministry of Science and Technology, is proof enough that government is serious about mainstreaming heritage.

“Owing to the negotiated settlement, Arts and Culture was given away from the party that won the elections and that always carried the mandate of a united non-racial, non-sexist, united democracy—to representatives of other parties that had a different vision and history. The existence of the National Heritage Council, SA Heritage Resources Agency, Department of Arts and Culture nationally and in provinces is testimony to the commitment that exists toward heritage. The economic challenges that South Africa faces have been such that some people took a view that the economic challenges must be addressed first. What some people disregard is that all interventions are ideologically determined—what economic solution, what is the statement of the problem; what are the priorities—are all determined by ideological orientation and culture.

“The creation of institutions such as NHC and many other legacy ones in the likes of the Steve Biko Centre, Nelson Mandela Museum, Luthuli Museum; monuments that are being built to commemorate our heritage across South Africa; mainstreaming of national symbols; inclusion of heritage in education curriculum, social discourse on heritage through public lectures and conferences; mainstreaming indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) through national policy; celebration of important national days demonstrate the seriousness with which government organs regard heritage as significant to foster social cohesion and nation building. Heritage is the primary battle site for the battle of idea— for the ideological warfare of the kind of South Africa we want; the kind of people we believe we are; what carries significance; what deserves our opprobrium; what the essence of our national identity is; how we will reverse the divisions of the past,” he says.

Mancotywa says that when he was first appointed as CEO of the NHC in 2004, the heritage sector was still fragmented and characterised by competition for resources, poor co-ordination and duplication. He mentions there was a general perception that it was irrelevant. “Ten years on, a lot has changed. One of the most pleasing and significant changes is the enthusiasm with which local communities engage on heritage matters. Heritage for many is a living, vibrant issue. It is recognised as an important contributor to building social cohesion and promoting
economic development.

“But we cannot rest on our laurels. Now, the challenge is to deal with factors that impact negatively on our society, which detract us from building a socially cohesive nation. Diversity is our strength. So is multilingualism. We are behind government initiatives to build a nation that appreciates its symbols and history; encouraging dialogue around
heritage issues.”

Mancotywa also points out there is room for public and private enterprises to get on board in the quest to conserve and promote our heritage. This, he says, can be done though public-private community partnerships on knowledge production and exhibition, for example. ”The private and public media have a role to play in ensuring that heritage content is availed to the public. Government also needs to incentivise heritage entrepreneurs, especially in the field of built environment, to invest in heritage in exchange for tax rebates. Similarly, the issue of balancing heritage conservation and economic development—as in the case of mining activities taking place on land subject to land claims or adjacent to heritage sites—requires that good public-private partnership strategies be developed and implemented.”

In terms of international interest in South Africa’s heritage, Mancotywa says the reports received by the NHC indicate that many tourists visit our shores annually. The majority are interested in seeing heritage sites and key monuments such as Robben Island, Vilakazi Street in Soweto and legacy museums where a number of indigenous products are sold to them. “Even our natural heritage sites are key attractions where tourists come to interface and experience the countryside and villages to know more about the IKS-driven products and the local cultures. Tourism statistics released every year do show upward trends in terms of interest, but we just need to check the numbers in terms of heritage attractions and the revenue they generate,” he says.

With the world globalising at a rapid pace, Mancotywa says there is need to foster appreciation for our own national identity and reconciliation. He refers to social cohesion as being paramount if we are to build a nation proud of its African heritage, and he highlights the importance of facilitating the establishments of niche markets for heritage products and their marketing. “We need to ensure South Africa leverages her competitive advantage through heritage to compete from a position of strength globally.

“Mainstreaming heritage in education is the way to go. We also need to deepen research around heritage issues and publish more so that heritage remains in the public discourse at all levels of our society. Scholarship on heritage cannot be overemphasised, as it is key and needs to be promoted. We need to be producing documentaries and films on our heritage. We need to publish heritage literature en masse. We need to locate all our important archival materials, record them and make them digitally preserved and made accessible,” he says.

Mancotywa also launched his new book titled, Critical Conversations on Heritage, on September 10 this year. He says the motivation behind the book was twofold: firstly, to bring together in one book various articles from a range of newspapers that have contributed to the popular discourse on heritage. And secondly, making them accessible in this manner with the hopes to contribute to reviewing and fine-tuning our policies and programmes so that heritage truly promotes both economic development and social cohesion.

He concludes with some insights into the future of the NHC and what it hopes to achieve over the next 10 years. “We want to see NHC as the Knowledge Hub on heritage matters and the first point of call for heritage information consumers. We want to see Liberation Heritage affirmed through legacy preservation expressed through infrastructure development; creation of knowledge hubs where the social memory of the country, especially liberation heritage, could be recorded.

“On the education front, we want to establish a heritage institute, establish a heritage chair to support undergraduate and postgraduate studies through scholarships on heritage; strengthen the Heritage Fund to leverage funds for heritage initiatives on behalf of the sector; maximise funding to community heritage projects to reach the greatest number but also make impact in the sector; and mainstream heritage in education through curriculum development. Above all, we want to see a totally transformed heritage landscape.“

Michael Meiring


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