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Heritage debate speech by Minister Lulu Xingwana at the National Assembly Cape Town

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14 Sep 2010

14 September 2010

Honourable Speaker
Honourable Members
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen:

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in October 1976, President of the African National Congress and a great patriot and internationalist, Comrade OR Tambo spoke about the contribution of the student uprising in helping to free South Africa. In the same speech he projected the vision of the ANC of a Future South Africa.

“Like all other patriots”, he said: “we love our country and its peoples — all its peoples. It is a varied land of snowcapped mountain peaks, of deserts and subtropical greenery covering vast mineral resources. Its warm seas to the east and cold ones to the west contain also large animal and mineral resources.”

“Our peoples, with their varied cultures which are continuously mingling and interacting to their mutual enrichment, exhibit, despite their conditions, a great love for life and a sensitive joy in the creative and humane endeavors of the peoples of the world, without exception. These ordinary, industrious and peaceful people want to revolutionize themselves and their country.”

It is this selfsame spirit described by Comrade OR that characterizes our people today. It is indeed our “great love for life and a sensitive joy” that enables us to share our stories and to value our cultural expressions.

It is precisely “our commitment to the creative and humane endeavours of the peoples of the world” that has propelled us to want the story of our people and our nation and of our national living human treasures to take its pride of place in the narratives of the world as our contribution to our own development and as part of world culture.

It is in this context of drinking from the fountains of history and learning from the men and women of practical wisdom in our communities and who gave birth to us that we are embarking upon an initiative to honour and to celebrate our living human treasures.

“Celebrating South Africa’s Living Human Treasures – The Custodians of our Intangible Cultural Heritage”, is an initiative of the Department of Arts and Culture to draw attention to the role played by our living legends and to seek to protect and preserve this knowledge and to transmit this to future generations.

Intangible Cultural Heritage covers a wide range of cultural manifestations, which include oral traditions and expressions, language, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe and traditional craftsmanship.

UNESCO defines living heritage as being:

 “transmitted from generation to generation. Culture is dynamic and is constantly being recreated in response to changes in the social and cultural environment. It provides individuals, groups and communities with a sense of identity and continuity and constitutes a guarantee for sustainable development”.

However, due to globalization and the technologies associated with it, heritage broadly and living heritage in particular, are facing significant pressures. These pressures have resulted in people no longer practicing and transmitting living heritage.

Cultures, once thriving, now face restriction and possible destruction. Ways of life that emphasise ubuntu and communalism have to compete with the individualism that comes out of highly materialistic societies that profit and propagate through accumulation.

In order to address some of these realities, in 1993 the Republic of Korea proposed to the UNESCO Executive Board, the establishment of a UNESCO “living human treasures” programme. The board adopted a decision inviting member states to establish such systems in their respective countries. The purpose of establishing living human treasures systems is “to preserve the knowledge and skills necessary for the performing, enactment or re-creation of intangible cultural heritage elements with high historical, artistic or cultural value”.

In 2007, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) embarked on a process for the ratification of the 2003 UNESCO Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage.

At the same time, the Department began drafting a national policy on South African Living Heritage. The key objective of the policy is the safeguarding of living heritage.  But it is also aimed at ensuring compliance with the convention once it is ratified.

The draft national policy on South African Living Heritage provides for the establishment of a National Living Human Treasures programme as part of protection, promotion and transmission of living heritage.

The policy argues that the “recognition of living treasures as well as encouragement of their role will protect, preserve and promote living heritage”. The policy outlines the following selection criteria:

  • The value of their skills as a testimony of human creative genius,
  • The character and reputation of such individuals in their community,
  • The risk of their knowledge disappearing,
  • The ability to transmit living heritage,
  • Recommendation by the community.

The policy also makes provision for the posthumous recognition of living treasures where strong recommendation is made by the bearer communities where the strength of the criteria listed above is applicable. According to the policy, the national living treasure is a lifelong status.

In this way we shall recognize the value and importance of human agency in the transmission of norms, values and skills in society.

The arts, culture and heritage sector is full of such distinguished individuals.

Unfortunately due to a myriad of reasons, most of these individuals pass on without transferring their outstanding skills to other people. The Department wants to arrest this and help to create the conditions for a seamless passing on of knowledge to new generations.

The Department will host a national seminar on human living treasures on 30 September 2010. The main objective of the seminar is to start a national dialogue that will further expand and elaborate on the concept of living human treasures as articulated in the national policy.

As from next year, my department in collaboration with other spheres of government, and the provinces in particular will begin identifying these living human treasures in a systematic and transparent manner. 

This programme has potential to significantly contribute to outcome one of Government’s priorities and programme of action, which is the improved quality of basic education, as well as outcome five which is a skilled and capable workforce to support an inclusive growth path.

The Department of Arts and Culture is embarking on this project due to its significant potential to contribute to human development. This project also simplifies and puts a face to otherwise esoteric concepts of living or intangible cultural heritage.

Another objective of the project is to bridge the intergenerational gap so that the youth of today benefit from this knowledge and so that the elders are accorded respect and honour for the possession of this knowledge. In this way we can add value to contributions made over generations and take a long view of history and of sustaining development.

When we closely examine our intangible cultural heritage, there are many examples of contributions that need to make their way into our history books and be defined as part of our cultural wealth.

  • In the arena of literature and literary heritage, the Department of Arts and Culture has reprinted 27 titles by authors such as Sibusisu Nyembezi, OK Matsepe, AC Jordan, ML Bopape, TN Maumela, SP Lekabu and Samuel Mqhayi who have made an indelible contribution to our cultural wealth. Many of the books were written in indigenous languages. The books are both informative and substantive, making younger readers aware of the literary merits of these writers. The next phase of this project is to identify more texts that need to be made available as well as writings by our national living human treasures.
  • In the area of craft, traditional crafters are very important as the bearers of culturally specific craft product skills that have been carried down through generations in diverse communities around South Africa.  Many of these craft products have meaning and significance to specific groups, like basketry, blanket-making, bead-work and clay pots to mention but a few. CreateSA was formed to nurture, train and provide opportunities for this sector. We need to raise the contributions of these living human treasures in the crafts industry to even greater heights.
  • In order to recover the indigenous music of the past and the usage of traditional instruments, the Department has partnered with three institutions, namely University of Fort Hare, University of Zululand and the University of Venda to do research in this area and to preserve and promote this musical culture.
  • An important method for preserving and amplifying our heritage comes through the collection of oral history. The governmental written record in our archives inevitably reflects the activities of the colonial and apartheid regimes. The National Archives Act especially charges the National Archives with promoting oral history as a method of correcting the imbalances in the historical record. Starting in the 1990s with a pilot project on the Women’s March, this function has grown considerably and the Oral History Association of South Africa has been established and is active in all provinces. The Department of Arts and Culture has supported the work of this organization in capturing and interpreting oral histories through supporting their annual conference. This year it will be held in Mpumalanga in October with the theme ORAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE, NATIONAL AND LOCAL IDENTITIES”.
  • The symbols of our nation are also important parts of our heritage. Earlier this year one of the flags flown beneath the helicopters at President Mandela’s Inauguration in 1994, was rescued for our country by a patriotic businessman, Mr Giuseppe Ciucchi. This flag will be formally handed over to the Government at an event on 27 September at Stellenbosch University. We are working on legislation and regulations to block the loopholes being exploited to sell our national cultural heritage overseas.
  • At the end of Women’s Month, we also honoured Women in the Arts with awards. The event at the State Theatre included a production of their music and a ceremony at the State Theatre and these included some of our national living women treasures including Dorothy Masuka, Abigail Kubheka, Nothembi Mkhwebane, the Mahotella Queens, Mara Louw, Thandi Claassen and Sylvia Mdunyelwa as well as Sylvia Glasser, Noria Mabasa, Miriam Tlali and Esther Mahlangu.
  • Last week I also announced our departmental support for the design and construction of the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsburg in the Eastern Cape which will comprise of a museum, an archives centre, a community media centre, performance spaces and a commemorative garden. In this way new generations will be able to understand their history with confidence and renewed consciousness.
  • On Thursday we shall also launch the Social History Centre at the Iziko Museums here in Cape Town. This centre will also play an important role in the preservation of our heritage.

In this way and through these initiatives, we are beginning to make strides as South Africans to preserve and promote “our creative and humane endeavours” as Comrade OR coined it.

This Heritage Month as we thank our nation for all the good work done during the 2010 World Cup on National Heritage Day at the national celebrations that will be held in Durban and addressed by President Zuma, let us use this example of a people united in action as a living legacy to propel our people to be confident about themselves and to be proud of their history and to honour our living human treasures.

I thank you.