Launch of Underwater Cultural Heritage Project

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16 Oct 2009

Programme Director
Ambassador of the Netherlands, Your Excellency, Mr De Vos,
MEC of Sports, Arts and Culture from Eastern Cape, Xolisa Tom
and MEC Weziwe Thusi from KwaZulu Natal,
the Chairpersons and Heads of Institutions
Senior Officials
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen:

This week we as a country celebrate Marine Week and the Department of Arts and Culture is marking this occasion together with the Department of Water and Environment, the Department of Defence and Military Veterans and the Departments of Education.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Minister Sisulu, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, for being part of this project. Minister Sisulu would have been here but was not able to be here because of a commitment in Bloemfontein.

Today we are here to demonstrate how these inter governmental partnerships can seek to strengthen our management of our underwater heritage resources.

In the not so distant past and in the films that we watch, we have grown accustomed to films about shipwrecks and hidden treasure.

But the general public is not fully aware of the great heritage that lies beneath our waters - these shipwrecks - that in their watery silence still speak of the past and of visitors to our shores who may not have made it on to the land at all.

Very little is known by South Africans that underwater cultural heritage sites and resources form part of the national estate. Yet underwater cultural heritage includes submerged archaeological or historical “sites and structures, wreck-sites and wreckage and their archaeological and nature context”.

This definition has been expanded in South Africa to include other parts of heritage that are related to inland and coastal waters.

These can be living heritage, maritime structures like harbours and lighthouses and even rock paintings of ships.

South Africa has a long and complex relationship with the ocean. Even within a few kilometres of where we are now, archaeologists have located 1.2 million year old stone tools in the Pleistocene beaches beneath the waters of Table Bay. They have studied evidence of people harvesting shellfish 12 000 years ago at Peers Cave, above Fish Hoek and have researched the wrecks of the last 400 years lying in the waters of the Cape Peninsula.

Communities make a living from the sea, play in the sea and have their cultural foundations in the sea. The history of South Africa is inextricably linked with the sea.

The view that SAHRA would like to promote is that Underwater Cultural Heritage should be looked at in the context of its history, its people, and cultures.

South Africa has 2700 known historical shipwrecks. These wrecks form part of our shared heritage with at least 38 nationalities. These wrecks are a non-renewable and limited resource and should not be available for commercial exploitation. They also have historical, cultural, scientific, recreational and educational value that varies from site to site.

We are here in particular to show the role these various governmental and international partnerships play in strengthening the work of the South African Heritage Resources Agency. As some of you may be aware, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) was mandated by the people of South Africa to manage the nation’s heritage resources through the implementation of the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999.

One of the functions that SAHRA must carry out is that of the management of underwater resources in and around South Africa. Through the work of SAHRA’s Underwater Cultural Heritage unit, this responsibility entails exploring and locating underwater sites and resources. The main focus presently is that of marine sites and resources. After locating such resources and mapping a site a plan is put into place to ascertain whether it is under threat from forces of nature, divers and/or treasure hunters. This Unit also carries out the responsibility of raising awareness of the importance of its work through educational and training activities.

Today we are proud that the Marine and Coastal Management Unit (MCM) of the Department of Environmental Affairs have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate with SAHRA.

The Marine and Coastal Management Unit will be providing SAHRA with assistance and make inputs regarding policies and legislation developed by SAHRA. This unit will also act as an intermediary in matters relating to the conservation and management of cultural heritage resources that lie within the Marine Protected Areas and areas managed by Conservation Agencies on behalf of MCM as well as facilitating access to marine areas for SAHRA researchers or any authorised institution.

SAHRA in turn will develop its management plans in consultation with the Marine and Coastal Management Unit and also ensure compliance with relevant legislation.

A number of applications have come through to SAHRA for the exploration of the ship wrecks. The shipwrecks around Robben Island in particular have attracted attention.

Robben Island and SAHRA have rejected them on the grounds that the short term commercial value of such explorations is outweighed by the long term historical value.

The wrecks are considered by Robben Island to provide an opportunity to expand maritime archaeological knowledge in South Africa. The Artefacts, such as ceramics from the wrecks, have assisted and will continue to assist researchers in dating archaeological sites on the mainland.

The personal and trade objects can reveal the personalities, activities and relationships with the island which little is known of and also give a glimpse into how South Africa has been shaped by these voyages.

Underwater cultural heritage includes those earliest ancestors whose diets relied on the sea, it includes people brought against their will as slaves and labourers from far off places and it includes people fleeing their own governments or seeking their fortunes in a new land. Underwater cultural heritage includes all of us in some way or another.

The inhospitable coastline of Robben Island contributed in making a number of ships to run aground and researchers have revealed that there are 68 ships that have sunk off the coastline of Robben Island.

It is important that through the partnerships forged here today, that we take an integrated approach to our maritime history so that it becomes fully part of our mainstream history and helps to tell the South Africa story.

The launch of this collective Underwater Heritage Project is therefore coupled with an intensive two day Youth Educational Programme that brings together learners and educators from all provinces, both coastal and non-coastal, exposing them to South Africa’s rich maritime heritage.

This heritage is protected and showcased in sites such as the Iziko Maritime Museum, Robben Island and the Navy Museum here in Simonstown.

My wish is that this youth programme should be done annually as part of a Marine Week awareness campaign and also to encourage greater interest in our youth to pursue careers in this area.

As our understanding of underwater cultural heritage evolves, so too does our attitude towards management and protection.

The myth that underwater sites and their contents constitute a “free from the sea” resource that can be plundered by treasure hunters is being exploded.

In a country that has only recently become free, South Africans search for an answer to the question: “what makes me South African?” And it is our heritage that makes us unique, that defines who we are and where we want to go as a nation.

There are also possible public benefits arising from heritage. For example, with the tourism sector inviting a wider and wider range of people interested in exploring our landscape, there are advantages associated with pristine shipwreck sites. The tourism sector including dive schools and charter companies is under increasing pressure to ensure that transgressions of legislation and treasure hunting are reported and discouraged. The increasing popularity of heritage tourism leads communities living near sites to insist that their heritage remain intact and the greater interested community encourages responsible and sustainable use of the resource.

Archaeologists need to show that their work is of value and that it goes beyond the naming of objects recovered from sites. This common history has a vital role to play for social cohesion of South Africa’s people.

It is with this in mind that we have come together to celebrate underwater cultural heritage through common understanding, partnerships and education programmes.

By signing Memoranda of Understanding between the South African Heritage Resources Agency and Marine and Coastal Management and between the South African Heritage Resources Agency and Robben Island Museum and between the South African Heritage Resources Agency and Netherlands Centre for International Heritage Activities, we are dedicating ourselves to the development of the field and the protection of the resource.

By sharing responsibilities and by assisting each other across departments and ministries we are ensuring that we can safeguard this valuable resource for future generations.

But protection efforts instituted solely on a government level are doomed to fail if we do not take our message to the broader public. If we do not involve resources users, researchers, students and learners, amongst others, in this process we cannot hope for it to endure.

Local communities also have a critical role to play in helping to protect these precious resources. We cannot afford to just look at conservation of cultural heritage resources just simply for their own sake only but must explore ways of involving local communities.

And so we have also come together to celebrate and launch the Maritime Archaeology Development Project, a programme generously funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

• This project will develop a base for broad educational initiatives that will take underwater cultural heritage to all South Africans at all levels.

• The programme will train individuals currently working in the heritage sector, it will reach out to the youth and develop training modules and curricula for schools, universities or anyone interested in underwater cultural heritage.

• It will explore heritage themes within the South African context and place underwater cultural heritage firmly in the mainstream of the nation’s history.

• The programme will examine legislation and policy as well as management and protection tools, and will raise awareness of underwater heritage as a fundamental part of South Africa’s past.

For this we give sincere thanks to the Government of the Netherlands and their representatives in South Africa.

In conclusion, the Department of Arts and Culture, through the South African Heritage Resources Agency, is dedicated to a holistic approach to protect, manage and promote underwater cultural heritage.

To this end the South African heritage Resources Agency is developing and expanding its Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit so that it can effectively carry out wide ranging project, programme and research functions that will showcase the resource, involve youth and adults alike and promote underwater cultural heritage and its many facets.

May I remind everyone present today, that heritage does not stop at the boundary of an archaeological site, at the end of a ritual or at the water’s edge.

It influences our decisions, it informs our actions and it shapes our beliefs.

In order for us to understand ourselves, we must understand our heritage.

And so, although we are here to celebrate underwater cultural heritage, we are, in fact celebrating all heritage and the role of the cultural wealth embedded in the oceans and along our shorelines in shaping South African history and influencing the path of all of our lives.

The playwright, Lillian Hellman, has said that “The Past, with all its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness and its punishments, is there for each of us forever, as it should be.”

For the first time in our history we have been able to direct the past to assist the future.

As we meet here on the SAS Mendi, we also pledge in the name of those brave 616 South African soldiers who lost their lives on the Mendi in 1917 that in protecting our heritage we are also honouring their lives and the sacrifices they made for us.

Let this project also be part of their homecoming in the history of our nation and the heritage of our people.

For them and for future generations, let us continue our work in re-imagining our nation and transforming all our lives.

I thank you.