Minister Pallo Jordan’s address to the UNESCO’s sub-regional workshop on capacity building on the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage

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27 Mar 2008

Thank You Programme Director,
(Salutations – observing all protocol)
Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen,
I welcome all our visitors from the region and beyond to South Africa. May your stay in our country be as pleasant as it is fruitful.

UNESCO has over the five decades of its existence correctly placed great emphasis on the protection of humanity’s tangible heritage. UNESCO emerged from the experience of two World Wars. During those terrible years the human family had been subjected to the destructive capacity of industrial society and entire cities had been reduced to rubble. It became self-evident that our human ingenuity, that had so enriched our lives, had created the means to destroy virtually everything we had ever invented, built, manufactured or devised.

Central to UNESCO’s mission is the recognition that whatever human beings have created, built and invented over the centuries of our sojourn here on earth is the collective heritage of all humankind, for which we have to assume collective responsibility. The destruction, abuse, violation and defiling of any item of these diminishes us all and should be avoided at all costs.

This is the spirit that informed the adoption the following Conventions:

The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954);

The Convention for the means of Prohibiting and Prevention the Illicit Export, Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970);

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972) and

The Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001).

These Conventions are important pillars in our quest for the protection of cultural property. That which the human imagination transposes into a palpable, tangible object is easily identified and can be more effectively protected against any sort of violation, precisely because it has material form. No less important to the life of our human family are those products of our imagination and ingenuity that are non-material, but nonetheless real.

It has mainly been during the past decade that the world body has been able to appreciate more fully the importance of intangible cultural heritage as a vital and indispensable dimension of the cultural heritage of all people. Though in virtually every human society their intangible cultural heritage historically preceded tangible heritage the tendency to under-rate its significance for a peoples’ cultural identity and cultural continuity was very powerful.

Intangible Cultural Heritage represents values, expertise, skills, knowledge, understanding and information sustained over time through memory and transmitted orally or through practice within a community and its neighbours and from one generation to the next. Literacy and subsequent means of recording and preserving such data reinforced attitudes that were dismissive intangible heritage, but it was also these very tools that made the world community more conscious of the cultural riches people had stored up in this manner over the ages.

The adoption of the UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in October 2003 was an important milestone marking a latter day understanding that the world community would be poorer if we allowed the
Cultural products of some members of the human family to be permanently marginalised. Restoring the dignity of cultures that have been treated as somehow inferior or less worthy as a result of centuries of colonial domination or/and imperial conquest is one dimension of what this convention can achieve. The other is to increase and expand on the fund of human knowledge our species has accumulated over the ages. The African continent as one of the continents that was most severely affected by imperialism and colonialism, is one of the direct beneficiaries of this Convention. 

Colonial regimes invariably assumed a schizophrenic posture in relation to the cultures they encountered amongst those whom they conquered. While they held in contempt, they corrupted, re-cast and re-interpreted it to suit their purpose of subjugating colonial peoples. Oscillating between these two poles -
Neglect and exploitation – the impact of colonial policy was to undermine African cultural expressions. Military conquest and political control over the people was accompanied by a sustained thrust to malign, denigrate and belittle everything African. The Kenyan author and academic, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o vividly conveys what took place:
“ …important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.

For colonialism this involved two aspects of the same process: the destruction or the deliberate undervaluing of a people’s culture, their art, dances, religions, history, geography, education, orature and literature, and the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser. “

Many other writers, commentators and students of the colonial experience have repeated these sentiments in various ways. The end of colonialism, one of the great achievements of the 20th century, created the space for the international community to rethink a number of previous policies. Amongst them was our collective attitude to intangible human heritage.
The adoption by UNESCO of the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage offers the world the opportunity to recognize the Cultural Heritage of all peoples on its own merit, discard the paternalistic notion of hierarchy of cultures and the often racist inspired dichotomy between so-called “western” knowledge versus so-called “non western knowledge”.

It presents Africa, South America, Australasia and Oceania new opportunities for the safeguarding and promotion of their diverse intangible cultural heritage. It represents the belated recognition that the knowledge, information, skills, understanding and values of all communities of the world are mutually complimentary and their co-existence is important, not merely for mutual understanding but also for their intrinsic value.

The African Continent in general and South Africa in particular are faced with many challenges. Amongst the continent’s the most pressing are armed conflicts, often fuelled by poverty and consequent competition for scarce resources. To what extent can we honestly say that Africans have harnessed the cultural goods from their intangible cultural heritage to find solutions to the continent’s problems?
Is there nothing to be learnt about the causes of conflict and how to resolve conflicts from the rich veins of African orature? Poetry?Tales? Proverbs? Fables?

Which social, political and economic values that form part of this Intangible Heritage of Africa have Africans employed in facilitating the socio-economic development of African societies?
Or are we suggesting that only borrowings from other continents have validity?

The Convention treats intangible cultural heritage as something living and dynamic, both traditional and innovative. Preservation and safeguarding of ICH consequently implies respect for both dimensions of cultural heritage. Thus we should employ the most modern means to preserve, record and protect it. The attempts to restore the social, environmental and other circumstances under which these practices were enacted and transmitted in the past, is impractical if not impossible.

The inclusion of multiple voices (diverse communities) is necessary in the promotion and preservation of ICH. In the past the transmission of ICH occurred between and across generations. Today it is possible to do this amongst a host of communities and countries. The active participation of the relevant cultural communities in the promotion and preservation of their ICH is critical. The colonial experience included the systematic plunder of raw materials as well as the copying of techniques and products that were then taken over by the colonial power. The cotton spinning-wheel became the symbol of Indian nationalism because after learning about cotton from India and copying the technique from Indian spinners, the British disallowed it in India so as to give the mills of Lancashire the opportunity to prosper. The continued exploitation of the indigenous knowledge from the developing countries is a vice of both adventurers and respectable corporates. The fruits of the promotion of Intangible Cultural Heritage should primarily accrue to the people that actively created and recreated it. They will be in a position to do so provided they are well informed and capacitated to actively participate in the decision making.

The promotion and preservation of ICH should unfold in the manner that respects the dignity of people and upholds cultural diversity. It should entail the sharing of cultural experiences among various cultural groups and develop opportunities for cultural exchange within provinces, among countries, regions and internationally.

The Convention creates opportunities for transborder cooperation on issues of Intangible Cultural Heritage. In our Southern African context this is particularly relevant because as we share intangible cultural heritage with several of our neighbours Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and even other states beyond the Zambezi. Collaboration may, among other things, assist the countries of this region to develop joint lists of intangible cultural heritage worthy of preservation. The more efficient management of resources could also eliminate duplication. Such initiatives have the potential of contributing to regional cohesion, and fostering mutual understanding and acceptance.

In South Africa, our national Constitution upholds the cultural diversity of the South African nation as a positive attribute to be nurtured and preserved. We do not regard cultural diversity as a burden or as a threat to nation building. We value it as a resource. Our policies, since the advent of democracy, buttressed by legislation since 1994, have as their object the preservation of the cultural heritage of all South Africans. That does not imply an uncritical promotion of every facet of the cultures of our population groups. Being both traditional and innovative, we expect culture to shed just as it assimilates. The White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage as well as its corollaries i.e. the National Heritage Council Act (Act no 11 of 1999) and National Heritage Resources Act (Act no 25 of 1999) is geared towards achieving this objective.

As a country we have already made some progress in advancing issues of Intangible Cultural Heritage. South Africa will soon adhere to the UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. These processes are at an advanced stage. We have also initiated the development of a stand alone national policy on Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
The issues are many, and the challenges seem to pile up day by day. You have a long programme before you and we know you will do it justice.
May your deliberations on “, Capacity Building on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage” be inspired by the richness of South Africa’s cultural heritage and that of the African continent at large. I wish you every success in your workshop.

I thank you.


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