Speech by Minister Pallo Jordan at SADC regional workshop on Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH), Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town

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20 Apr 2009

Thank You Mr Wakashe,
I greet you all this fine morning,
I greet in particular the delegates from the SADC region, as well our guests from the Netherlands and UNESCO.
I welcome you all to this groundbreaking conference on underwater cultural heritage. May your stay in our country be as pleasant as it is fruitful. It is most fitting that this meeting is held in this historic city, Cape Town. Cape Town is one South African city whose beauty has been remarked on. Some South Africans refer to it as the mother city. Most of you will recall that this city grew up around this Castle after the arrival of the Dutch in 1652. The Dutch settled here to set a refreshment station for ships en route to the East. Cape Town has great symbolic meaning for all South Africans.

To South Africans of European origin it symbolises the arrival of their ancestors. To many South Africans who trace their ancestry to Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Madagascar, etc, it represents the disembarkation point of a painful process of enslavement. To the majority of indigenous Africans, Cape Town marks the inception of colonization, conquest, colonialism and apartheid. We are still wrestling with that legacy which shaped much of the South African experience.

This contradictory view of Cape Town is further attested to by names such as “Cape of Storms” and “Cape of Good Hope”. Southern African history is full of vivid accounts of how the Southern African seas/ shores wrecked many ships and boats. Many people lost heir lives along the South African coast. This tumultuous period marked the beginning of the current UCH. It also contributed immensely to South African culture. These events significantly contributed to South Africa’s cultural diversity. Cape Town’s contribution to South African culture is therefore invaluable. It also marks the opening up of South Africa to the rest of the world.

I am mentioning all these because you cannot talk about South African Underwater Cultural Heritage without Cape Town or the two oceans that converge here. 

Historical records state that there are over 2500 shipwrecks along the South African coastline. Their countries of origin include the Netherlands, England, Portugal and Spain, to name but a few. These are the seafaring nations of Europe who set out to build trans-oceanic empires after the European renaissance. Some ten years, a former British naval officer, Menzies, published a book titled “1412, the Year China Discovered America”, which an account of the voyages of the Chinese Admiral, Zheng, According to Menzies’ research, Zheng circumnavigated the earth decades before Magellan. He had sailed across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape into the Atlantic. Then across the Atlantic to the Americas, to return, through the straits of Magellan, to China. This indicates that there was trade and contact between the peoples of Asia and those of southern Africa long before the Europeans arrived here. A paper discussing such contacts will be delivered at this workshop.

There are probably wrecks for crafts testifying to such contact along the African coast as well. Shipwrecks are not only found here in South Africa, they are all over the African coastline. Recently, a shipwreck was found off the Namibian coast. Others have been identified in Mozambique, Madagascar, and Tanzania etc. Some of these shipwrecks contain invaluable information and artifacts. The Mozambican straits, separating Madagascar from the mainland, during the 17th, and 18th centuries were the playground of pirates, operating from the Madagascan coast, who would lie in wait for treasure-laden ships from the Indies sailing to Europe. There are probably many wrecks that came about like that too.

In terms of both our national legislation and the 2001 UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, underwater cultural heritage means all traces of human existence that have a cultural, historical or archaeological character which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years. This includes shipwrecks and a number of marine archaeological sites such as fish-traps and shell middens. South Africa, through the National Heritage Resources Act, 1999 (Act 25 of 1999) already provides blanket protection in Section 2(2) for all wrecks, being any vessel or aircraft, or any part thereof, which was wrecked in South Africa, whether on land, in the internal waters, the territorial waters or in the maritime culture zone of the Republic, as defined respectively in sections 3, 4 and 6 of the Maritime Zones Act, 1994 (Act 15 of 1994), and any cargo, debris or artifacts found or associated therewith, which is older than 60 years or which the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) considers to be worthy of conservation.

In addition to wrecks, South Africa has a number of marine archaeological sites such as fish traps and shell middens. Ancient populations used to build fish traps, the remains of which have survived until today. The fish traps of the Indigenous Khoikhoi and San communities in the South West coast and those of the Tembe-Thonga communities in KwaZulu’s Kosi Bay are worth noting.

Whilst we have some sense of how many ships were wrecked along our shores, these are in many respects an approximation of what lies beneath our oceans. The most challenging thing though is that apart from a number of famous ships such as the Bredorole, the Grosvenor, the Birkenhead, the Darrington and others, nothing is known about many of these wrecks. Yet, a lot can be learned not only about their contents and destinations, but circumstances surrounding their sinking. The Birkenhead was a British steamer which sailed from Simonstown to the Eastern Cape during the Frontier of 1850 to 1853. It was wrecked near Dangerpoint, close to Cape Augalhas. It is said that when she struck a reef and sunk off our coast in 1852, the captain ordered that women and children be prioritized into the life boats. The soldiers helped women and children endangering their own lives. Around 500 of these soldiers perished in this accident. This selfness effort received lots of attention and acclaim around the world. Some believe that the concept of children and women first in emergency situations began here. These are some of the stories that remained buried in our oceans. There are probably many other stories and tales of courage. Equally, there are also tales of scandalous chicanery, treachery and vile deeds to be told as well. We need to uncover all of these stories of courage and bravery and those of infamy. As I said, off our southern African coast was the ambush point for pirates, not know for either courage or bravery. They have a lot to teach us not only about these ship wrecks, but the value and importance of oceans and the contribution that these universal assets make to our lives.

Africa is said to be lagging in producing knowledge, yet we sit with a lot of raw material for knowledge production. This at a time when people are talking about knowledge economies and knowledge as an important factor in competitiveness. Even more discouraging though is the absence of maritime studies at most of our tertiary institutions. The discontinuation of maritime courses mean that research outputs in these areas is small if not non existent. It is perhaps understandable that individual countries might not have resources to drive these programmes. It is however short-sighted when the whole region does not produce any research. Given the length of the Southern African coastline this situation cannot be allowed to continue. And, let us remember this is a coastline that includes the west coast from Congo, around the Cape, takes in those of Madagascar, the Seychelles and Mauritius. It is my wish that from today on, the whole Southern African region not only at government level, but at other levels such as universities and non government organizations begin serious partnerships on issues related to underwater cultural heritage. 

Despite the association of some aspects of UCH with the painful memory of slavery and colonialism, this does not render it valueless as it completes the picture about the history of humanity. It can, for instance, reveal gaps if some aspects of history that are not yet known or that have not been accounted for in written records or oral tradition. In the final analysis, UCH is a very important non-renewable resource that is of national, international, cultural and archaeological significance. It must be carefully managed to ensure its continued existence. UCH provides us with earlier information on globalization – trade, slavery, colonial expansion & movement of people through centuries.

It is heartening that the 2001 UCH Convention has finally come into force in January 2009. It is fitting that your meeting comes in the wake of the first meeting of States parties to the 2001 UCH Convention in Paris on 26-27 March 2009. Hopefully, further meetings of states parties will lead to the development of programmes on underwater cultural heritage targeting developing countries. UNESCO’s adoption of the UCH Convention was in way an affirmation of UCH as an integral part of the cultural heritage of humanity.

For this Convention to be implemented successfully there is a need for collaboration between the countries of the North and those of the South. It is appropriate that the Convention emphasises the need for cooperation among States, international organizations, scientific institutions, professional organizations, archaeologists, divers, other interested parties and the public at large on issues of UCH. The Convention’s emphasis on bilateral and multilateral agreements, particularly states with verifiable or cultural links provide us as SADC an opportunity to extend current bilateral agreements with countries of the North to include cooperation on underwater heritage. However, we need to be cautious that these agreements do not perpetuate unequal exploitative power relations between the North and the South.

It is therefore commendable that we met here as Southern African countries. This should be the beginning of a new chapter of collaboration around these issues. It is my wish that once we ratify the Convention, for those of us that have not yet ratified, we will continue working together at UNESCO and other multilateral forums on UCH.

Underwater Cultural Heritage has potential to contribute positively to coastal communities. Elsewhere, viable tourism industries have been created around UCH. We too must explore avenues in our individual countries on how this can be encouraged and supported on a sustainable basis. We know that law enforcement remains a challenge. Pillaging of UCH remains a serious problem, especially with the advent of new technologies that have increased access to UCH. A multi-pronged approach is therefore needed. Coastal communities and maritime authorities need to form an integral part of a strategy to prevent pillaging. The recent events in Gulf of Aden remind us that the world is integrated in many respects. Piracy has returned to the Indian Ocean, many of the pirates operating from the ports of the failed state of Somalia. Lack of rules and law enforcement in one country can easily translate into serious security threat for others.

The Department of Arts and Culture will therefore continue working with our colleagues at Environmental Affairs and Tourism, the Navy and customs authorities to protect underwater cultural heritage. The Department is about to complete a national policy on Underwater Cultural Heritage. We are also working on stand alone legislation on UCH. Currently, UCH is covered by the National Heritage Resources Act, but new challenges that face the sector have necessitated stand alone legislation for us to address the many challenges and loop holes. We are optimistic that both policy and legislation will lead to a harmonized and integrated approach to protection and preservation of this heritage.

We are particularly grateful to UNESCO for co-hosting this workshop with us. It is our wish that this is a beginning of a long term relationship, not only with South Africa but the whole sub region. In conclusion, I want to state that South Africa will be working towards ensuring that Underwater Cultural Heritage issues are taken up at our regional and continental bodies such as SADC and the African Union. 

I want to commend you all on this workshop, which I am certain, will contribute greatly to our knowledge of the Underwater Cultural Heritage of our region.