A recent heated debate, spearheaded by Brand South Africa and the National Heritage Council, examined whether economic development and heritage preservation can take place simultaneously.
Panellists who presented arguments at the Johannesburg event included chief executive of the National Heritage Council advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa, Wits University archaeologist Dr Amanda Esterhuysen, Standard Bank group chief economist Goolam Ballim and affected Mapungubwe community member Wilson Sigwavhulimu.
The debate was moderated by SAfm radio presenter Xolani Gwala.
Although the South African Constitution lists heritage as a national priority, it's locked in a fierce battle with property development and environmentally destructive economic activities such as mining.
And often, mining and industrialisation is favoured over heritage preservation because they seem to have more immediate results and tangible benefits for communities grappling with poverty and unemployment.
The other challenge is that business rationalises its interest in fragile heritage sites by saying that development will contribute to the economy and make the country better for all residents. What it doesn't openly admit is that the trade-off from this "positive" development may be heritage destruction.
Esterhuysen believes that ineffective legislation is one of the main reasons why economic development is favoured over heritage.
"Currently there are multiple acts, which are very poorly integrated. This extends to the three levels of government: on a local level, implementation of heritage regulations does not exist, and very few provincial agencies have implemented any regulations. While the National Heritage Council exists in Cape Town, it has limited competency and funding," she said.
Heritage needs to be recognised for its social value and communities need to be given the right to speak out and take a stand against development in fragile sites, according to Esterhuysen.
"Unfortunately, until such a time when the heritage sector is valued independently of the rest of the market, it will be destroyed. In South Africa, sites and communities are not properly protected in terms of development."
Sustainable development key
Advocate Mancotywa believes there's potential in South Africa for heritage preservation to take place at the same time as development.
"Conservation and development together form sustainable development. In Africa, you cannot separate the two. People here try and copy what Europe is doing, but Europe doesn't have the same poverty challenges which exist here," he said.
Because the is no empirical evidence backing up the claim that heritage sites in the country contribute to economic development, communities living near these sites are susceptible to the lure of big business.
"Communities are sometimes disempowered when a mining company comes and makes promises of economic development. Often, these communities have no choice but to believe those promises," Mancotywa said.
Economics of heritage
Standard Bank's Goolam Ballim argues that heritage, on its own, offers something larger than just economic value.
"It has both monetary and non-monetary benefits. Heritage is bequeathed to our children and our children's children," he said – but also pointed out that "there's insufficient evidence to be making generalised statements for or against heritage".
The reality in South Africa is that although heritage is viewed as important, it gets eclipsed by other, more pressing issues.
"In the hierarchy of needs, most South Africans will state that food, shelter, personal safety and security will rank higher than charm, memories and the aesthetic qualities of an area.
"People need to be convinced about the benefits of heritage. Today, the pro-heritage group finds itself with an even tougher task than in the past: we live in a society where the single most important threat to democracy and economy is poverty," he added.
Heritage versus mining at Mapungubwe
The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape in Limpopo province is a hotbed of contention, with an uneasy dynamic playing out between heritage and mining.
Wilson Sigwavhulimu, who represents affected communities from Mapungubwe, believes the solution lies in finding a way in which the two elements can go hand-in-hand.
The Mapungubwe site dates back to the first indigenous kingdom in Southern Africa, which existed between 900 and 1 300 AD.
Due to its highly sophisticated people, who traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt, the kingdom developed into the largest of its kind on the sub-continent, before drought and migration caused it to be abandoned in the 14th century.
In 2003 Mapungubwe was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, covering a core area of close to 30 000ha and a buffer zone of about 100 000ha.
The area is also a prime mining spot, with deposits of diamonds and coal within the vicinity.
"When Mapungubwe was declared a national park, the surrounding communities were involved so they could understand what it was all about. The problem came with an Australian company and its intention for a coal mine," Sigwavhulimu said.
"The greatest problem is that mining has immediate results for communities, unlike tourism driven by heritage, which has more long-term benefits. But you cannot do away with mining, and you cannot do away with tourism."
Sigwavhulimu's concern is that if mining activity continues, or increases, the area may be withdrawn as a World Heritage Site.
"How do we convince the community about the lasting effects of tourism when the unemployment rate is very high?" he asked. "A lot of work needs to be done to get to the traditional leaders and explain to them the economic development brought by the World Heritage Site, on the one hand, and mining, on the other."
How mining affects heritage-driven tourism is a complex issue, Sigwavhulimu added.
"We must get the mines together to try and solve this problem, as the alternative is too concerning to consider."