2003 UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage: briefing and Ratification, Convention on Protection & Prom

Arts and Culture

12 February 2008
Chairperson: Ms J Tshivhase (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Arts and Culture briefed the Committee on the Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO on 17 October 2003, which was still to be ratified by SA, and which had yet to come into force. It was explained that intangible cultural heritage included intangibles such as covered heritage such as indigenous knowledge systems, folklore and dance, as opposed to monuments and museums. An important benefit from ratification of the 2003 convention would be to enhance South Africa’s ability to decolonise its heritage. It would also assist South Africa to share international expertise and best practice with its neighbouring countries, with whom it shared many cultural and heritage features. Those countries ratifying the convention must identify, define and devise appropriate means of ensuring ICH preservation. The Department had held an extensive consultation process with civil society, statutory institutions and other departments and had held a national consultative workshop in July 2007, which supported the ratification of the Convention. The Department was already devising a national policy of norms and standards. The State Law Advisors had certified that there were no inconsistencies between the Convention and the national law, and the Department was recommending ratification.

Members asked for an overview of the process, heard a further short presentation on UNESCO and its aims, and questioned the perspective of the private museums, the time frames and deadlines for listing of intangible cultural heritage, as well as issues of nomenclature.

The Department then briefed the Committee on the strategy it had adopted to promote the terms and principles of the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. South Africa had ratified this in December 2006, and the Convention had come into force on 18 March. Not only because of its ratification, but also because of the leading role South Africa was playing in UNESCO and in its Africa Group, South Africa now was to develop operational guidelines for the Convention, to establish an international fund for cultural diversity, to identify new arrangements of International Co-operation, to ensure the participation of civil society in the implementation of the Convention, and to develop a post ratification strategy for the implementation of the Convention’s provisions. The strategy was outlined. The importance of cooperation with civil society and implementation agencies and associated institutions was stressed. These included workshops, media plans, plans with disability agencies, and establishing a database of rurally-based cultural practitioners. Members questioned participation in cultural exchanges, elaboration on the film industry, the voluntary contribution of funds, and expressed confidence and satisfaction in the Department’s handling of matters related to the Conventions.

Meeting report

2003 UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH): Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) Briefing
Mbhazima Makhubele, Director: Heritage Policy, DAC, explained that the purpose of his presentation was formally to brief the Committee on the process and objectives of ratifying the UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which sought to safeguard, preserve and promote intangible cultural heritage (ICH).

Such conventions were very important in a world that had become ‘a global village’, and were valuable because they offered an opportunity to derive benefit from the sharing of international best practices, and to ensure that South Africa’s heritage was not left behind in global development.

In South Africa, intangible cultural heritage was commonly understood as living heritage. Intangible cultural heritage addressed and was relevant to the majority of citizens. This Convention obliged countries that ratified it to identify, define and devise appropriate means of ensuring ICH preservation.

The decision to recommend ratification of the Convention to Parliament had been taken following a process of consultations with stakeholders, including civil society, statutory institutions, and other government departments, culminating in a national consultative workshop held in Pretoria on 26-27 July 2007. Here, more than 250 representatives of the ICH sector had been unanimous that the Department should take steps to ratify the Convention. The workshop perceived that ICH was under the threat of extinction and must be safeguarded.

The benefits of ratification would include the potential to decolonise South Africa’s heritage, which was dominated by museums and monuments. A further benefit was that ICH could contribute to social cohesion and nation-building. The Convention was explicit that communities, groups, and non-governmental organisations should be involved in its implementation. In addition it promoted regional, continental and international co-operation in safeguarding ICH. Besides sharing borders, South Africa also shared many cultural and heritage features with its six neighbouring countries. Ratification would enable South Africa to share international expertise and best practice.

Implementation of the Convention would require the Department to collaborate closely with other departments concerned with intangible cultural heritage, for example, the Department of Science and Technology, which had developed a national policy on indigenous knowledge systems (IKS).

The DAC was developing a national policy of norms and standards for preservation, promotion and transmission of intangible cultural heritage, with potential to rectify the inequality between tangible and intangible heritage and thereby contribute to decolonisation of heritage.

The State Law Advisors of the Departments of Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Environmental Affairs and Tourism had provided legal opinions on consistency with domestic and international law. Also the Department had completed a Cabinet memorandum that the Minister of Arts and Culture had signed off on 05 October 2007. The DAC was therefore beginning the parliamentary processes, as well as the completion and implementation of a national policy. It expected to have a draft of this policy ready by May or June 2008. The Department also aimed to complete a national audit to establish the size and extent of South Africa’s intangible cultural heritage. It would begin listing of that heritage soon after completion of the audit and inventory.

Mr J Maake (ANC) said that he wanted an overview of the process of ratification. He asked if UNESCO would itself list all the items of intangible cultural heritage sought to protect.

Mr C Gololo (ANC) endorsed Mr Maake’s request for an overview. He asked about the relationship of listing items of intangible cultural heritage to regional co-operation. Furthermore, he asked if the Convention specified listing of the items of intangible cultural heritage pertaining to minorities such as Asians and Europeans.
The Chairperson endorsed the request for an overview, and said that Members were perhaps a little confused by the presentation in far as it dealt with the Convention’s specifications for listing items of intangible cultural heritage.

Mr Makhubele explained that UNESCO was one of the multilateral institutions belonging to the United Nations and had been established after the Second World War. Its mandates included encouraging cultural dialogue amongst the nations of the world, education, and arts and culture.

Since its inception, UNESCO had worked to establish international conventions. One of its most well-know was the World Heritage Convention. Such conventions sought to establish norms and standards for the preservation and promotion of heritage.

This 2003 ICH Convention dealt with such aspects of heritage as folklore, dancing, and other intangibles, as distinct from tangible items such as monuments, objects and museums. Intangible cultural heritage was intimately linked to human identity. This Convention reflected UNESCO’s desire to now achieve a better balance by focusing on the intangible aspects. Some intangible items of heritage were dying out, because of globalisation, and there were no inventories. There had been no systematic ways of preserving them.

So far 88 countries had ratified the Convention, of whom about 20 were countries in Africa. The Department was keen that South Africa should ratify it because it addressed some of South Africa’s specific needs in terms of heritage.  It had aimed to try to ratify by end 2007, but this had not been possible.

In relation to the question on listing, Mr Makhubele explained that the conventions would list core measures to preserve items of heritage, and UNESCO was concerned with the listing of world heritage sites, such as Robben Island. Unlike the Convention on World Heritage, the 2003 Convention did not have a hierarchy and all cultures were equal. Prominent practices that were prominent within a community should be listed. Where South Africa shared languages and cultural practices across borders, the shared items would be listed jointly with the sharing neighbouring country, and then measures would be developed to preserve or promote them. If items of intangible cultural heritage pertaining to persons of Asian or European origin were present within South Africa, then they should be listed too.

The Chairperson asked for a perspective on the private museums.

Mr Makhubele said that the Convention was particularly important since at present the museums had little role in preserving and promoting intangible cultural heritage, and there was therefore no formal mechanism. 

Mr Maluleka asked about the time frames and deadlines for the listing of items of intangible cultural heritage. He thought that it was a huge task. He noted that the Department had not yet had sight of the Cabinet Memorandum.

Mr Makhubele responded that the Department’s experience in UNESCO was that such matters could take long to be completed. The important challenge and starting point was to compile inventories and take stock of all items of ICH in South Africa. It was important to be equitable in the listing process, and not just select representative samples from each province.

Mr S Opperman (DA) said that nomenclature was part of the intangible cultural heritage. In a previous meeting a colleague had spoken about the ‘concoction’ that was exemplified in the word ‘xhoisan’. It was neither a name nor a word but had been invented by a German academic in 1928. It was unintelligent and had no meaning, but was in common use even by scholars.

Mr Makhubele noted that it was difficult to change long-entrenched usages. Communities, however, would be asked what terminologies they found derogatory, in an attempt to stop their use.

Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (DCE Convention): Department’s briefing on strategy following ratification.
Ms Lucy Mahlangu, Director: Multilateral Relations, DAC noted that the presentation she would deliver had been prepared by Mr Themba Wakashe, Director-General, who was unable to attend this meeting.

Ms Mahlangu reported that the UNESCO General Conference had adopted the Convention on 20 October 2005. The Convention’s guiding principles admirably reflected South Africa’s constitutional values. It was a legally-binding treaty that confirmed the right of states to intervene in the cultural market, and take such measures as they deemed necessary for the protection and promotion of the diversity of artistic expressions. One of the Convention’s purposes was to prevent cultural life, in the context of the shrinking global village,  from being dominated by only a few players. Member States also felt that diverse artistic expressions should be protected, and that consumers should be given wide choice from amongst the broad range of expressions in which artists created and performed.

South Africa had ratified the DCE Convention in December 2006.  The Convention came into force on 18 March 2007.

Ms Mahlangu said, by way of background, that South Africa was a member of UNESCO, served on its Executive Board, and the South African ambassador to France was also South Africa’s permanent delegate to UNESCO. The Chief Director: International in the Department served as ex-officio commissioner for culture on South Africa’s national commission for UNESCO. This commission had a role of monitoring and co-ordination and assisted government.

South Africa thus played a leading role in UNESCO, was a member of the Africa group, had chaired some of the commissions leading to the Convention, and was highly respected. A major challenge in the Africa group was that many of its members were not paid-up. Africa was one of the regions with the least numbers of ratifications. This created an imbalance in terms of regional representation.

Though Canada, as the first signatory to the Convention, had been in a strong position to lobby for election, South Africa had been elected to chair the first Conference of Parties (COP) in June 2007, when South Africa was also elected to serve on the Convention’s Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) for four years. It had participated in this Committee’s meeting in Canada in December 2007.

South Africa, as a member of the Intergovernmental Committee, was to develop the operational guidelines for the Convention, to establish an international fund for cultural diversity following the Convention, to identify new arrangements of International Co-operation, to ensure the participation of civil society in the implementation of the Convention, and to develop a post ratification strategy for the implementation of the Convention’s provisions.

The Department’s strategy, in the light of this ratification and obligations, was thus to review and update South Africa’s national legislative framework, to ensure alignment with the Convention. The Department also planned to conduct workshops nationally with all spheres of government, civil society, and implementation agencies and associated institutions to promote the Convention and encourage their active participation to achieve the Convention’s objectives. The Department would establish a national steering committee, composed of representatives from both government and civil society that would monitor and implement the strategy post ratification.

Civil society’s effective role would depend on its ability to obtain information from government about the measures planned to protect and promote cultural diversity, both nationally and internationally. The focus of the workshops with implementation agencies and associated institutions was to align projects and programmes to promote cultural diversity and to protect and promote cultural expressions.

The Department would also create a media plan and work with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to create broader public awareness and facilitate the sharing and exchange and information on the Convention.

The Department would also develop a plan of work with various disability agencies associated with the Office of the Presidency or with the Department of Social Development that dealt with cultural practitioners.

The Department would also develop a work plan with all provinces having a large rural coverage and develop a database of all rurally-based cultural practitioners, for example, Noria Mabasa, and assess infrastructure needs.

Every four years the Department would prepare a report to UNESCO on measures taken in South Africa to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions in the country.

It was important for the success of the Convention that the general public gave their support. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society and the mass media would be encouraged to support and participate actively. They should also take a major role in disseminating the meaning and principles of the Convention to minority cultures at every level and in every genre.

In June 2008 an extra-ordinary session would be held at UNESCO to discuss the draft guidelines on the use of the resources of the international fund for cultural diversity.

In December 2008, an ordinary session would be held at UNESCO to discuss the operational guidelines in conjunction with the use of the resources for the fund.

The United States of America was not a signatory and was known for delaying the processes related to such conventions by exercising its ‘financial muscle’.

Ms D Ramodibe (ANC) thanked Ms Mahlangu for her enthusiastic and exciting presentation. She said that Committee Members clearly understood their role. Moreover, they were in touch with their constituents daily. She asked for clarification about membership of the Intergovernmental Committee.

Ms M Mdlalose (NADECO) thanked Ms Mahlangu for an authoritative presentation. She asked how her home town, Newcastle, could support and publicise participation in cultural exchanges with overseas towns sharing the same name. 

Ms Mahlangu responded that the Department of Arts and Culture would visit KwaZulu-Natal on the 20 February 2008 and would meet with those concerned. 

Mr C Gololo supported what his colleague had said. He asked if the Soweto Gospel Choir’s recent Grammy award was attributable in any way to preferential treatment.

Ms Mahlangu said there had been no preferential treatment for the Soweto Gospel Choir. It had won on its own merits.

Mr Gololo asked for elaboration on the film industry.

Ms Mahlangu said that contribution of funds was voluntary, but that countries who had contributed voluntarily tended to feel they could dominate proceedings. The voluntary nature of the fund had definite disadvantages. Some countries that had contributed little had nonetheless succeeded in winning support for projects that entailed heavy expenditure. It was hard to achieve a balance. It was important to achieve an equitable system to ensure that funds were directed in an appropriate manner. South Africa had not paid as yet.

Ms Mahlangu asked Members to refer to the information pack that the Department had provided to them.

Mr G Lekgetho (ANC) asked Ms Mahlangu for clarification on the voluntary nature of contributions to the international fund for cultural diversity. He asked if there was a minimum specified for contributions. 

Ms Mahlangu responded that there was no prescribed minimum contribution.

The Chairperson said that it was evident that South Africa had been empowered as a country. She expressed confidence and satisfaction in the Department’s handling of matters related to the Conventions and the Department’s readiness to respond to requests from the Committee.

The meeting was adjourned.


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