The Department of Arts and Culture briefed the Committee on the proposal for ratification of the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. This Convention sought to promote preservation of underwater cultural heritage more than 100 years old. This included artefacts and human remains in and around wrecks, but clearly excluded modern artefacts such as pipelines and cables laid on the seabed. Preservation should preferably happen in situ, but
Members raised questions on the rationale for only protecting items over 100 years old, the need involve the communities and to educate them to respect the importance of heritage; the lack of capacity and shortage of skills to protect underwater cultural heritage, how best to regulate the activities of salvage operators, why artefacts should not rather be raised and preserved in museums, and the need for a budget. It was agreed that before ratifying the Convention the Committee would need to hear the views of the SA Heritage Resources Agency.
2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage: Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) Briefing
Mr Mbhazima Makhubele, Director for Heritage Policy, Department of Arts and Culture, apologised that Mr Themba Wakashe, Director-General, was unable to be present, briefed the Committee on the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage adopted on 02 November 2001 in Paris.
Mr Makhubele explained the definition of underwater cultural heritage, and how it related to the interaction of people and nations with the oceans. Most cases were concerned with the wrecks of ships that had been sailing between
To date, 16 countries, including
The Department of Arts and Culture had during May 2007 prepared a Memorandum to Cabinet seeking approval for ratification. The relevant social cluster committee had approved this, and noted that the DAC needed to prepare relevant legislation in line with Articles 9 and 17 of the Convention, to implement the Convention effectively.
The Convention provided signatory States with a common definition of underwater cultural heritage and established norms and standards for its protection. Looting, damage and destruction were on the increase due to technical developments. The Convention sought to promote, preferably in situ, the preservation of underwater cultural heritage for the benefit of humanity.
Article 4 of the Convention provided for professional archaeological and salvage activities under prescribed guidelines, including a permit system, accountability, keeping of records and disclosures. The Convention made provision to facilitate training in underwater archaeology, the transfer of technologies, information sharing, and public awareness of the value and significance of underwater cultural heritage.
The Convention stated that the commercial exploitation of underwater cultural heritage (UCH) was fundamentally incompatible with the protection and proper management of underwater cultural heritage. However this could be mitigated through regulated salvage activities under an effective permit system, if supported by a national policy on underwater cultural heritage that respected national sovereignty.
The Department had conducted a process of consultation. In 2006 meetings were held with the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA),
The Department was formulating a draft national policy for underwater cultural heritage in order to guide activities in the sector. This would have to take into account competing interests of salvage companies, archaeologists, national legislation, and the requirements of the constitution.
In situ preservation, though ideal, presented in practice many challenges.
Another serious challenge was the lack of capacity to monitor and enforce government policy. Recently SAHRA banned commercial salvage, but because of lack of capacity to enforce that policy, there were still excavations and sales going on.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was the shortage of archaeologists.
Once the Convention had been ratified, the Department would establish a system for reporting nationally, and reporting to the Director-General of UNESCO as required by the Convention. The various Government departments needed to work closely together. There was also a need for continuing constructive engagement of salvage organisations, archaeologists and SAHRA. The Department was working on standalone legislation on underwater cultural heritage.
The Chairperson and Ms D Ramodibe (ANC) asked what informed the rationale for 100 year old definition for objects of underwater cultural heritage.
Mr Makhubele replied that the Convention provided that if an artefact was underwater for a century or more it qualified to be protected. A recent shipwreck did not qualify. However, before many decades had elapsed, nothing might be left of an old shipwreck other than the structural remains of the ship. South African legislation provided for protection of items of underwater cultural heritage after a period of 60 years. The time frame was admittedly problematic. For example, the R M S Titanic, which sank in 1912, less than a century ago in 1912, had already been extensively plundered.
Ms Ramodibe observed that heritage was very important. Government was to implement and put policies into effect. This had been a problem since coming to power in 1994, and had been highlighted in many speeches by the President.
Ms Ramodibe said also that heritage was a cross-cutting issue involving the Department of Education and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, but she considered Education to be the more crucial. It was vital to involve the communities and to educate them to respect the importance of heritage.
Mr Makhubele replied that the Department recognised the challenge to educate the communities and was working in co-operation with other government departments.
Ms P Tshwete (ANC) asked for more information about the various challenges that he had mentioned. She asked how the Department proposed to ensure that members of the South African Navy did not themselves remove items of underwater cultural heritage and exploit them commercially. Concerning the lack of capacity and shortage of skills, she asked, with particular reference to the
Mr Makhubele replied that the Department co-operated with the Department of Foreign Affairs and with the South African Navy, as well as with other government departments. Until six or seven years previously the Universities of Stellenbosch and
Mr H Maluleka (ANC) asked who the salvage operators were, and if the boundaries of what should be protected were known, since that would inform the degree of protection that could be given. If the sea bed beyond South African territorial waters was not
Mr Makhubele replied that the salvage operators were located mainly in
Mr M Bhengu (IFP) endorsed Ms Tshwete and Mr Maluleka’s commendation of Mr Makhubele’s presentation, and asked if the Department of Arts and Culture had compiled records and undertaken an audit of the underwater artefacts that it sought to protect. He asked what role the Department expected the Committee to take in the matter.
Mr Makhubele replied that an audit had been undertaken. There were thousands of shipwrecks.
Mr S Opperman (DA) asked if in situ preservation was really necessary, and if it would not be better to bring artefacts to the surface and exhibit them so that people could enjoy them. If unregulated salvage operators could remove artefacts and sell them, it was reasonable to ask why there was reluctance to bring such artefacts to the surface and preserve them in a maritime museum.
Mr Makhubele replied that if a shipwreck had, for example, been submerged for three centuries, artefacts would, in many cases, rapidly deteriorate if they were brought to the surface. On the other hand, the rough seas around
The Chairperson asked if
Mr G Lekgetho (ANC) said the challenges were indefinite. He commented on the insufficiency of capacity to protect underwater cultural heritage and asked how long it would take to complete the draft policy on that heritage.
Mr Makhubele said that he hoped the draft policy would be ready by the end of 2008.
Mr Maluleka observed that there were looters who pillaged wrecks as soon as the ship sank. He and Mr Opperman indicated the need for immediate protection of items of underwater cultural heritage.
Mr Makhubele said that the practice in other countries had been to allow citizens to go diving without disturbing underwater cultural heritage. However, he shared Mr Maluleka’s concern. There was need to provide protection, but provision for such protection might be found in already existing legislation or in the Constitution.
Mr Bhengu said that it was important for the Committee to receive a briefing from SAHRA, and, moreover, for there to be a budget for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. It was hard for a parliamentary Committee to oversee what was presented as an apparently abstract concept.
Ms Ramodibe supported Mr Bhengu’s request for a briefing from SAHRA. The Chairperson also endorsed this request.
Mr Makhubele agreed with Mr Bhengu and Ms Ramodibe on the desirability of a presentation from SAHRA. The Department would reply in that regard within the next week.
Ms Ramodibe asked if any salvage operators had been arrested. She also asked if any contributions had been made to the families of those who had died in the shipwrecks that were considered part of the underwater cultural heritage.
Mr Makhubele replied that most of the wrecks had been of ships privately owned by the British East India Company and by the Dutch East India Company, with crews mainly from
Mr Lekgetho asked what had happened to the wreck of the SS Mendi with the loss of 600 African lives in the early 20th century.
Mr Maluleka spoke of a memorial. He said that government had taken measures to commemorate the loss.
The Chairperson observed that it had been an ‘enriching’ presentation.
The meeting was adjourned.
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