South Africa is custodian of a site of immense heritage value to Africa. The South African Government will need to respond adequately to the recommendation by a Mission Team reporting to the World Heritage Commission. If the recommendations are not implemented, the State risks being remembered not as the guardian of southern Africa's heritage, but as the enabler of its destruction.
The World Heritage Committee is meeting in Saint Petersburg between 24 June and 6 July 2012. The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape comes under the spotlight on the agenda item "State of conservation of properties inscribed on the World Heritage List and/or on the List of World Heritage in Danger".
A society once thrived on the banks of the Limpopo River. From this point, they took control of the trade routes through East African ports to India and China, and throughout southern Africa. Between 900 and 1300AD gold, skins and ivory was harvested from the hinterland as treasures in scarce supply elsewhere. A vibrant trade in gold and ivory for Chinese porcelain and Persian glass beads existed.
As the most important inland settlement on the African subcontinent until the end of the 13th Century AD, it had great influence on ideology, architecture and settlement planning. Evidence reveals that trade increased and developed in a pattern influenced by an elite class with a sacred leadership where the king was secluded from the commoners located in the surrounding settlements.
There were large populations in satellite settlements and lands around the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe rivers, whose fertility supported three capitals – Schroda, Zhiro and Mapungubwe.
During this kingdom’s final two thousand years of existence, a warmer and wetter climate well-suited to agriculture was punctuated by cooler and drier periods. Finally, the population dispersed when drier conditions after 1300AD could no longer sustain the agriculture needed to support the population size. The power base moved north to Great Zimbabwe, and later Khami, but left behind an “impressive cultural landscape of universal significance”.
This landscape was listed as a World Heritage Site in July 2003, and the Limpopo Tourism and Parks Board proudly promotes this area and the heritage status awarded.
International and national mining companies respond differently.
Twenty or more companies have been granted prospecting licences on this very landscape. Already operating in this unique landscape are De Beer’s Venetia mine, opened in August 1992 and contributing 40% of South Africa’s annual production of diamonds; the Tuli coal mine in Zimbabwe across the Limpopo River and Coal of Africa Limited (CoAL) .
CoAL was incorporated in Western Australia in 1979, and listed on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1980. In November 2006, CoAL listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange ,to assist the with expanding its interests in South Africa.
Though the DeBeer mine has a negative impact on the landscape, it is the CoAL operation and the recently awarded licences that are most contentious.
A recent joint monitoring mission by World Heritage Centre/ International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) heard that Coal of Africa perceived that their mining operations at Vele would pose "no threats at all to the extraordinary heritage landscape".
However, the monitoring mission concluded differently: “Once the open cast mining had finished in a particular area, any archaeological sites, or graves of ancestors would have been destroyed, and the re-filled areas would be ‘coal mining ‘ landscapes and not cultural landscapes associated to the sites of the K2 and Mapungubwe period cultural landscapes in the inscribed property, or landscapes of value to the local Communities”.
The mission team was presented the fenced patch as an example of what can be done to protect archaeological sites in the mining area – a method also pointed out in the HIA as the way to go. However, from the mission team point of view, the value of the archaeological site is gone forever, since it is surrounded by a vast industrial landscape that has reshaped the historical landscape which the fenced in archaeological remains once formed a part of.
Fenced archaeological site at the processing plant area of Vele colliery. Photo: Dag Avango.
The mission slammed the Heritage Impact Assessment by Professor Innocent Pikirayi, and questioned its objectivity. This kind of criticism taints many Impact Assessments in South Africa where authors are appointed and compensated by the proponents of the development.
A Heritage Assessment undertaken by the State is also faulted for focussing on “specific archaeological sites within the mining site without a clear understanding of how they relate to each other in landscape terms or how they relate to the inscribed cultural landscape area.”
This approach results in a conclusion that “any sites within the opencast mining areas could be destroyed once they had been recorded”. The cumulative or landscape significance of impacts or changes is often overlooked in assessments. The mission criticism of the trend in this instance underscores the magnitude of what can be lost if sites are considered in isolation.
The report to the World Heritage Commission tactfully censures the efforts to balance protection of national assets with “finding ways to make mining development …possible”. The Heritage Impact Assessment is said to “push this agenda too far".
The heritage impact assessment claimed " … mining, if done within a compliance framework represents an opportunity to document some of the World Heritage’s [Outstanding Universal Value] OUV. Mines have resources which make it possible to sustain and manage sites…. ‘.
The mission team is adamant that “large scale open cast mining should not be presented as a fruitful way to preserve OUV of World Heritage Sites or to gain knowledge about the past.”
The Buffer Zone had not been presented to the World Heritage Commission by the State in 2009 as required. At the time of inscription in 2003, a buffer to the east of the core area was described.
The mission is insisting on a 7km stretch to the east of the core area up to the border of Vele to be incorportated. It is also emphatic that there should be no reduction of the buffer zone as proposed in the Heritage Impact Assessment, and is calling for clear protection policies within the buffer zone which prohibit both open cast and underground mining.
Mining was “officially stopped by the South African government” in 2010. The mission team reports that open cast mining resumed, clearly evidenced by the number of workers on site, the stockpile of coal and the progress on the processing plant. Implicit, if not stated, is the question of enforcement of directives.
The mission report states a clear concern about a large number of applications for prospecting rights in the current Buffer Zone, some of which have been approved. Around twenty of these relate to the coal seam that runs south-west from the Vele area under the Buffer Zone. Future coal mining areas have been delineated and farms have been purchased by coal mining companies.
“It was reported to the Mission that several companies are carefully monitoring the development of the Vele colliery project. This reinforces the need for clear protection policies within the Buffer Zone which prohibit mining both open cast and underground.”
The report warns that if the current condition of K2 is not improved, it “could result in the property being considered for the List of World Heritage in Danger, because of the serious deterioration of the archaeological Materials” . The team recommended that a condition survey of K2 is undertaken as soon as possible and a conservation plan developed in order to launch its rehabilitation.
Core areas of Mapungubwe world heritage site, from K2 towards the east. Photo: Dag Avango.
The report to the World Heritage Commission details the failure of the public participation processes for the CoAL project.
Interested and Affected Parties claim not to have been approached or consulted. They describe being called to meeting where CoAL presented information about the project, but restricted the time available to hear or receive input from the public.
These concerns are also highlighted as a trend in specialist studies of public participation and the empowerment of marginalised communities (integrated environmental assessment and management strategy).
In spite of national legislation aimed at protecting heritage and natural assets, there is a tendency to accept development provided there is mitigation. The mitigation measures are described in an assessment report, and seldom (if ever) will a development be halted if the mitigation proves unsuccessful, or the scope of the impact in realty is greater than anticipated. This is typically in the absence of adequate monitoring and enforcement (as concluded in specialist studies done for the Environmental Impact Assessment Management Strategy).
On the subject of mitigation, the mission reports –
The mission team advised the Director-General of UNESCO, that it is not possible to recommend satisfactory mitigation measures to ensure that the current authorized mining proposals do not impact adversely on Outstanding Universal Value of the site.
In effect, the site could be impacted to the extent that it ceases to be of Universal Value. The tragedy would be that South African fails as custodian of a site that has San Rock Art from 15 000 years ago and proof of a flourishing society in the Limpopo Valley 1000-1300AD. Ironically, this government will have destroyed what the Apartheid government merely kept secret: evidence of a society more progressive than racist ideology ever allowed.
The World Heritage Committee will be asked for a decision, which in essence will be the consideration of the State’s capacity to implement these recommendations –
The Association of Southern African Archaeologists says “It is a mistake to consider Mapungubwe’s sense of place as a present-day phenomenon. Among other things, Mapungubwe is a World Heritage Site because the physical landscape is still relatively unaltered. Mapungubwe is not unique because of how local people feel about it now, but because of what happened there in the archaeological past. We know from research that Zhizo, K2 and Mapungubwe communities utilised the physical landscape for agriculture and field camps, grazing and cattle posts, ritual and residences.”
Will South Africans allow this archaeological link to the past to be irretrievably altered? What do you think?