Africa’s rich heritage is under threat

A traditional clay minaret stands in the Malian city of Timbuktu. Structures such as these are being destroyed as a result of conflict. Adama Diarra/Reuters

Over the past decade many priceless heritage sites and monuments have been destroyed, vandalised or desecrated in countries across the world. On the African continent, sites in Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Mali, among others, have been destroyed during internal and cross-border conflicts.

The three main threats to heritage sites are development projects, armed conflicts and natural disasters. International agencies like UNESCO have called for the protection of heritage resources in the event of conflict. But this has not happened.

An attack on history

The destruction of monuments is a violent act. Those responsible are trying to erase - by force - an aspect of history targeted at material culture. One example was the Nazis who, during World War II, attempted to destroy Jewish people’s art and personal property.

The attacks on monuments and calls for their destruction reflect the systemic and complex violence in many African states, although it’s important to note that the problem is not only an African one.

Heritage sites. UNESCO

Isis is the latest group destroying history and heritage. This is prevalent in Iraq. The group labelled their destruction of the sites as ‘removing the signs of polytheism.’ Syria is another country witnessing its heritage being wiped out.

When examining the ongoing conflict in the north of Mali, it is clear that heritage sites are just part of the collateral damage of human lives and cultural property in the ongoing conflict.

The South African case

In South Africa, recent student-led protests at the University of Cape Town started what became a nation-wide debate. It was mixed with acts of destruction aimed at colonial heritage monuments.

There were many opposing views about the statue of British mining magnate and politician Cecil John Rhodes at the university. Some saw the statue as a vestige of colonial oppression. Others said that monuments should be safeguarded and protected as legacies of South Africa’s past even though they were remnants of an oppressive past.

The debate about Rhodes’ statue set a precedent. Several other statues in various South African cities have been the scene of public protests.

This has led to the emergence of divergent activist groups championing either the protection of monuments such as the Kruger monument in Pretoria central or the removal of all monuments associated with the apartheid period of South African history.

The debates continue on this topic and what keeps emerging as an underlying theme is the disenchantment, across various platforms of South African society. Disenchantment with the way in which the effects of apartheid have been dealt with in the post-apartheid period. Many argue that the processes such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were not sufficiently able to deal with the trauma and pain wrought by apartheid.

Conflict resolution and peace building would be better served by exploring alternative ways of dealing with heritage destruction. Instead of condemning the heritage to destruction, it should be kept safe so it remains visible and spurs us into constant engagement and conversation.

Collective approach is needed

It is worth considering national and world heritage conservation policies and legislation. All heritage is valuable and should be protected for posterity. Heritage destruction is not in the interest of humanity and can only serve to legitimate other aspects of heritage violation as was the case in the aftermath of destruction of sites and monuments in Libya and Egypt.

The African continent has to address the question of how we collectively deal with difficult and traumatic heritages. A reflection on the UNESCO Conventions between 1954 and 1972 should also provide guidance on future actions and discourses on heritage management at local and national levels.

The 1954 Convention which calls for the protection of cultural heritage during conflict and war was regularly invoked during the Iraq conflict and recent conflict in Mali. The 1970 and 1972 Conventions draw attention to safeguarding and protecting world heritage by state parties.

With these tools, countries should have sufficient guidance to individually and collectively protect heritage resources. Heritage resources are as much a reflection of our humanity as is our very human existence.