Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge is local, mostly traditional knowledge covering medicine, agriculture, religion, rituals and many other spheres of every day life. It still plays a major role in many African countries today, is usually transmitted orally from one generation to the next and is therefore in danger of being forgotten. This section focuses on the exploration, research and recording of indigenous knowledge, and the improved access to it.
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    Rediscovering our stories - intangible cultural heritage in South Africa

    Intangible Heritage or Living Heritage is the stories people tell and the things they do, passed down through the generations. Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) helps to define who we are, and where we come from.

    What is intangible cultural heritage?

    ICH or Living Heritage is not the heritage of old and rare objects or places, but of social practices, stories, skills and knowledge. In South Africa, this includes the stories of the tokoloshe, the Mantis and the Moon, and the Van der Merwe jokes; it includes the skills of the inyanga who cures with herbs, and the skills of thatching or making traditional beer and the skills of the braai; it includes the toyi toyi dance of the anti-Apartheid struggle, and the stapdans of the Nama communities in the Richtersveld.

    ICH is ‘living’ heritage because it involves people and because it stays current - each generation changes and adapts it to their circumstances, urban and rural. Baskets once made of reeds can be made in the same patterns out of coloured wire. ICH is also living heritage because in practising it people usually play with multiple cultural references - they don't have to be trapped in a single religious, gender or ethnic ‘box’.

    Challenges in safeguarding intangible heritage

    Over time, many people just stop singing old songs, making ‘old-fashioned’ things, or learning their grandmothers’ stories or cooking methods. In some cases, however, people want to keep their ICH alive even though its viability is threatened. ICH is a living practice, so it is easily affected by factors such as the migration of young people into cities, social change or conflict, and by repression of or contempt for a specific group’s cultural practices in society. The denigration of African culture was, for example, very common in the colonial and Apartheid era in South Africa.

    Keeping ICH alive in communities poses many challenges. The first main challenge is to develop ways of helping to safeguard ICH that maintain its living vibrancy. The second main challenge is to develop legal and ethical frameworks in which NGOs, researchers or governments can help communities to safeguard their ICH without taking ownership of it away from the people.

    Keeping living heritage alive

    Many forms of ICH are performed and transmitted orally. The challenges of safeguarding oral heritage – for example, songs and stories - illustrate some of the broader challenges in keeping ICH alive.

    Books about storytelling can’t replace the experience of listening to an expert storyteller and can’t keep the storytelling heritage alive. Even video documentation can’t replace the experience of a live, active performance. An expert storyteller draws on traditional themes and characters to tell new stories that relate to current issues and events. Therefore, if people stop telling their stories in their communities, the ICH is no longer ‘alive’. An archive of transcribed stories – such as the recently digitized archive of San stories by Bleek and Lloyd – can help to raise awareness about the ICH among a broader public, and broader community engagement projects could even encourage members of the San community to revalue or rediscover some of their own stories.

    Gcina Mhlophe, the great South African storyteller, explains that her grandmother taught her everything about telling stories. If grandmothers in rural areas are no longer teaching their grandchildren because they are growing up in urban areas, something needs to be done to encourage storytellers to pass on their skills today, to develop young audiences and to ensure that storytellers receive recognition and reward for their work. Zanendaba – The Institute of African Storytellers will for example be profiling African storytellers, planning events, training new talent and developing audiences for storytelling. Such projects can have spin-offs in developing literacy skills, not just through the provision of books about storytelling.

    Safeguarding measures need to focus on encouraging people to carry on practising and transmitting their living heritage rather than simply on documenting it. Measures need to be tailored to the specific problems faced by communities and practitioners in keeping their ICH element alive.

    Legal and ethical frameworks

    Developing legal and ethical frameworks for ICH safeguarding that retain community stewardship over their ICH is a major challenge, partly because existing heritage management models have focused on the management of places and objects, and partly because they tend to focus on governments and external experts rather than on the people who practice their ICH.

    For a long time, the western approach to heritage focused on the preservation of old and rare buildings and archaeological sites, as well as objects. But in East Asia, notably Japan and the Republic of Korea, laws had been developed to assist in safeguarding ICH by the 1950s. By 2003 UNESCO had adopted a Convention for the Safeguarding of the ICH. This instrument emphasized community participation and consent in any activities concerning their ICH. There were also many examples of the violation of intellectual property in regard to cultural practices, for example in the development of pharmaceutical products based on traditional knowledge. WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization) is still working on some guidance for protecting community-held intellectual property rights in what they call ‘traditional cultural expressions’.

    What is being done in Africa?

    In Africa as a whole many countries have ratified the Intangible Heritage Convention and are engaged in inventorying their ICH and nominating ICH elements to the lists of the Convention. There have also been efforts to modify intellectual property legislation to cover ICH expressions, for example by the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization and some member countries. Malawi’s Copyright Act of 1989 requires government authorization when ICH is used for profit or outside the traditional and customary context.

    In South Africa, early heritage legislation followed the western model. After the democratic transition of 1994, things changed rapidly. Living heritage was recognized as an important part of the heritage landscape as early as 1996, in the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage. Living heritage associated with places and objects was recognized as important in the 1999 National Heritage Resources Act. South Africa is currently in the process of public engagement with a draft policy on Living Heritage, and has not yet ratified the Intangible Heritage Convention. The intellectual property laws in South Africa are currently being modified to protect community-held ICH from unauthorized exploitation.

    One final challenge in safeguarding living heritage is protecting human rights. Some ICH practices discriminate against women, for example, and cannot be encouraged by a democratic state like South Africa that protects human rights under its Constitution, and may simply fade out of date. This has been a matter of some contention in South Africa with for example the placement of legal restrictions on traditional forms of virginity testing of girls under 16
    Harriet Deacon, South Africa, 2012

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