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date: 09 December 2019

The Legal and Political Framework for Archaeology and the Protection of Archaeological Resources in South Africa

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Please check back later for the full article.

As in most countries, the legal framework that has protected archeological sites among other heritage resources in South Africa since 1911 has been firmly rooted in the country’s changing political history. The British colonial system applied to African colonies in the early 20th century shaped an essentially reactive legislation that protected all archeological sites and objects through a permit system and provided for the declaration of sites of significance. Legal action could be taken against those who ignored the protective measures, but it was seldom invoked for damage to archeological material.

Archeological sites accounted for about 10 percent of declarations of national monuments in the 1930s, largely because the Secretary, and later Director of the national commission, C. van Riet Lowe, was himself a self-taught archeologist. As the interest in colonial history grew, however, more attention was paid to colonial buildings, so that by 1990, less than 1 percent of national monuments were archeological. In the post-apartheid era, archeological heritage continues to be of relatively minor interest, and more attention is being given to sites associated with the struggle against apartheid in the 20th century.

The National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) (Act 25 of 1999) was introduced by the new democratically elected government in 2000, six years after the fall of apartheid. It borrowed from legislation in former British colonies such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, and the framework was influenced by international guidelines such as the Burra Charter and the Operational Guidelines for the World Heritage Convention, which follow the process of identification, assessment, and management of heritage resources. All archeological sites and objects are protected by the NHRA. More importantly, it introduced proactive measures to assess the impact of development on archeological sites and to provide for their mitigation before development takes place. The aim is to enable the public to protect archeological resources because they are significant to them, not only because there is a law that prohibits their destruction without a permit.