Culture, heritage, justice and belonging

By Rita Sitas, African Centre for Cities

City making is a cultural act and senses of belonging are fundamentally shaped by the ways in which cities are built, mapped, experienced, understood and felt. The role of arts, culture and heritage in urban life has been recognized as important and this double panel at the 2020 Southern African Cities Studies Conference drew on research conducted by researchers linked to the African Centre for Cities (ACC), to discuss the implications of drawing on a cultural heritage lens for justice in cities.


The Southern African Cities Studies Conference focuses on inter-disciplinary scholarship from and about cities in Southern Africa. It is co-hosted by the University of Witwatersrand, the University of Cape Town, and the Durban Institute of Technology. In 2020 the conference happened digitally and for free, which allowed for attendees from all over the world. The double panel on ‘Culture, heritage and belonging’ emerged out of a common interest in exploring the role of culture and heritage in relation to justice and belonging, particularly from an urban studies perspective.


The first panel was made up of practitioner-scholars – a group of people working in between disciplines and actively trying to break down siloes in Cape Town. It explored the relationship between policy, implementation, participation and civic action in realising more just cities. The purpose was to interrogate the tensions, trade-offs and contradictions, but also the opportunities of thinking through cultural heritage, policy and justice.


The first speaker, Marco Morgan is an urbanist who has worked extensively in policy development and planning, occupying various roles in Government. The inconsistency and uncertainty of government structures, fleeting policy and plans, and ill-informed development processes have always been a contention of his work in civil service, provoking active participation in community-led initiatives such as Open Streets Cape Town, Creative Nestlings, and the National Skate Collective. Using Guga S’Thebe as a point of departure, Marco reflected on the role of interpersonal and party politics that govern and shape the role of cultural institutions in townships.


Maurietta Stewart is a heritage and built environment practitioner with experience in the fields of Heritage Resource Management, Environmental Management and planning. Her work is in the cross-section of these fields and the built environment. She works at the City of Cape Town, is a scholar at UCT and a heritage activist. Maurietta reflected on how to hold legislation accountable to urban justice. Drawing on forced removals in the context of Harfield Village, she asserted the importance of memory, intangible and living heritage in a reckoning that is essential to address a history of dispossession.


Naomi Roux is a heritage scholar and consultant, urbanist and visual historian. Her current work focuses on the intersections between heritage, memory, space, urban transformation and social justice. She convenes the MPhil programme in Conservation of the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town’s School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics. Naomi asked how spatial heritage practice can play a role in cities that are in urgent need of transformation.


Vaughn Sadie is a conceptual artist and educator and is interested in participatory art practice as a tool to understand social contexts, with a specific interest in the governance arrangements that form through the implementation of projects. Vaughn reflected on his experience as an embedded researcher in the Arts & Culture Branch in the City of Cape Town, arguing for the importance of participatory processes in cultural planning.


The second panel explored the role of intangible, social, living and arts-based histories in urban development, and in pursuing socio-spatial and cultural justice in cities still struggling with legacies of colonialism and apartheid.


The first speaker, Wendy Wilson is an independent architectural heritage practitioner engaged in the research, analysis, documentation of, safeguarding the cultural significance of places and structures in the built environment. She has a particular interest the inter-disciplinary themes of post-colonial urbanism, living heritage and spatial redress in re-imagining the built environment. Wendy presented on the invisible layers of social, cultural, economic and political heritage on the Grand Parade.


Rosca Warries is a photographer and curator turned urban scholar and is interested in role of the urban aesthetics in belonging. She presented on her research focusing on the role of street art and graffiti in city-making, arguing that the visual narratives on city walls shapes how people identify with place. She reflected on how the graffiti by-law has created a legislative environment that favours elite interests and aesthetics.


Deirdre Prins-Solani is an intangible heritage expert, who believes that once ‘see-ing’ the ghosts of a colonial and apartheid past – we cannot un-see it and are called to work towards spatial justice. Deirdre reflected on how engaging with memoryscapes, and the interior worlds, particularly of women, can offer counter-colonial engagements with urban planning and urban design processes.


Rike Sitas, a researcher on the Whose Heritage Matters project, closed the double panel by reflecting on the preliminary findings of the project. Drawing on interviews, she discussed the conflicts and contradictions in defining cultural heritage; critiqued narrow economic arguments predominantly linked to tourism; unpacked social implications of belonging; and proposed some tactics for a praxis and enquiry that leverages cultural heritage for urban justice.


Both panels raised vital and timeous questions about the relationship between cultural heritage and land, labour and liveability. Cultural heritage debates are stubbornly limited and stuck in narrow frames, and asserting the importance of new economic arguments that don’t replicate unequal labour practices that “produces the same master/servant relationships again: black people will be sweeping the floors and pouring the tea, white people will be running the tour companies and there will be an overseas tour company that has the wherewithal as to whether they bring or don’t bring people in”. The discussions revolved not only about the tensions and trade-offs, but also drew on examples where cultural heritage is moving towards more just ends.


The Op Ed entitled ‘Braai, the beloved country: The impossible burden of heritage’, written by Naomi, Maurietta and Rike, drew on the discussions in the panels to pose a challenge to narrow framings of cultural heritage in public discourse.