People, Places, Policies, Practices: Whose Heritage Matters in Cape Town

By Rike Sitas, African Centre for Cities 

The potential of art, culture and heritage in shaping our cities has captured the imagination of artists, officials, developers and activists alike. Heritage has found its place in local and global policies, in urban plans, in precinct development, in the visual and performing arts, in tourism and heritage-based place making. Although there is a general agreement that heritage is important, what this means is less clear. In particular, how this lands in different contexts can run the risk of creating or exacerbating existing tensions.

The UNESCO Conventions, and a global focus on heritage conservation, have resulted in unintended consequences in many African cities: foregrounding the heritage of some over others; protecting colonial architecture and cultural institutions; conserving essentialist notions of culture and packaging them for external audiences; enabling new nationalist monuments at odds with society; and over-emphasising the economic value of heritage. These kinds of heritage practices tend to prioritise expensive and largely tangible aspects to heritage such as iconic monuments and museums. Despite this sway towards tangible heritage, value for recognizing the importance of intangible heritage is flourishing.

Building on previous research on festivals, ‘we are specifically interested in tangible-intangible entanglements where ‘tangible’ refers to physical sites, buildings and artefacts and ‘intangible’ to practices, representations and expressions that individuals and communities recognize themselves as heritage’ (Perry, Ager & Sitas, 2018: 2). The idea for Whose Heritage Matters was developed as part of an ongoing interest in exploring the role of cultural heritage in promoting more just and sustainable cities, and this is grounded in exploring the intersection of tangible and intangible heritage – paying particular interest into socio-spatial histories.

Cape Town’s place identity is inextricably linked to cultural and natural heritage. Table Mountain is emblematic in the global imagination of Cape Town’s topography. As a UNESCO Design City, creativity is at the forefront of the City’s brand identity. It is also a city fragmented from the social and spatial legacies of colonialism and apartheid. There are iconic and well-resourced tangible heritage initiatives, such as Robben Island and The Castle, but there are also many stories untold. Cultural heritage continues to be a source for cohesion but also for tension, revealing the power dynamics at play in an unequal city.

In April 2019, we hosted a launch seminar in Cape Town. The purpose of the event was to invite academics, city officials, activists and creative practitioners at the inception of the project. Rike Sitas started the seminar by presenting on the context and background to some of the tensions that emerge at the intersection of heritage and urban design. She provided an overview of the policy problems and possibilities, and argued for how this project can feed into strengthening heritage processes and practices as well as southerning urban theory. She ended by proposing how Whose Heritage Matters has the unique opportunity to challenge how we view divisions in cities; reveal marginalised heritage practices; and experiment with new ways of foregrounding heritage in urban development agendas.