Cultural Heritage is Not a Commodity

ngos Hunger Entrepreneurship Heritage Month
Wednesday, 22 September, 2010 - 10:44

South Africa should preserve its heritage and expose its diverse cultures to the world. The ongoing commercialisation of cultural products made by the rural poor is lessening the value of South Africa’s heritage. It is also of concern that economic benefits from the sale of cultural products do not benefit the rural communities in any way. “The authenticity of our cultural heritage has tremendous worth, but not when sterilised and neatly packaged for mass consumer tastes.”

Our Heritage is not a product to be traded - it’s a value to be shared.

Much has been said in the past ten years about the potential for the handcraft industry to ‘make a difference’ in rural communities and for impoverished people. Craft has been flagged as a sector with the potential to uplift those most affected by the ravages of apartheid, especially people who are under-educated and as a result ill-equipped to take advantage of the new dispensation.

However despite considerable effort and many millions of government, international and private money spent, the reality is that little if any benefit is actually accruing to our rural population, and in Heritage Month especially, this is of deep concern.

Collectors of traditional craft and artefacts know that the more remote rural populations often produce the most culturally authentic and beautiful products. It is here, far from the madding crowd and the distraction of our consumer culture that men and women apply themselves to carefully crafting items for their own, or their community’s use. Initiation skirts for young girls, bridal wear and pottery for celebration, hats, bags and even shoes for special occasions. Traditional skills are passed down from generation to generation and embellished with the modern experiences of the maker, yet all follow a well-understood and appreciated tradition and cultural relevance.

In these traditional crafts is our history – the past of who we are expressed through the time-honoured traditions of beading, carving, pottery and weaving. Yet in these crafts are also the potential of our shared future as a nation of people united.

As I write these words I can picture the beautiful initiation skirts and traditional grass-woven ornamental handbags made by the people of Itsipeng village outside QwaQwa, on the border of Free State and Lesotho. Itsipeng has been blessed with a rich traditional heritage, a culture of handcraft and a vibrant community of skilled makers. They have a dedicated craft centre and access to a range of raw materials that occur naturally in the area.

There are two problems with this seemingly idyllic situation. Firstly, the very distance and remoteness that has preserved the heart and soul of this traditional culture, is also the reason why this heritage remains untapped as a resource. Itsipeng is far from anywhere, has no electricity, limited cell-phone coverage and an absence of one commonly spoken language. As a result this rural and impoverished community cannot physically get their products to market in order to sell them for much-needed commercial benefit.

The second problem is that not many consumers in the modern centres and shopping malls have much use for a hand-beaded initiation skirt, or a beautiful but totally impractical grass-woven handbag. The market that is drawn to culturally and historically relevant items that are authentic but otherwise impractical, is very limited to say the least.

This conundrum of distance (sometimes quaintly referred to as ‘being far from the N2’ - an industry code name for rural, rustic and remote) has traditionally been handled in the following way. Firstly, the approach by most development agencies is to do ‘product development’ on the products. This is a process whereby the existing traditional skills are used to make more easily marketable and modernised products, which can be sold in Durban, Johannesburg or even London. The concept is to take the initiation skirts and use this plaiting technique to produce lampshades, or to use the beautiful grass-weaving skills to make table mats or conference bags.

Once product development is complete and the modernised products ready for sale, the producers need to learn how to produce these new items in volume, to order, size and quality. They need to learn to be mini factories for the consumer society.

This is often where the problems set in – the producer of a fine heritage product understands ‘what, why and for whom’ they are making, and take great pride in the end-result. I too would be extra careful when making a skirt if I knew my own grandchild would be wearing it! In contrast though, in the modern product scenario they are expected to manufacture products they do not understand, for people they do not know and for the sole purpose of making money, only a small portion of which they will see.

The end result is often (but not always) disaster and the resultant products are too awful for words – neither filled with the love and authenticity of the original, nor enlivened with the intended excitement and beauty of the modern derivative. In its place we have ugly, poorly made hybrids that are both an embarrassment to the maker and unmarketable to either the community or the broader public.

Those few that do make the transition from traditional heritage to modern interpretation are rare and generally require the input of talented designers and market access support - notable examples would include Gone Rural from Swaziland and perhaps The Wetlands Project in northern KwaZulu-Natal, who successfully supplied local retailers for some time with woven and dyed placemats and other products. Mostly though, this is the exception to the rule and our cultural heritage remains a rural resource that only enriches the hearts and souls but not the pockets of the maker.

There is a different way to do this.

Craft is just one form of expression of heritage – I see it as the ‘take-home’ part of culture, the part that we can use to remind us of our origins, and of life as it used to be – slow, steady, caring and filled with shared community.

There is a growing market of consumers who want to experience the real thing – real people, real celebration, real craft. They want to taste, feel, touch and see heritage taking place. This means bringing the consumer (local and international visitors) to the place where our history remains alive in its original and untainted form.

It is about creating greater access for consumers to reach out to the rural populations – bring people to the product, not the other way around. This involves creating tourism routes for genuine tourism experiences – bringing visitors into rural communities where they can eat, sleep and live like a local. The success of this movement relies on communities being encouraged to be more authentic. To be more genuine with their traditions, cultures, crafts, music and food and to love, care for and nurture their traditions as a way to preserve their presence, whilst earning income from visitors that come to stay. Income can be generated through accommodation, traditional crafting workshops, cultural tours, local foods and indeed the sale of authentic crafts in an environment where their significance and cultural relevance resonate and are contextualised.

Certainly this is not new thinking, and there are a number of organisations such as Fairtrade in Tourism and Open Africa who are promoting this trade in authentic cultural heritage travel experiences. Initiatives such as the Midlands Meander incubator project that seeks to bring the consumer closer to traditionally produced craft, and we are also looking at a similar strategy for the more rural participants in the Legends project, an enterprise development programme we run on behalf of Old Mutual. However, it is a new way of thinking for those who see craft merely as a product that can be traded rather than a value that can be shared.

In this Heritage Month, we need to celebrate that which makes us so unique as a nation. The authenticity of our cultural heritage has tremendous worth, but not when sterilised and neatly packaged for mass consumer tastes. Those seeking an antidote for a fast-paced, soulless and pressurised existence would do well to look to rural communities that have mastered the art of slow living, being in touch with nature and knowing their roots. Let’s learn from them.

Please contact Anton Ressel on or 083 564 4488 for images or to arrange an interview with Catherine.

- Catherine Wijnberg is recognised as a catalyst for her innovative thinking in the field of small business development. She is the Director of Fetola & Associates, a fast growing enterprise development agency that operates throughout Southern Africa, as well as the Fetola Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation made up of individuals with a desire to make an impact in sustainable community development.

Qualified with a Masters degree in Agriculture and an MBA from Henley UK, Catherine has owned and operated small businesses in five different sectors, including agriculture, tourism & craft development.

Contact: 084 668 4603 / 021 701 7466 /

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