21 September 2023 | Story Motsaathebe Serekoane | Photo supplied
Motsaathebe Serekoane
Motsaathebe Serekoane is a Lecturer and BSocSc Programme Director, Department of Anthropology, UFS.

Opinion Article by Motsaathebe Serekoane, Lecturer and BSocSc Programme Director, Department of Anthropology, University of the Free State.

It is our heritage space; it is my private property: the challenge of access to heritage sites on privately owned land. 

The Free State's sacred valleys represent not only our heritage space but also private property. This dual nature presents a challenge in terms of gaining access to heritage sites situated on privately owned land.

Following the enactment of the country's constitution in 1996, segregation boundaries were abolished, granting public access to spaces that were once restricted. Evidence indicates an increase in accessibility to spaces that were traditionally exclusive. However, despite the ideals of inclusion and participation enshrined in the Constitution, property ownership practices and the right to restrict access continue to render sacred natural sites inaccessible to pilgrims. 

Sacred natural sites hold spiritual significance for people, transcending intrinsic or instrumental value. They are culturally and historically significant for people seeking to reconnect with their ancestors, undergo spiritual cleansing, receive training in spiritual healing and ask for guidance and forgiveness. For the Basotho people, the natural environment is an aspect of material reality through which the sacred is manifested. As such, they have returned to reclaim sacred spaces through spiritual journeys to sites like Mantsopa at Modderpoort, Mautse and Nkokomohi Valley near Rosendal, Motouleng near Clarens, and Witsie’s Cave in Qwaqwa.

Ownership rights and reserved rights vs access rights

The conflict between farm owners and pilgrims began when the former claimed exclusive ownership rights and reserved rights to access, while the latter only sought access rights without contesting ownership. According to Section 27 Subsection 8 of the National Heritage Resources Act, 25 1999 (NHRA), a site of significance can be nominated for declaration by the provincial or national heritage body. All the relevant sites were nominated at various times over the past decade and received provisional protection, but they were never formally declared. As a result, these sites have only enjoyed informal and provisional formal protection. In the case of informal heritage sites like Mautse and Motouleng, the private property owners have the legal right to deny entry to their properties and, consequently, the sacred sites.

Land regulation, particularly the Enlightenment-era separation of culture from nature, and the introduction of private ownership and commodification of nature in what were once  ‘traditional’ landscapes, in the African context, have placed many of the sacred sites under a terminal threat over the years. The complexities surrounding the sites persist, as seen in the closure of Mautse in 2016 due to a change in farm ownership. In 2020, Motouleng was also closed, with police forcefully evicting pilgrims on-site at the start of the hard lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Furthermore, the structures within Motouleng Cave were destroyed by fire.

In recent years, the recognition of consequences for the affected communities and society at large due to the continued loss of sacred places, along with the role and function of pilgrimage to these sites, and related spiritual practices, has been growing. Urgent action from stakeholders at all levels, from international agencies to the local communities, is increasingly advocated to protect this heritage. The closure or denial of access to sacred sites is spreading rapidly. On 4 August 2023, the following access request was made: 

“We were asking for access to pray by the cave called Lehaha la Makhakha in Bothaville tomorrow. We spoke to the owner, but he refused to give us access. His reason for refusing is that other people are using candles which may cause fire and damage to the property, but we didn’t use candles even on 1 July 2023 we prayed, and no damages were incurred. The neighbourhood watch can attest to that. We have been using the prayer cave since 2016. We ask permission to pray.”

We need to dialogue

The conflict between the right to ownership and the right to access is a complex challenge, not only from the legal point of view but also considering South Africa’s complicated history and the cultural differences and contestations that exist. To address the past inequalities, the NHRA provides for the expropriation, subject to compensation, of private property ‘for conservation or any other purpose under this Act if that purpose is public or is in the public interest’, as outlined in Section 46(1). This aligns with Sections 25(2) and (3) of the Constitution (1996), which specify various conditions and circumstances to be considered regarding compensation amounts. Subsection (4) defines public interest to include “the nation’s commitment to land reform, and to reforms to bring about equitable access to all South Africa’s natural resources”. There is no doubt that the sacred sites serve a public interest, aligning effectively with the theory of commons. This has two implications: firstly, sacred natural sites are a kind of commons that cannot be privatized as they cannot have one exclusive owner. Secondly, sacred natural sites need to possess some kind of public property status to be accessible to all potential visitors who may have relational values regarding that site. 

What does this mean for promises of the Constitution and the National Heritage Resources Act? While we are enjoying a braai, let us also remember we need to dialogue on matters that continue to undermine the realisation of the idealism of heritage as cultural capital. This can help South Africa define its cultural identity, build the nation, affirm our diverse cultures, facilitate healing and material and symbolic restitution, and in doing so, shape our national character. 

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