Outrage over mining at world heritage site

22 March 2016 at 08:00am

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Cape Town – A spotlight has fallen on the inaction and apparent indifference of the country’s heritage protector, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra), for its failure to prevent the partial destruction of one of the world’s oldest dated archaeological sites in a hastily mobilised mining operation.

While Sahra remained silent, a devastated national and international archaeological fraternity mounted a desperate bid – including legal action at their own cost and a petition – to save what they could of the Canteen Kopje heritage site outside Barkly West in the Northern Cape.

The site, declared a national monument nearly 70 years ago, is the country’s oldest dated site and has since earned international scholarly attention for yielding a stone tool sequence from 2.3 million years ago.

But its ancient and historic gravel also contains diamonds.

An attempt to launch an alluvial diamond mining operation on a portion of the site in 2014 – with a permit from the Department of Minerals and Energy – was scuppered when Sahra was alerted, and succeeded in imposing a cease-work order.

Inexplicably – to the outraged archaeological fraternity – that order was lifted this month and, since Wednesday, Windsorton-based black economic empowerment company, Jacky Wesi Mining has been working rapidly, managing by Friday to gouge a pit estimated at up to 20m deep and 2 500m2 in extent. Public access to the site has been blocked. The area fenced by the mining company includes current excavation sites by scientists from Wits University and the University of Toronto.

The Northern Cape High Court on Saturday afternoon granted an interim interdict to stop the mining – but much damage has already been done.

Archaeologists are shocked at Sahra’s lack of interest or action. The agency was alerted on Wednesday, but appears to have done nothing since.

Neither its chief executive nor its media spokesman either acknowledged or responded to repeated Weekend Argus requests for comment on Friday and Saturday. Similarly, Department of Mineral Resources media and regional officials have not responded.

The lure of diamonds has a bitter history in the Northern Cape, featuring large in the annals of dispossession and exploitation. Barkly West used to be called Klipdrift, once a key centre of the diamond rush to the river diggings of the late 1800s.

In what appears to be an ironic replay of the cowboy capitalism of the digger days – events that played a key role in forging southern Africa’s modern history, propelling magnates such as Cecil John Rhodes to the commanding heights of the region’s political economy – archaeologists say the pursuit of short-term profit is imperilling the public interest.

In social media posts and online reports, archaeologists and others have expressed alarm and grave disappointment at the events outside Barkly West.

The theme of much commentary is summed up in this post by archaeology writer Neil Rusch: “It represents a direct contravention of the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) (Act 25 of 1999). What is standing in the way of the South African Heritage Agency getting a court interdict? Apparently there is no interdict. This is shocking. If it is true that Sahra is not acting decisively to protect heritage then this amounts to a dereliction of their duty.”

The man who raised the alarm on Wednesday, Dr David Morris, head of archaeology at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley and extraordinary professor at the city’s Sol Plaatje University, commented on Saturday: “We’re failing… digging is proceeding full steam. This is the destruction of Africa’s heritage.”

Morris – who, with fellow archaeologist Dr George M Leader of the University of Pennsylvania, is the joint holder of a research permit for the site – said Canteen Kopje was of national and international significance, containing “evidence of a very long sequence of human history from Earlier Stone Age times to the 19th century, including the neglected history of local people”.

It was “one of the richest archaeological sites for the early stage of human evolution in southern Africa” and had attracted researchers from around the world, and was part of the new Sol Plaatje University’s training programme.

“There is interest by an international funding agency to help to protect the site which has long-term developmental potential for facilitating heritage skills, jobs and tourism.

By contrast, mining of the site would be destructive, of short and finite duration, and have limited impact on poverty alleviation.”

Morris was concerned that “what has happened at Canteen Kopje this week sets a serious precedent for South African heritage. If the heritage authority fails to insist on the requirements of the act then the integrity of the authority and the efficacy of the act itself will have been compromised.

“The mining of Canteen Kopje will result in the irreversible destruction of an invaluable cultural and scientific resource.”

Leader wrote of the despair of waking up “to the news that your archaeological site (which contains a stone tool sequence from 2.3 million years all the way to modern day) is being mined away for diamonds”.

In other reaction:

* Scott MacEachern, president of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists said in a written plea to Vusithemba Ndima, acting director-general of the Department of Arts and Culture: “Across the globe, professors of archaeology (like me) teach their students about sites like this: as South Africa continues to occupy its rightful place upon a world stage, Canteen Kopje and archaeological sites like it remind people in other countries that this is where humanity began.”

* Professor Michael Chazan of the University of Toronto, who also excavates at the site, set up a website to assist with the scientists’ call for action against this threat at www.canteenkopje.com/contacts.html.

Only last year, South Africa revelled in the spotlight at the discovery of Homo naledi, but archaeologists fear the country’s ability to properly protect its heritage resources is being cast in doubt by the Canteen Kopje scandal.

Weekend Argus

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