World Heritage Site for Maritzburg?

2010-02-24 00:00

THE year 2010 will undoubtedly go down in the annals of South African history as the year this country, and the African continent, hosted its first Soccer World Cup. But after the final whistle blows on July 11, all attention will turn towards the 150th anniversary since Indians arrived in South Africa aboard the Truro. And with this, one Mahatma Karamchand Gandhi, one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world, will once again take centre stage.

Pietermaritzburg is in the enviable position of having strong ties with Gandhi. When asked on his 70th birthday in 1939 to single out the experience that most changed his life, Gandhi said:

“I recalled one experience that changed the course of my life. … There was the railway journey. … On the train, I had a first-class ticket, but not a bed ticket. At Maritzburg, when the beds were issued, the guard came and turned me out, and asked me to go into the van compartment. I would not go. … My active nonviolence began­ from that date.”

This incident that Gandhi talks about is the infamous episode when he was thrown off a train at the Pietermaritzburg Station after he refused to move from a whites-only compartment. After being unceremoniously dumped onto the platform, he sent a telegram of protest the next morning to the general manager of the railways from the Pietermaritzburg Post Office. From the platform of the Pietermaritzburg Station, Gandhi dusted himself off and launched his campaign of passive resistance, the likes of which the world has never seen.

The platform at Pietermaritzburg Station should therefore be seen as a politically symbolic platform and commemorated so that generations to come may never forget one of the world’s greatest leaders. One way to achieve this is through proposing that the Pietermaritzburg Station become a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation­ (Unesco) World Heritage Site.

South Africa is home to eight of the world’s official heritage sites, as determined by Unesco’s World Heritage Committee. The committee seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage sites around the world considered to be of “outstanding value to humanity”. South Africa’s World Heritage Sites are:

• iSimangaliso Wetland Park (1999), KwaZulu-Natal;

• Robben Island (1999), Western Cape;

• Cradle of Humankind (1999, 2005), Gauteng and North West;

• uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park (2000), KZN;

• Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape (2003), Limpopo;

• Cape Floral Region (2004), Western and Eastern Cape;

• Vredefort Dome (2005), Free State and North West; and

• Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical­ Landscape (2007), Northern Cape.

While this may sound impressive, it is worth noting that internationally there are 851 World Heritage Sites in 141 countries. Furthermore, countries like India have 27 World Heritage Sites, Mexico 29, France 33, China 38, Spain 41 and Italy 44.

So how should one go about proclaiming the Pietermaritzburg Station a World Heritage Site? The first step a country must take is to make an inventory of its important cultural and natural heritage sites. This becomes known as the “tentative list”, which acts as a template for countries when they are deciding which sites to submit for inscription. It is an important step because the World Heritage Committee cannot consider a nomination unless it has been included on the tentative list.

The Pietermaritzburg Station satisfies two of the 10 criteria on the World Heritage Committee’s list of requirements for qualification, namely:

• to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation which is living or which has disappeared;

• to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions­, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria.)

And since KZN was last awarded a Unesco World Heritage Site 10 long years ago, and this is the 150th anniversary since Indians arrived in South Africa, there will never be a better time than 2010 to push for a third World Heritage Site in KZN. It will do wonders for local tourism, it will help conserve one of Pietermaritzburg’s architectural jewels, but most of all, it will honour one of the world’s greatest leaders.

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