African Studies Research Seminar - Understanding the Cultural Cost of Development in South Africa

Conveners: Rebekah Lee and Miles Tendi

Speaker: Rachel King (University College London and University of the Witwatersrand)

Understanding the Cultural Cost of Development in South Africa

What are heritage and development worth, respectively, when these exist in opposition? Decades of experiences on the African continent have demonstrated that where cultural resources are impacted by infrastructure building and resource extraction the stakes are high for government representatives, international financial institutions, developers, researchers, and (most of all) affected communities. At issue is not just the question of what to preserve and what to let go, but how these experiences shape citizens’ relationships to the state, the past, and each other. The diversity of these impacts has been difficult to capture across the continent owing to the patchiness of legislation and documentation standards, but South Africa’s investment in an open access database of heritage salvage projects and well-defined legislation offers unique insights into how governments, publics, and funders have managed the past to secure a just future. This talk presents outcomes of a multi-modal approach utilising historical, ethnographic, and computational methods to understand the cultural cost of development in South Africa since 1999 – the first attempt at a long-term analysis of these processes. It will focus on effects on the national estate of the dead – cases in which the state and its subcontractors have taken responsibility for caring for ancestors and their descendants, and which disclose varied experiences of risk, restitution, and decoloniality. 


Rachel King is Associate Professor of Cultural Heritage Studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, and an Honorary Researcher at the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. She is Principal Investigator on the AHRC- and Leverhulme Trust-funded Impact Heritage Project, and author of Outlaws, Anxiety, and Disorder: Material Histories of the Maloti-Drakensberg (Palgrave, 2019) and The Neoliberalisation of Heritage in Africa (CUP, forthcoming).