ONLINE: The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre in Limpopo. Mapungubwe developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century, and the new Sahris portal contains more information on it. Picture: PETER RICH ARCHITECTS
ONLINE: The Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre in Limpopo. Mapungubwe developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century, and the new Sahris portal contains more information on it. Picture: PETER RICH ARCHITECTS

A NEW online heritage resource portal, Sahris, will catalogue the thousands of historical sites in South Africa and millions of artefacts in museums, and allow developers to track the heritage assessments of their development plans.

South Africa has a wealth of historical sites, fossils, ruins and artefacts, but previously all this information had been held by the national and provincial heritage authorities. This made it laborious to find information and difficult for developers to track their heritage assessments.

"This is the first system worldwide where you can read about (heritage) developments in your own country," says Nic Wiltshire, project manager of Sahris at the South African Heritage Resources Agency. The agency falls under the Department of Arts and Culture.

"There is also a full, integrated geographic-information-system platform in the same system. You can track environmental management, mining projects, anything to do with heritage applications."

The National Heritage Resources Act of 1999 aimed to "introduce an integrated and interactive system for the management of the national heritage resources … an integrated system for the identification, assessment and management of the heritage resources of South Africa".

"Objects management (in museums) is only a small component, although the number (of artefacts) is large. There are at least a million, or 2-million, archaeological sites in the country. So far, we’ve only recorded about 100,000 … It will be the largest archaeological site archive in the country, including all declared sites, as well as sites from provincial and old databases," Mr Wiltshire says.

For a property developer, "there are certain criteria that trigger a (heritage) assessment, such as the proposed development being larger than 5,000m²", says Jaco van der Walt, founder of Heritage Contracts and Archaeological and an accredited cultural resource management consultant.

"By law, they need to do a phase one archeological assessment. The portal will (also) put developers in contact with people like me."

Mr Wiltshire says property owners can also access information about previous developments. "They can get all the information ever collected on their ground."

When asked if heritage laws were adhered to, he says: "It is not a complete cowboy country out there. There is quite strong compliance, (because) the heritage leg is quite closely tacked on to gross end compliance."

Alex Schoeman, an archaeologist at Wits University and a member of the Association of South African Professional Archaeologists (Asapa), says the portal is "absolutely brilliant".

"It used to be quite a slow process to get information to us (Asapa sits on the heritage agency committee), to make decisions about whether a permit should be granted. Now it’s immediate — documentation, motivations, it’s all there," Mr Schoeman says. "It’s also easier to get a permit. You don’t have to follow (the agency), you can do it online."

It also helps archeologists because "in the long term, it will be a database of sites in the area that you do research … it combines data for all the agencies, world and national heritage and provincial agencies", she says.

However, it has taken more than 10 years for the integrated database to be created. When asked why, Mr Wiltshire says at first there was a public engagement and research period — which cost about R5m — but the initial quote was too expensive.

"The open-source market wasn’t as developed as it is today. The quote was for R50m, and the South African Heritage Resource Agency couldn’t afford it."

But now "we haven’t spent a cent on software development. I recommended we use the Drupal content management system," he says, noting that it is open-source code with more than 700,000 developers working on it. "We applied it, instead of coding (a new portal). It was just me and we were able to keep it in-house."

But despite the enthusiasm of people within heritage circles, Mr Wiltshire says the site has only attracted about 800 users so far. He is hoping the number will rise.

"Once registered, you can comment on any case … and there are tutorials on YouTube and for download" to help people navigate the site, he says.