Archaeology and Economic Development 2012

Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre South Africa: controversy and renown, successes and shortcomings

In 2001 the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre, based at a rock engraving site outside Kimberley, opened its doors to the public. The Northern Cape Provincial Premier officiated at the opening. Already, though, the project had been enveloped in controversy and contestation between and amongst community factions and government departments. It has since achieved some measure of critical acclaim in various sectors but it draws relatively few visitors, far short of the initial estimates on which sustainability was based. The hoped-for community management model has also failed to match expectations. McGregor Museum subvention in terms of staffing and funding has rescued the site from closure, but subsequent tourism sector ‘improvements’ to boost visitor numbers and, ultimately, revenues for the community, have generated more problems than benefits. 

The experience provides valuable lessons on who is interested in precolonial heritage in post-colonial South Africa, and why. The paper will touch on conflicting notions of heritage as tourism product vs. historical resource. Touristic emphases often stereotype or romanticise, as aspects of ‘culture’, what in reality is rural poverty. It is argued that the worth of the project lies more in engaging visitors in various ways around these issues than in simply addressing the ‘needs’ of the market.

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