Historical Monuments Commission, The


The first work undertaken by the Commission established under the Natural and Historical Monuments Act of 1923 was the compilation of a register of sites and objects of historical value and interest. These included old buildings, military defences, historic sites, game sanctuaries, places of natural beauty or scientific interest as well as prehistoric rock or Bushman paintings and engravings and relics of archaeological, palaeontological and geological interest. A considerable amount of information was collected and schedules were drafted. Yet after seven years, the Commission was unable to report any real progress in the way of actual conservation. Much had been achieved in so far as the greater awakening of public interest and support were concerned, and much valuable advice was given to those who were able to preserve or repair historic landmarks, but the great handicaps were inadequate power and inadequate funds. The Commission had not the power to recommend the proclamation of any structure, site or relic and had to depend on the goodwill of owners for their preservation. A few properties were however acquired; the Commission's bronze badge was affixed to these and certain other sites, one cave was fenced and, with the support of the Department of Public Works, repairs and renovations were carried out on certain Government structures of historic interest. Despite the fact, however, that the Commission laboured under grave difficulties, it was able to do much useful work. Its policy of holding meetings in various centres had a marked effect on the general interest and education of the public throughout the country.

Under the Natural and Historical Monuments, Relics and Antiques Act of 1934 a new Commission was constituted with wider powers than that of its predecessor constituted under the Natural and Historical Monuments Act. It was empowered to recommend the proclamation of any monument, relic or antique. Powers were given to draft regulations for the control of access to proclaimed sites and also to control archaeological and palaeontological excavations. The Commission was also given the power to exercise a more rigid control over the removal and export of antiques and relics, and from every point of view enjoyed greater authority.

The new Commission held its first meeting on 15th July, 1935 and thereafter gave an annual account of its stewardship. On its recommendation, an Amending Act, giving it wider powers, was passed in 1937. Where hitherto only individual objects could be recommended for proclamation, the Amending Act empowered the Commission to recommend the proclamation of groups of objects and also invested the Commission with authority over groups capable of proclamation. Regulations to be adhered to by anyone wishing to export objects capable of proclamation as antiques or to undertake the removal and export of objects capable of proclamation in the fields of archaeology and vertebrate palaeontology were also promulgated. In framing these regulations the sole object of the Commission was to exercise better control over the export of antiques and excavations undertaken for the removal of archaeological and palaeontological specimens. The Commission wished to encourage field work in these sciences but it was determined to put an end to such exploitation and unsystematic excavation as had gone on in the past.

This task was undertaken in collaboration with the Archaeological Survey. The number of sites recorded in 1935 was just over 800. Within five years a thousand unrecorded sites had been added to the total and were published by the Director of the Archaeological Survey in 1941. The schedules of sites and explanatory text were accompanied by a map on which the position of every known site was indicated. By 1972 the number of sites recorded was well over 2,000.

The Commission also undertook a survey of old Cape homes and listed over 300 properties of architectural and aesthetic, as well as historical, interest.

While, in its first 15 years, the surveys of prehistoric art galleries and old Cape homes were in progress the Commission had 126 sites proclaimed as historical monuments, 106 bronze badges, 79 inscribed plaques, 68 warning notices and 56 protective fences erected, and 47 individual surveys completed.

The Commission achieved a great part of its aim of preserving South African historical heritage during the 45 years of its existence. At the end of its term the Commission has had some 300 sites and buildings proclaimed, had erected nearly 200 bronze commemorative plaques and put up fences and notice boards or taken other active steps for the preservation of a number of other monuments. Sites attended to by the Commission included geological formations, archaeological and palaeontological sites, caves, examples of prehistoric rock art, early settlements, battlefields, mountains, waterfalls, indigenous flora and even picturesque villages. Buildings included early kraals, trekboer and Voortrekker houses, Cape Dutch and Georgian-style houses and houses of special historical significance, fortifications, public buildings and bridges. By preserving the tangible cultural heritage of the country it also preserved the intangible traditions that gave rise to them.

In 1969 this act was replaced by a National Monuments Act and the Commission replaced by the National Monuments Council.