This paper argues that traditional knowledge is produced in a specific social context and employed by lay people in their everyday lives. It is intertwined with every facet of culture and is the result of how community members have come to understand themselves in relation to their natural, social and spiritual environment. Among the peoples of the world there is not always a clear distinction between the natural, the cultural and the supernatural and hence, between the living and the non-living.
Traditional knowledge expresses both an epistemological and ontological dynamic – knowing and relational. In sub-Saharan Africa the indigenous relation with the world (the natural, cultural and supernatural) is rather one of relating than knowing. In the African context, relating is in fact a spiritual process which means that traditional knowledge is more than just the acquisition of information as spiritual, ethical and moral dimensions are included. This means that the conservation of material heritage resources cannot be considered without taking into account the cultural values, beliefs and practices in which they are embedded. In fact, in particularly the last two decades it has become generally recognized that traditional knowledge supports intangible cultural heritage (ICH). The awareness of this relation was set by UNESCO in 2003 with its adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The intention was to oblige member states to implement protective mechanisms of control and management over intangible cultural heritage (ICH). The extent to which member states have succeeded in implementing control over management and benefits derived from safeguarding ICH is not clear.
Since many traditional knowledge systems in Africa are in danger of becoming marginalized because of rapidly changing natural environments and resulting socio-cultural effects this paper will give particular attention to the way in which traditional knowledge practices can play a role in the management and sustainability of built heritage resources. In the face of globalization and the impacts on inter alia indigenous authority systems, the paper illustrates how indigenous management practices and western democratic principles can be combined to manage and sustain material (natural) heritage resources.
In addition the paper investigates whether traditional knowledge is adequately protected by the international convention on intangible cultural heritage and whether the protection of traditional knowledge (materially) benefit the communities as owners. Likewise the ability and extent to which the national and/or provincial governments in South Africa and their agencies (cf. SAHRA) have identified and managed to protect heritage resources by means of the recognition of traditional knowledge is also investigated.
In the last instance the paper gives attention to the concept of traditional knowledge as a form of commons. More specifically the question that has to be addressed is whether the protection of traditional knowledge through indigenous property law creates artificial scarcity, infringing on the rights of others to own and use it. The principle point of departure in addressing this question is that in any discussion at a legislative level of intangible cultural heritage, issues of ownership, cultural autonomy, self-determination, and human rights, must be taken into consideration.