In July of 2019, the chief archeologist of the National Park Service, Stan Bond, experienced an incredible cultural exchange during an itinerary-packed two weeks in South Africa. Sponsored by the US Embassy in South Africa, the trip created a unique opportunity for the National Park Service and South Africa’s National Parks agency, SANParks, to share experiences, exchange ideas, and strengthen the partnership between the two countries by focusing on conservation and cultural heritage preservation at a global level.
The two-week trip was filled with visits to breathtaking national parks, various opportunities to exchange knowledge through presentations and lectures, and gaining a new perspective from another country. As a result of the exchange, SANParks, will implement specific actions to enhance their approach to preserving the unique cultural heritage in their parks.
SANParks is considering ways to improve both preserving and sharing South Africa’s rich cultural history and heritage with the world from the local to international communities. Similar to the National Park Service’s commitment to exploring ways to tell a more representative story, reaching new audiences, and involving more groups in stewardship of public lands, SANParks is looking for more ways to engage local communities to visit the park and get involved in stewardship of the country’s unique resources. Highlighting the cultural treasures within parks may draw more involvement with all South Africans in their public lands, as well as boost economic benefits for gateway communities outside park boundaries..
National parks in South Africa are internationally known for their iconic wild animals roaming the beautiful landscape, which has traditionally guided the visitor experience and resource protection. With wildlife freely strolling through the parks, most park visitors stay in vehicles or are accompanied by rangers with rifles for safety when exiting the vehicle. It presents a unique challenge for visiting cultural sites within South Africa’s national parks, one of the many factors Stan discussed when meeting with park officials, cultural resource experts, media, and students.
“I always enjoy meeting with students, and the anthropology students at the University of Pretoria were eager to learn about NPS projects,” Stan said. “Students were especially interested in site documentation, looting issues, and outreach to youth groups and local communities. Archeologists don’t often do TV or live radio, so media events were both fun and nerve-wracking.”
With an eventful two weeks and a wonderful cultural exchange, SANParks and the National Park Service have strengthened their partnership. Since the visit, SANParks will implement a number of tangible actions:
SANParks plans to hire two full-time archaeologists for Kruger and Mapungubwe National Parks, whereas traditionally they have not had any cultural resource specialists on staff until recently in their national headquarters. The increased cultural resource staff will enable more protection and interpretation of cultural resources, as well as create more connections and engagement with local communities.
SANParks would like to host another National Park Service representative to help them shape the visitor experience of Mapungubwe National Park so that it includes highlighting important cultural sites that visitors are unable to visit on foot.
Plans for SANParks to set up a cultural heritage learning continuum are underway for park employees involved in fields related to cultural heritage, such as heritage resources, education and community outreach, park guides, and facilities workers. The training will help employees understand everyone’s roles in safeguarding and sharing the country’s precious cultural resources.
Representatives from SANParks hope to visit national parks in the US to continue an exchange of park management ideas and experiences.
Stan also had many takeaways and things to consider from his experience meeting with numerous park employees, subject matter experts, and students that he met on his trip to South Africa. He was particularly interested in the shared or similar histories of both countries and how sites of memory or consciousness are interpreted and used by visitors. The strong connection of cultural resources to the heritage of local communities in South Africa was also something that may help the National Park Service in its work with cultures affiliated with parks in the US.
Learn more about the National Park Service's international programs promoting preservation and understanding of natural and cultural heritage around the world. View more photos from Stan's trip to South Africa in the gallery below.