King Cetswayo Ka Mpande

The return of artifacts to their countries of origin is perceived by many as a milestone to recoup art, lost during times of conflict or by cultural appropriation. 

This article aims to briefly discuss restitution with special reference to South Africa. This subject is nuanced by a myriad possibilities, apart from our complex history, interpretation and current thinking.  I comment on our museum culture and the practicalities and costs of restitution. Finally, I probe whether restitution is essential or if other opportunities would do.


“..The political emancipation of people cannot be considered complete until they retrieve those objects that bear witness to their identity, genius and civilization.” Moulifera. T. 1979:10

Written by Moulifera in the late ‘70s, the concepts embodied in these words and those of others, trickled round the globe to become a tsunami, influencing change in collection policies, museum culture, and disrupting the art trade in Africa, especially in the last 2 decades.

The word Restitution, implies the returning of items lost, stolen or misplaced to their countries of origin. Within our context stolen or lost, are items taken as spoils of war i.e.: (during the Anglo-Zulu wars, that would require negotiation with the international Museums concerned).

But after 1950, pieces may be labelled missing, often sold to collectors substantiated by documentation. But all decisions for the restitution process rest with South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA) in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) act 25, 1999.  Chapter 2:1.3.2 states that: an object or collection of which sahra deem it necessary to control may be declared a heritage object. Any decisions, of necessity would be approached in a balanced manner, comprising skilled academic opinion and discourse regarding the importance and choice of items to be returned.

Recovering artwork internationally as part of restitution, is a complex process and is without prescribed solutions and furthermore the elusiveness of cultural boundaries is stated by Coombe and Turcotte, 2012: 276:  “ .. the term cultural heritage has no single definition internationally and definitions have substantially shifted and evolved during the latter part of 20th century”.

Several contrasting views drive the current discourse regarding repatriation and restitution of art. All are pertinent: Archaeologist Brodie. N, supports repatriation and in his prolific articles, states that when a piece is removed from its location, the context is destroyed and in spite of who possess it now, ownership of it, remains with the host country. This concept would appeal to some African countries like Nigeria, but others may differ from the above Western archaeologists views. While the concept of restitution is enticing, the practicalities and financial investment of this process may outweigh expectations where some prioritize more pressing social issues.

Cuno. J, President of the Getty Museum, L.A.  in an audio, who owns culture? 2007, proposes that antiquities are the common heritage of mankind, rather than property of nation states and is in favour of encyclopaedic museum practice. This is logical when one considers the geographic relocation of populations, and forthcoming education needs all over the world.

One can also speculate on how restitution would be perceived in the future?

According to Coombe and Turcotte 2012:276 “Many societies value intangible heritage passed down over generations more than the physical manifestations of this heritage …”.  The restitution process is lengthy, sometimes taking more than 10 years and the challenge then lies in re-inserting lost heritage, with the requisite sensitivity and care back into a society that clearly has moved on.  One of the questions to ask ourselves regarding tangible heritage is .. Will generations in the future, with a digital age mind-set still find these physical items of relevance, or will a national database of images, accessible from mobile phones suffice?

Post restitution, rights of ownership are generally appraised by valid authentication and claims of significance by relevant parties and the process includes establishing possession by descent.  In South Africa this is uncertain, as pieces were anonymous, many without documentation and in numerous instances the families of possible owners resettled elsewhere, making research and establishing ownership or origin problematic.

Would restitution of particular items lead to partisan preference? C and T propose that the political power of a community may determine how heritage is valuedSo, claims may become politicized, furthering aspirations of a group, but:

“…Linking issues of cultural heritage to human rights principals of self-determination makes the issues of indigenous political participation in heritage a central one”. C &T 2012:275


Restitution could be a healing process, repairing our identity, preserving our creative past and empowering future generations.  Our conservative recourse then to storing and protecting our heritage, lies in developing museums.

In response to the question of sufficient museum availability in South Africa, Tiley-Nel, Chief Curator of the Mapungubwe collection and Museum Manager of the University of Pretoria said this particular museum is not included in the Cultural Institutions Act, receiving no government funding and is thus unable to process an influx of restituted items. As responsible stewards, they enlarge their existing collections only according to this policy.

This implies then outsourcing items to other museums.

Tiley-Nel states there are 375 registered museums in South Africa, many not complying with the basic requirement of belonging to the South African Museum Association,(SAMA) placing them beyond effective curatorial and management guidelines.

Museum necessities may seem obvious, but the basic structures would include secure facilities, storage, fumigation, an archival hub and appropriate security. Without many of these facilities the Mapungubwe Interpretation centre (SANparks in Limpopo), cost R40 million to design, with no operating costs to maintain displays.

Other museums are privately funded. Like the Phansi museum in Durban or the Brenthurst in Johannesburg. The new Javett – U.P. museum in Pretoria, cost 223 million to design. A privately run museum in Mpumalanga, in an existing building cost R1 million to refurbish and R500 000 to run annually. Predominant museum expenses lie in the long term management, maintenance, and curatorial cost in perpetuity.

Organizations like ICOM (The International Council for Museums) offer crucial guidance. Museum policy requires qualified staff maintaining national museum standards and benchmarks and for this reason, University of Pretoria introduces in 2019 a graduate course on conservation, preservation and curatorship of tangible heritage within the Humanities Department.

Currently the South African Natural Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999, is ineffective, as there is no definition of either what is deemed adequate security or curatorship. Guidelines are offered but not gazetted and there is no monitoring, implementation or consequences for those not complying.

The reality is we live in a country with constant crime. Museums are often underfunded. Returning items to the maws of these institutions is no guarantee of success, as precedence of theft occurred at 14 significant institutions since 2010, that I briefly list.

  1. Academy of Science and Art. Pretoria.
  2. Johannesburg Art Gallery.
  3. Manor House and Iziko Museum.
  4. Totius House, Potchefstroom.
  5. Pretoria Art Museum.
  6. Museum Africa.       2013. Municipal Art Gallery. Mbombela.
  7. Museum Africa.       2014. Historical Museum. Fort Beaufort.   2014 Museum. East London.                     2014. Graaf Reinet Museum.     2015.  Talana Museum in Dundee KZN.                            2016.    U.C.T. Artworks valued at R700 000 were destroyed by protesters so besides theft, museums also fall foul to destruction
  8. Kruger National Park. Thulamela gold collection – national heritage stolen.

With reference to the latter, while insurance assists with theft recovery or pays for private investigation, nothing replaces the country’s irreplaceable National Heritage.

The complexity of this issue is that the motive of art theft in this country is not, as occurs overseas, for resale to private collectors, but also that metallic items are melted down, and their original relevance obliterated.

So for theft from institutions, a policy of open disclosure be implemented and documented when stolen objects are logged on databanks with Sahra, Interpol and Icom.

The requirement here is also a basic investment in the education of what national heritage is and means to the state, its citizens and future generations. The loss of irreplaceable heritage impacts income generation from the tourist industry in perpetuity.

One of the advantages of an extended lengthy restitution process is that it allows the relevant expertise to be trained, adequate premises to be established and policies to be instituted for future museums.

However one may also question why African countries be dictated to regarding current Western trends or can we rely on more inventive home-grown solutions to prevail?  The expenditure required by the restitution process may just as well be better spent developing our contemporary art and craft industry.

Furthermore, I propose that it is constructive that South African artwork lodged internationally be exhibited and maintained in museums in these countries, advertising the rich cultural diversity of Southern Africa, enjoyed by all viewers thereby stimulating foreign tourism to this country.  Documentation accompanying displays could educate all audiences regarding the relevant aesthetics, history and moral dilemmas experienced by humble craftspeople working in isolation during the apartheid years.

January 2019 ©






Tilley-Nel. S. Interview regarding museum culture. 14/06/2018. University of Pretoria. Pretoria




Appiah. K. 2006. Who’s culture is it. New York review books 52(2) Feb 9. 2006 38-41

Brodie. N.  Kerstel. M. Luke. C. Tubb. K. 2006. In Archaeology, Cultural heritage and the antiquities trade. University press. Florida.

Brodie. N.  Doole. J and Renfrew. C. (eds) 2001. Trade in illicit antiquities the destruction of the worlds’ archaeological heritage- Cambridge Macdonald inst.

Brodie. N. Doole. J. & Watson. P. 2000.  Stealing history: the illicit trade in cultural material. Commissioned by ICOM.U.K and Museums Association. The Macdonald Institute. Cambridge.

Coombe. R. & Turcotte. J. 2012:272/7 Indigenous Cultural Heritage in development & trade: Perspectives from the dynamics of cultural heritage law and policy in: International trade in Indigenous cultural heritage. Ed: Graber.C, Kaprecht, Lai, J. Edward Elgar Publishers ltd. U. K.

Cuno. J. 2008. Who owns antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient Heritage. Princeton University Press.

Duus. P. 2016. Unpublished document. From archetypes to actors. The impact of the repatriation movement and museum displays of Native America. Department of Anthropology, Vassar College.

Robson. E. Treadwell. L. Gosden. C. 2006. Who owns objects? – The ethics and politics of collecting cultural artefacts.  Oxford-oxbow books