Title: Mbeki: Site visit to Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (01/09/2002)

1st September 2002

Date: 01/09/2002
Source: The Presidency
Title: Mbeki: Site visit to Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site during WSSD


Your Excellency, Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan,
Honourable Ministers,
Premier Shilowa,
Professor Tobias, Dr Clarke and Vice-Chancellor Reid,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is my pleasure to welcome everybody, especially our visitors from outside South Africa, to this World Heritage Site, the Cradle of Humankind - Sterkfontein and Environs.

As you know, this place is one of four World Heritage Sites in South Africa together with Robben Island, the St Lucia Wetlands and the Drakensberg/Ukhahlamba mountain range. These Sites, as well as others across the length and breadth of this country, represent the rich and diverse history, not only of South Africa, but also of the African continent and the rest of the world.

In many ways, South Africa is a microcosm of the world. Together with other sister countries on the continent, South Africa is the library of the history of the Earth. This place that we stand on is one of the monuments that are endowed with the deepest, most comprehensive and oldest records of the evolution of the Earth, of life in its primitive and modern forms and the beginning and evolution of humanity.

Unavoidably, for us to understand the significant part of the world we live in, our existence as human beings and the interdependent relations between humans and the planet, we have to scratch not just the collective mind of historians, but also most importantly, the hard surface of the African continent.

The African continent has numerous places where we find large concentrations of rich and unique fossil evidence that reveal so much about humanity and its surroundings. Sterkfontein is one such place.

In 1936, Robert Broom discovered the first pre-human fossil in Sterkfontein and subsequently many remains, dating as far back as 3,5 million years, have been discovered in this important site.

This was after Raymond Dart had, in 1924, made the most important discovery of the existence of human ancestors in Taung in the North West Province of this country. This, as we know, attracted huge world-wide attention to the fossil-rich caves of South Africa and the entire African continent.

Sterkfontein has given and continues to give us hundreds of hominid fossils together with the remains of plants and other animals, and in this way, assists us to reconstruct the life of human ancestors who lived in these areas millions of years ago.

Sterkfontein and similar sites in this country and on our continent, also contain evidence of the early beginnings of tool factories, including that the first-time human ancestors made and controlled fire. Although some of their technologies may appear rudimentary to us today, they were, nevertheless groundbreaking in terms of innovation and expertise. These are the foundations upon which modern technological advancements are based.

Today, we speak many different languages, our beliefs are not the same, and our traditions and customs are dissimilar. Clearly, our geographical spread and the various climates of different parts of the world have ensured diversity in skin colour and hair texture, a consequence of a natural way of adapting to warmer and cooler regions.

Indeed, while there may appear artificial differences in skin, body and facial features between and amongst the peoples of the world, the fact is that we all are of the same ancestry and descendants of the same species.

Some decades ago, there were raging debates about the origin of human ancestors - whether Africa, Europe or Asia was the cradle of humanity.

Thanks to the dedicated and selfless work by many scientists, here and abroad, including Professor Tobias and Dr Clarke who are with us today, we have arrived at an irrefutable fact that Africa is where the first human ancestors emerged, began to walk on two feet and utilised their hands to construct factories and shelters, protected their kith and kin and fought off adversaries.

In this regard, we should extend a special word of appreciation to many outstanding individuals, whose painstaking efforts have ensured that we speak confidently about these important fossils. Amongst these, are people such as Mr Motsumi and Mr Molefe who are responsible for the discovery of some of these fossils.

Even when it had been established beyond any doubt that Africa was the evolutionary centre for the emergence of human ancestors, new questions were raised as to whether the continent continued to be the centre for human evolution and the cradle of modern humans like ourselves.

Many scientists have come up with concrete evidence that demonstrates clearly and unequivocally that people like ourselves have also emerged from Africa, in places such as this one, as well as many other sites like Mokopane Valley in the Limpopo Province, the Florisbad hot-water spring deposit in the Free State Province and many other places throughout this country as well as in other areas across the continent.

This is not information that comes only from African scientists, like those working here at Sterkfontein. Prominent scientists such as Colin Groves and Marta Lahr of the University of Sao Paulo of Brazil as well as Gunter Brauer of University of Hamburg and countless others have made important discoveries about the evolution of modern humans and traced them to Africa.

(Human Beginnings in South Africa, HJ Deacon & Janette Deacon, p89, David Phillips Publishers, 1999).

Accordingly, when we say that this is your home, it is not merely that we want you to relax and enjoy our hospitality, but it is because in reality, this is in many ways a homecoming - a return to our common ancestors.

Sterkfontein also has sites that contain data about the Early, Middle and Late Stone Ages, the Early, and Late Iron Ages as well recent history of the South Africa War, otherwise known also as the Anglo-Boer War.

Furthermore, this place is blessed with a variety and diversity of plants, as well as animals. It is therefore important that as part of the work of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, we have had time to visit Sterkfontein which is an important area that traces the evolution of the significant part of our Earth as well as the interdependence of peoples, plants and animals, thus, in many ways teaching all of us how we can co-exist and ensure enduring prosperity for all species.

The sequence and diversity of evidence that is found here in Sterkfontein and in other sites, belongs not just to South Africans, but also to the whole of humanity. This is the window through which we get a glimpse into our shared past.

Accordingly, although South Africans are preserving and protecting this icon of our evolution and existence through time, this is done on behalf of all humanity and especially as part of our responsibility to retain our collective memory and our duty to the sustainability of our earth as well as our obligation to the future generations.

As South Africans, we are aware of the heavy responsibility on our collective shoulders with regard to the challenges of the preservation of our natural habitat. This is particularly so because of this country's rich living mosaic of remarkable number of mammal, reptile and bird species.

As many botanists and environmentalists keep on reminding us that this is the only country on earth which has, within its boundaries, one of the world's six floral kingdoms - the fynbos region - known as the Cape Florist Region, as well as many other plant species, making this country a leading example with regard to biodiversity.

I am told that only Brazil and Indonesia are known to have biodiversity indices higher than that of South Africa, both of which have been central to the processes that have led us to the World Summit for Sustainable Development.

(Introduction to 'The Magnificent Natural Heritage of South Africa' - Johann Knobel, p9, Sunbird Publishing, 1999).

It is therefore fitting that we have with us the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who on behalf of the peoples of the world is, in a sense, the patron of this Site.

Together, with other leaders and the peoples of the world, we have to ensure that we continue to take practical steps that will help us to protect these important species, which are part of our existence, in a manner that brings about sustainable development.

In this regard, we have to work together, collaborate and form partnerships that will ensure the implementation of the plans that will propel our countries and peoples towards prosperity while preserving our planet.

I am confident that our coming together here is part of the process of building these important partnerships, and I hope and trust that this Valley of Human Ancestors will inspire and guide us as we face the challenges of our modern world.

I thank you.

Issued by The Presidency
1 September 2002