Legal News
Protection for Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Author: Emmie de Kock - Date: 6 December 2006

South Africa is a country with rich and diverse cultures, histories and belief systems. Indigenous knowledge derives from the practices and ceremonies of South Africa’s indigenous people relating to inter alia culture, arts and music, religion, agriculture, justice, governance and health practices.

Indigenous knowledge is often referred to as traditional or local knowledge to distinguish it from knowledge developed by indigenous communities through international knowledge systems generated by, for example, universities, government projects and private research industries.

Prior 1994, due to South Africa’s social and political history, indigenous knowledge systems had minimum protection. A range of government departments has since taken different initiatives to develop a policy to protect Indigenous Knowledge. The Department of Health Department, for example, developed Traditional Health Practitioners legislation and the Department of Arts and Culture which developed a national language policy and investigated the promotion of and copyright in indigenous music and art forms. The Department of Science and Technology furthermore established a program to support research on medical plants and other aspects.

In November 2004, Cabinet adopted an Indigenous Knowledge System Policy. This policy was submitted by South Africa in April 2006 at Ninth Session of the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore in Geneva. The policy serves as an enabling framework to stimulate and strengthen the contribution of indigenous knowledge to social and economic development in South Africa.

According to the Executive Summary of this policy, the following functions, institutions and legislative provisions will be required to implement the policy:

  • An Advisory Committee on Indigenous Knowledge Systems, reporting to the Minister of Science and Technology
  • A development function, including academic and applied research, development and innovation in respect of the Indigenous Knowledge System
  • A recordal system for indigenous knowledge and indigenous knowledge holders, where appropriate, to pro-actively secure their legal rights
  • The promotion of networking structures among practitioners, to be located in the Department of Science and Technology; and
  • Legislation to protect intellectual property associated with indigenous knowledge, to be administered by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Good protection measures for Indigenous Knowledge Systems in South Africa should bring economic, political and social improvements and advantages to all, especially to previously disadvantage communities. The implementation of the policy is still in progress. Considering the current protection measures available for intellectual property, it would be interesting to see how the recordal systems and possible conflicts with existing registers will be dealt with.


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