His tune became a hit around the world as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” but he slept on a dirt floor, died penniless and was buried without a headstone. It was more than 40 years later that the family of Solomon Linda, an illiterate Zulu who grew up herding cattle, won compensation from Disney for the song that helped make it millions in The Lion King.

This infamous case is just the tip of the iceberg, according to politicians in South Africa, who are debating legislation to protect “traditional knowledge” — everything from beadwork and dolls to folk songs and plants with medicinal properties — from commercial exploitation. “South Africa, like many countries, has a history of intellectual property misappropriation by both individuals and organisations,” Derek Hanekom, Science and Technology Minister, said in June.

“With a few notable exceptions, it is unfortunate that many big corporations continue to ignore their moral and legal obligations to seek prior informed consent and to share benefits that result from their use of the knowledge and genetic resources of indigenous communities.” The governing African National Congress (ANC) has proposed an amendment to current intellectual property laws. But the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) says these do not go far enough, and in April introduced the protection of traditional knowledge bill.

Wilmot James, the DA’s shadow minister of trade and industry, said: “It is necessary to protect the intellectual property of South African communities, such as the Ndebele patterns and traditional songs, from theft.” This week, however, ANC members of a parliamentary committee voted down the DA’s bill, underlining how slow progress on the issue has been since the end of apartheid nearly 20 years ago.

The most recent high profile case of property misappropriation revolved around hoodia, a plant used by the indigenous Khoisan people for thousands of years to suppress hunger and thirst. Scientists isolated its active ingredient and licensed its use to a U.K.-based pharmaceutical company to produce a weight loss drug. But following objections, an agreement to share benefits was reached.

Experts warn, however, that traditional culture is still often seen as up for grabs. This can include lullabies that find their way into the music of local and international artists or the Ndebele tribe’s distinctive dolls now being made in China. But Nomboniso Gasa, a researcher and analyst of cultural issues, warns that politicians could be blundering into a legal minefield. Gasa defended artists, such as Miriam Makeba and Paul Simon, who have been inspired by traditional material. “A law might limit and suffocate artists in their particular creative genre,” she said. “We need a much richer conversation.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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