Celebrating our inheritance


While the world is still grappling with race and ancestry, South Africa celebrates its vibrant and diverse heritage, a result of the multiple cultural groups in our country. Former President Nelson Mandela and his government designated 24 September as National Heritage Day in 1995. It’s a day that serves as a platform to unite South Africans from all cultures and fight the evil inflicted upon the country by the ousted apartheid regime.

The Oxford dictionary defines heritage as “property that is or may be inherited”, “valued things such as historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations” or things that are “of special value and worthy of preservation”. To fully enjoy our collective inheritance, we have Heritage Day, which recognises and celebrates all cultural aspects of our country and uses the differences that created division among us during the apartheid era to heal and unite us. South Africans are encouraged to celebrate their diverse cultures and embrace the unique beliefs and traditions each culture represents.

The country’s past segregationist apartheid policies sought to divide and conquer the country’s population, but we rose above it and today we take pride in our Rainbow Nation. Part of that pride comes from making a conscious effort to understand our cultural differences through various events staged throughout South Africa in celebration of our blended heritage.

Heritage Day coincides with the commemoration of the day King Shaka died. Until 1994, 24 September was marked as Shaka Day in the homeland of KwaZulu. It was a day when the Zulu nation paid tribute to their late king for his efforts in bringing together all the Zulu clans. In 1995 when the new constitution was taking shape, this commemorative day was omitted from the public holidays’ bill. This angered a faction of members of parliament, specifically those loyal to the Inkatha Freedom Party. Consequently, the government had to reach a compromise, so they opted to create a day that everybody could relate to. The day became known as Heritage Day. Today, this special occasion is one of South African’s most significant days, as it reminds people that the inequities and injustices of the past form a part of the country’s national identity.

In 2005, an initiative called Braai4Heritage took up a campaign calling on all South Africans to “unite around a fire” and share our common heritage: braaiing. They renamed the day National Braai Day. However, it’s a designation recognised more in some sectors or our society than others.

Celebrations are not confined to the 24th only, the whole of September has been declared Heritage Month. During the month, people celebrate through creative expression such as theatrical performances, music, talks on popular historic events and South African food, which of course includes braaiing.

Heritage can be broken down into two types, first there is natural heritage: which is a country’s environment and natural resources, like gold and water. Natural heritage also includes the areas that require protection from harm, such as heritage sites. The other type is cultural heritage, which defines the characteristics or features that give us a sense of identity. It’s what determines the specific demographic, population or community of people we fall under.

This brings us to the most exciting and significant part of unpacking our inheritance. To fully embrace and enjoy who we are as a nation, we need to understand and appreciate what we inherited. South Africa is home to 10 of the world’s official heritage sites, as determined by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s World Heritage Committee. The country has a total of five cultural, four natural and one mixed (cultural and natural) heritage sites. The following are our treasures – some are sacred, while others are cultural sites. They make up 6 of the 10 sites, confirming South Africa as a global hot spot for both cultural and natural treasures.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park, formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, in KwaZulu-Natal has one of the largest estuary systems in Africa. It also has the continent’s southernmost coral reefs. The park has been noted for its exceptional biodiversity, including 521 bird species. This park is made up of many areas, adding up to 220 000 hectares. It supports an abundance of Nile crocodiles and hippos, as well as rhinos (both black and white), elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, waterbucks, kudus, nyalas, impalas, duikers and reedbucks, among a host of other species.

Robben Island

For nearly 400 years, Robben Island in the Western Cape served as a place of forced exile, where rulers of the day sent convicts and other undesirable people, including mentally ill patients. It is famously known as the island where the first democratically elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he spent behind bars. It was a remote place in the middle of the ocean used to isolate and crush the psyche of people who opposed the apartheid government. Since 1997, Robben Island has been a museum, acting as a focal point of South Africa’s heritage. A lot has been done to restore the island into the ecological haven it once was. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999 based on the authenticity of its history, which is also reflected in its landscape. The island also stands as a symbol of democracy and triumph over oppression.

Cradle of Humankind

Declared World Heritage Site on 2 December 1999, the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng covers Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs. What gives this area outstanding universal appeal is what can be found there. It has a series of complex paleoanthropological sites that have been proven to hold evidence of modern humankind’s origin: it harbours one of the world’s richest concentrations of hominid fossils which show humankind’s evolution over the last 3.5 million years. That is where the name Cradle of Humankind is derived from. The site covers an area of over 47 000 hectares of privately owned land in the north-west of Johannesburg, and is home to 17 000 residents.

Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park

This nature reserve, located in the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, is a place of natural beauty, with its magnificent buttresses and breathtaking landscape. With an average altitude of 3 000m, the Drakensberg mountain range is the highest south of Kilimanjaro and spans 150km over 243 000 hectares of land. It has the largest concentration of rock art in sub-Saharan Africa, making it a World Heritage Site of both natural and cultural significance.

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

South Africa’s precolonial kingdom of Mapungubwe in Limpopo is considered “the place of the stone of wisdom” and was South Africa’s first established kingdom. It became southern Africa’s largest land ruled by a monarch and lasted for 400 years before its demise in the 14th century. This Iron Age archaeological site, first discovered in 1932, lies on the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Its highly sophisticated people traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt, and had a flourishing agricultural industry as well. Mapungubwe is home to the golden rhino and game drives in the Mapungubwe National Park offer amazing panoramic views of the landscape.

Cape Floral Region Protected Areas

This region is made up of eight protected areas. The Cape Floral Region takes up only 0.04% of the world’s land area and yet contains an astonishing three percent of its plant species. It’s also home to 20% of the continent’s flora and has one of the richest of plants in the world, with remarkable biodiversity. According UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, “the site displays outstanding ecological and biological processes associated with the fynbos vegetation, which is unique to the Cape Floral Region”. The fynbos has also, over time, developed an ability to adapt to fire. This means that there’s new growth of plants after a bushfire, for example.

Vredefort Dome

This is an astrobleme (crater) dating back 2 023 million years created as a result of a meteorite impact. It’s the oldest astrobleme found on earth so far. Some 2 billion years ago, a meteorite 10km in diameter hit the earth about 100km south-west of Johannesburg, creating an enormous crater. This area, near the town of Vredefort in the Free State, is known as the Vredefort Dome. With a radius of 190km, it is the largest and most deeply eroded astrobleme. Vredefort Dome bears witness to the world’s greatest known single energy release event that caused devastating global change. According to some scientists, it even caused major evolutionary changes.

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape

Richtersveld’s Cultural and Botanical Landscape is a remarkable mountainous desert in the north-west of South Africa that covers 160 000 hectares. A unique feature of the site is that it is owned and managed by a community that until recently had very little to call its own. This community is made up of people called the “Nama people”. They are descendants of the Khoisan, who once occupied land across southern Namibia.

Heritage Day is our day to indulge in our inheritance. We have the privilege of enjoying these heritage sites by visiting them. South Africa is blessed with so many historical, cultural and natural destinations that merit preservation for future generations. Raising their profile as tourist destinations generates the resources required for the maintenance of these treasures. Let’s share them while consciously preserving their sacred meaning. 

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Issue 83


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