Cultural experiences

World heritage in South Africa

Did you know that Table Mountain National Park has more plant species in its 22 000 hectares than the British Isles or New Zealand? Or that the Drakensberg has both the highest mountain range in Africa south of Kilimanjaro and the continent's richest concentration of rock art?

South Africa is home to eight of the world's official heritage sites, as determined by Unesco's World Heritage Committee.

The committee seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of "outstanding value to humanity".

Internationally, there are 851 World Heritage sites in 141 countries (as of April 2008). South Africa has a total of eight – four cultural, three natural and one mixed (cultural and natural) site. Starting with the first site added to the list, ending with the latest, these are:

iSimangaliso Wetland 

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

Year inscribed: 1999
Location: KwaZulu-Natal, 27º 50' 20" S 32º 33' E
Type: Natural heritage

On 1 November 2007, South Africa's first World Heritage Site, the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, was given a new name that better reflects its unique African identity: the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park has both one of the largest estuary systems in Africa and the continent's southernmost coral reefs. In granting it World Heritage status in 1999, the World Heritage Committee noted the park's "exceptional biodiversity, including some 521 bird species".

Situated on the central Zululand coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the park is made up of 13 adjoining protected areas with a total size of 234 566 hectares. Its remarkable biodiversity is a result of the park's location between subtropical and tropical Africa, as well as its coastal setting.

Shaped by the actions of river, sea and wind, iSimangaliso's landscape offers critical habitats to a wide range of Africa's marine, wetland and savannah species. Its varied landforms include wide submarine canyons, sandy beaches, forested dune cordon and a mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, forests, lakes and savannah.

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park has its origins in the St Lucia Game Reserve, declared in 1895 and made up of the large lake and its islands. St Lucia Park was proclaimed in 1939, containing land around the estuary and a strip of about one kilometre around most of the lake shore. In 1971 St Lucia Lake and the turtle beaches and coral reefs of the Maputaland coast were listed by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

"The mosaic of landforms and habitat types creates breathtaking scenic vistas," the committee notes in its assessment of the park.

"Features include wide submarine canyons, sandy beaches, forested dune cordon and a mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, forests, lakes and savannah. The variety of morphology as well as major flood and storm events contribute to ongoing evolutionary processes in the area.

"Natural phenomena include large numbers of nesting turtles on the beaches; the migration of whales, dolphins and whale-sharks offshore; and huge numbers of waterfowl including large breeding colonies of pelicans, storks, herons and terns."

Robben Island. Image courtesy South African Tourism

Robben Island

Year inscribed: 1999
Location: Western Cape, 33º 48' S 18º 22' E
Type: Cultural heritage

Robben Island is most famous as the place where Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa, was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years in jail. The island has since become a symbol of the triumph of democracy and freedom over oppression.

Lying 11 kilometres offshore from Cape Town, the small, windswept island is now home to the world-renowned Robben Island Museum, a highlight of any visit to South Africa.

Robben Island was not always a prison, nor was it originally cut off from the Cape Peninsula. Thousands of years ago it was an inhabited area connected by a spit of land to the Cape mainland.

It was first made a jail by Dutch colonists at the Cape who, from their arrival in the mid-1600s, incarcerated opponents of colonial rule there, including African and Muslim leaders.

Robben Island later became infamous as a maximum-security prison for anti- apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela. From the mid-1960s the prison held many leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada, as well as Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress.

It was also used as a leper colony, and as a mental hospital from 1846 to 1931, as well as a training and defence base in World War II.

Following the unbanning of the ANC and other opponents of apartheid in 1990, political prisoners were released from the island, the last leaving in May 1991. The last common-law prisoners left in 1996, when the island ceased to be a jail.

In 1999 the World Heritage Committee declared Robben Island a World Heritage site of cultural significance.

"The buildings of Robben Island bear eloquent testimony to its sombre history," the committee noted, adding that the island "symbolises the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, and of democracy over oppression."

Image courtesy Cradle of Humankind

Cradle of Humankind

Year inscribed: 1999, 2005
Location: Gauteng and North West, 25º 55' 45" S 27º 47' 20" E
Type: Cultural heritage

Known in South Africa as the Cradle of Humankind, the region of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs has one of the world's richest concentrations of hominid fossils, evidence of human evolution over the last 3.5-million years.

Found in the provinces of Gauteng and North West, the fossil sites cover an area of 47 000 hectares. The remains of ancient forms of animals, plants and hominids – our early ancestors and their relatives – are captured in a bed of dolomite deposited 2.5-billion years ago. Although other sites in south and east Africa have similar remains, the Cradle has produced more than 950 hominid fossil specimens.

Sites in the area supply crucial information about members of one of the oldest hominids, the australopithecines – two-footed, small-brained primates that appeared about 5-million years ago.

Excavations and research at the Sterkfontein Caves have so far yielded the nearly complete skeleton of a 3.3-million-year-old australopithecine, as well as about 500 specimens of Australopithecus africanus that date from about 2.8- to 2.6-million years ago.

Other major finds in the area include the most complete skull yet found of Australopithecus africanus, an outstanding example of a female Paranthropus - a more robust australopithecine, also known as Australopithecus robustus - and fossils of an early species of the genus Homo with stone tools, the first evidence of cultural behaviour.

In granting the Cradle World Heritage status for its cultural significance, the World Heritage Committee noted that the sites "throw light on the earliest ancestors of humankind. They constitute a vast reserve of scientific information, the potential of which is enormous."

Rock art in the Drakensberg. Image courtesy South African Tourism

uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

Year inscribed: 2000
Location: KwaZulu-Natal, 29º 23' S 29º 32' 26" E
Type: Mixed cultural and natural heritage

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park has outstanding natural beauty, Africa's highest mountain range south of Kilimanjaro, and the largest and most concentrated series of rock art paintings in Africa – making it a World Heritage site of both natural and cultural significance.

The park lies in the west of KwaZulu-Natal on the Lesotho border. It is 243 000 hectares in size, stretching 150 kilometres from Royal Natal National Park in the north to Cobham Forest Station in the south.

Both the Zulu name uKhahlamba (barrier of spears) and the Afrikaans name Drakensberg (dragon mountains) fit the formidable horizon created by the range.

A massive basaltic cap set on a broad base of sedimentary rocks belonging to the Stormberg series of 150 million years ago, the mountains are South Africa's main watershed.

For more than 4 000 years they were home to the indigenous San people, who created a vast body of rock art – the largest collection in Africa.

Living in the sandstone caves and rock shelters of the Drakensberg's valleys, the San made paintings described by the World Heritage Committee as "world famous and widely considered one of the supreme achievements of humankind ... outstanding in quality and diversity of subject and in their depiction of animals and human beings ... which throws much light on their way of life and their beliefs".

In describing the park's natural heritage, the committee notes its "exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks and golden sandstone ramparts. Rolling high altitude grasslands, the pristine steep-sided river valleys and rocky gorges also contribute to the beauty of the site.

"The site's diversity of habitats protects a high level of endemic and globally threatened species, especially birds and plants."

Gold plated rhinoceros found on Mapungubwe Hill in 1932. Image 
courtesy Pretoria University

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

Year inscribed: 2003
Location: Limpopo province, 22º 11' 33" S 29º 14' 20" E
Type: Cultural heritage

Mapungubwe – "place of the stone of wisdom" – was South Africa's first kingdom, and developed into the subcontinent's largest realm, lasting for 400 years before it was abandoned in the 14th century. Its highly sophisticated people traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt.

The site lies on the open savannah of the Mapungubwe National Park, at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers in the province of Limpopo.

It abuts the northern border of South Africa and the borders of Zimbabwe and Botswana, a crossroads location that helps explain its prosperous past as an important trading centre, particularly at the height of its powers between about 1220 and 1300 AD.

A free-standing structure rising 30 metres above the surrounding grasslands, Mapungubwe is topped by impregnable cliffs all around.

Since its discovery in 1932 this Iron Age site has been excavated by the University of Pretoria. However, the findings were kept from public attention until 1993, just prior to South Africa's first democratic elections, because evidence of a highly advanced indigenous society existing centuries before European colonialism spread across Africa ran contrary to the racist ideology of apartheid.

"The remains in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape are a remarkably complete testimony to the growth and subsequent decline of the Mapungubwe state," the World Heritage Committee says in its assessment.

"What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years."

Cape Floral Region. Image courtesy South African Tourism

Cape Floral Region

Year inscribed: 2004
Location: Western and Eastern Cape, 34º 10' S 18º 22' 30" E
Type: Natural heritage

The Cape Floral Region takes up only 0.04% of the world's land area, yet contains an astonishing 3% percent of its plant species. This makes it one of the richest areas for plants in the world and one of the globe's 18 biodiversity hot spots.

A stretch of land and sea spanning 90 000 square kilometres, the 553 000- hectare Cape Floral Region comprises eight protected areas stretching from the Cape Peninsula to the Eastern Cape: Table Mountain, De Hoop Nature Reserve, the Boland mountain complex, the Groot Winterhoek wilderness area, the Swartberg mountains, the Boosmansbos wilderness area, the Cederberg wilderness area, and Baviaanskloof.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden on the slopes of Table Mountain is part of the region, making it the first botanical garden ever included in a World Heritage site.

The rich diversity of the Cape Floral Region contributes to South Africa having the third-highest level of biodiversity in the world. Table Mountain National Park, for example, has more plant species in its 22 000 hectares than the British Isles or New Zealand.

The Cape Floral Region is not only remarkable for its diversity. The region's endemism level, at 31.9%, is the highest on the planet. Of the 9 600 species of vascular plants (plants with vessels for bearing sap) found here, some 70% are endemic, occurring nowhere else on earth.

The region is home to nearly 20% of Africa's flora, though it makes up less than 0.5% percent of the continent's land mass.

It is also home to 11 000 marine animal species, 3 500 of which are endemic, and 560 vertebrate species, including 142 reptile species, of which 27 are endemic.

In granting the Cape Floral Region World Heritage status in 2004, the World Heritage Committee noted: "Unique plant reproductive strategies, adaptive to fire, patterns of seed dispersal by insects, as well as patterns of endemism and adaptive radiation found in the flora are of outstanding value to science."

Dome. Image courtesy Lunar and Planetary Institute

Vredefort Dome

Year inscribed: 2005
Location: Free State and North West, 26º 51' 36" S 27º 15' 36" E
Type: Natural heritage

Some 2-billion years ago a meteorite 10 kilometres in diameter hit the earth about 100km southwest of Johannesburg, creating an enormous impact crater. This area, near the town of Vredefort in the Free State, is known as the Vredefort Dome.

The meteorite, larger than Table Mountain, caused a thousand-megaton blast of energy. The impact would have vaporised about 70 cubic kilometres of rock – and may have increased the earth's oxygen levels to a degree that made the development of multicellular life possible.

The world has about 130 crater structures of possible impact origin. The Vredefort Dome is among the top three, and is the oldest and largest clearly visible meteorite impact site in the world.

The original crater, now eroded away, was probably 250 to 300 kilometres in diameter. It was larger than the Sudbury impact structure in Canada, about 200km in diameter.

At 2-billion years old, Vredefort is far older than the Chixculub structure in Mexico which, with an age of 65-million years, is the site of the impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Vredefort's original impact scar measures 380km across and consists of three concentric circles of uplifted rock. They were created by the rebound of rock below the impact site when the asteroid hit. Most of these structures have eroded away and are no longer clearly visible.

The inner circle, measuring 180km, is still visible and can be seen in the beautiful range of hills near Parys and Vredefort. It is this area that was named a World Heritage site.

The traditional lifestyle of the Nama people of the Richtersveld is 
based on nomadic pastoralism. Image courtesy Peace Parks Foundation

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape

Year inscribed: 2007
Location: Northern Cape, 28º 36' S 17º 12' 14" E
Type: Cultural heritage

The Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape covers 160 000 hectares of dramatic mountainous desert in the north-west part of South Africa.

A unique feature of the site – both in South African and international terms – is that it is owned and managed by a community that until recently had very little to call its own.

Characterised by extreme temperatures, the communally run landscape affords a semi-nomadic pastoral livelihood for the Nama people, descendants of the Khoisan people who once occupied lands across southern Namibia and most of the present- day Western and Northern Cape provinces of South Africa.

Khoisan is a term used to describe two separate groups, physically similar in being light-skinned and small in stature. The Khoi, who were called Hottentots by the Europeans, were pastoralists and were effectively annihilated; the San, called Bushmen by the Europeans, were hunter-gatherers. A small San population still lives in South Africa.

Modern human history in the Richtersveld began a century or more back, when the Khoi were pushed into the remote region by the spread of other farmers from the Cape. The San people, meanwhile, were forced into the area from the north. According to the Richtersveld Community Conservancy, while fighting occurred initially, the two groups soon merged into the people now known as the Nama.

What is special about the Richtersveld heritage site is that it was only a few years ago that the area was returned to the ownership of the Nama under South Africa's land restitution programme.

Today, the Nama have managed to find the balance between the continuation of their ancient pastoral lifestyle and the needs of conservation to maintain the health of the land.

They still practise seasonal migration between stock-posts, using and building traditional portable rush-mat houses. The Nama are the last practitioners of this millennia-old way of life.

"The extensive communal grazed lands bear testimony to the land management processes which have ensured the protection of the succulent Karoo vegetation," the World Heritage Committee noted. "This demonstrates a harmonious interaction between people and nature."

Compiled by Mary Alexander and SAinfo reporter

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 Simulated impression of the human ancestor Australopithecus africanus

Simulated impression of Australopithecus africanus, a human ancestor that lived in the Cradle of Humankind region of what is now Gauteng province (Image: Cradle of Humankind)

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