SA’s Unique World Heritage Sites

By Stef Terblanche

Heritage and cultural travel has taken off around the world as one of the most exciting and fastest growing tourism sectors. It should come as no surprise that South Africa – with its cultural diversity, rich and eventful history, archaeological treasure troves, and its unbeatable natural scenery – should rate among the top heritage travel destinations in the world.

And while tourists from all over the world flock here to experience this offering, many South Africans don’t realise that they have no fewer than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as numerous heritage, historical and cultural routes and sites, right here on their doorstep.

South Africa is widely recommended by travel associations, heritage organisations and even the likes of National Geographic magazine as one of the world’s top heritage travel destinations for anyone interested in cultural and natural history.

In terms of an international convention signed by 192 states to preserve unique and significant sites of cultural, historical, scientific or other significance around the world, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has since 1972 designated 1,052 such sites as being World Heritage Sites. Eight of these are in South Africa, including perhaps one of the most significant of them all…the Cradle of Humankind, or the place where it all started for all human beings on Earth.

Just an hour’s drive northwest of Johannesburg, lies this phenomenal site with its amazing fossil record preserved in the limestone caves beneath the surface, trapping 3.5-million years of human history right there. This is the place where scientists say the human race originated, and a place that may well be the biblical Paradise of Adam and Eve. Which one of the Earth’s 7.36-billion people could be indifferent to this, our shared ancestral home?

While South Africa has eight designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, together they offer a far larger collection of sub-sites or representative protected areas. For instance, one South African site, the Cape Floral Region, contains in itself eight representative protected areas across a region covering 78,555 km² that stretches along the coastal areas from the Western Cape through the Eastern Cape.

For a closer look at South Africa’s unique World Heritage Sites, let’s go on a brief tour of each one.

Robben Island


Who needs any introduction to this famous little island in the middle of Cape Town’s Table Bay?

It is of course the landmark that became globally famous with the imprisonment there of Nelson Mandela and other heroes of South Africa’s liberation struggle. But its amazing, if not sad history goes back much further than that. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, the island was used variously as a prison, including for political prisoners, a place of banishment, a hospital for groups considered socially unacceptable at the time, such as lepers, and as a military base. Today it serves as a centre of cultural and historical education and interest.

No less than three of the island prison’s former inmates went on to become president of South Africa, namely Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma.

The island, with its nearby submerged rocks and reefs, is also something of a maritime hazard, and its surrounding waters have become a graveyard of shipwrecks, with upward of 24 ships having found their final resting place here.

The island was long known to and visited by the original Khoikhoi inhabitants of the region. One of its earliest permanent inhabitants was Autshumato, also known as Herry die Strandloper (beach walker), who was a leader of the Gorinhaikonas Khoikhoi clan, dubbed Strandlopers by the Dutch, who lived along the beach areas of Cape Town, between today’s Paarden Island and Sea Point.

In 1630 he was taken to Bantam in the East by an English ship and returned to the Cape a year later, having learned to speak Dutch and English in the meantime. It is said that in 1632, Autshumato moved to Robben Island with several others of his people where he worked as postman, interpreter and liaison for passing European ships, moving back to the mainland 8 years later.

When Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape in 1652 to establish a Dutch settlement, Autshumato worked as an interpreter for Van Riebeeck and also promoted trade between his people and the Dutch. But in 1658, after he waged war against Van Riebeeck’s settlers when he tried to reclaim cattle unfairly taken from his clan, he and two of his followers became Robben Island’s first prisoners. A year later he and one of the other prisoners became the only prisoners who ever successfully managed to escape off the island, it is said.

His niece, Krotoa, also known as Eva, also worked for Van Riebeeck and married a European settler, attaining a high social position in the colony. She and her family lived on Robben Island for several years. Much later, after her husband’s death, she became despondent and fell out with the Dutch authorities who banished her to Robben Island.

Subsequently the island became the prison home of many political prisoners, among them Imam Abdullah ibn Kadi Abdus Salaam, known as Tuan Guru, a Prince from Tidore in the Ternate Islands of Indonesia. While imprisoned on Robben Island by the Dutch, Tuan Guru wrote several copies of the holy Qur’an from memory, one of which is preserved and on display in Cape Town’s Dorp Street mosque. In 1969 the Moturu Kramat, now a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage on Robben Island, was built to commemorate another Muslim prisoner of the island, Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura.

In 1806 a Scottish whaler, John Murray, established a whaling station on the north-eastern shore of the island that became known as Murray’s Bay, where the present-day Murray’s Bay Harbour was constructed in 1939–40 to serve the prison. A few years later, in 1819, after an uprising that led to the 5th Xhosa War in the Eastern Cape, the Xhosa leader Makanda Nxele was sentenced to life imprisonment on the island. He drowned trying to escape. Later the island was used as a leper colony, and by the time of the Second World War the island was fortified with a military base and large guns to defend Cape Town.

From 1961 onwards, Robben Island became the prison home of Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and other leading figures of the liberation movements, the ANC and PAC. The prison was closed down between 1991 and 1995 and is now a museum where visitors are taken on guided tours by former inmates. The island is also home to South Africa’s first lighthouse – a high-lying part of the island where Van Riebeeck ordered a permanent fire to be lit as a beacon for ships. Today a proper lighthouse stands on the same site.

Cradle of Humankind


Next we travel 1,400km north to Johannesburg and then another 50km northwest of the City of Gold, where we find what is believed to be the birthplace of all humankind, comprising the Cradle of Humankind and the Sterkfontein Caves complex.

The Cradle of Humankind is a paleoanthropological site occupying 47,000 hectares below which is the Sterkfontein complex of limestone caves. The world-famous Sterkfontein Caves are home to the oldest and most continuous paleaontological dig in the world and the site of two of the most famous archaeological discoveries.

It is here where the famous 2.3-million years old pre-human skull affectionately known as “Mrs Ples”, was found in 1947 by Robert Broom and John T. Robinson, as well as the 4.17-million years old, almost complete hominid skeleton called “Little Foot”.

With 13 sites already excavated here, one can only guess what still lies awaiting discovery in the depths of the caves and surrounding rocks and soil. Close to the site is the Rising Star Cave system containing the Dinaledi Chamber in which the most extensive number of fossil skeletons of an extinct species of hominin, provisionally named Homo naledi, were more recently discovered. The Sterkfontein complex alone has produced more than one-third of all early hominid fossils found prior to 2010.

It was here too that the oldest controlled use of fire by Homo erectus (ancestor to modern man) was also discovered and dated back to over 1 million years ago. Over the years numerous digs and exciting discoveries by famous palaeoanthropologists provided a fascinating view on the development and lives of our forebears, and can now be viewed where it is on display here.

One of the more astonishing recent finds here was that by Lee Berger and the University of Witwatersrand, in collaboration with National Geographic magazine, of a new, previously unknown species of human relative, named Homo naledi. The scientists were able to tell that Homo naledi remarkably appears to have intentionally deposited the bodies of its dead in a remote cave chamber, a behaviour previously associated only with humans.

The Gauteng provincial government has invested R189-million in developing the area, and today it is a prime international tourist attraction with a modern and very informative museum complex, including the Maropeng Visitors Centre, that houses an exhibition of many of the fossil finds.

Mapungubwe Kingdom and National Park


Designated the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape by UNESCO, this World Heritage Site in Limpopo Province near the Zimbabwean border, comprises the ancient Kingdom of Mapungubwe and the Mapungubwe National Park.

Upon this open savannah, dotted with rocky outcrops and hills, near the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, once flourished one of Southern Africa’s earliest and most sophisticated kingdoms between 1075 and 1220. After this brief period the area was abandoned, with untouched remains of palaces, settlements and burial grounds, as well as many astonishing gold artefacts left behind. The latter are now housed in the Mapungubwe Museum in Pretoria.

Established at Mapungubwe Hill, the kingdom was home to some 5,000 people that became a powerful and wealthy tribe that knew how to work with gold and traded ivory and gold with Eastern cultures such as China and India. It is here that archaeologists found the famous golden rhino and other evidence of this wealthy African kingdom. The kingdom formed the first stage of what would later become the Kingdom of Zimbabwe further north.

Much evidence has been unearthed here of special sites for initiation ceremonies, household activities, sites for other social functions, cattle kraals and the accommodation of royals and commoners. Among some twenty four skeletons that were unearthed in a burial ground on Mapungubwe hill, two were believed to be a king and queen of Mapungubwe. Walkways and lookout platforms have been created from where visitors can view key points of the kingdom.

The area now falls within the Mapungubwe National Park administered by SANParks, which with the Tuli Block in Botswana and the Tuli Safari area in Zimbabwe, forms part of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, now officially known as Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. The park is home to most of the larger and smaller game found in Southern Africa.

Facilities include overnight camps with self-catering units, a restaurant, curios shop and museum. All Mapungubwe’s camps are accessible by normal sedan vehicles, but it is advisable to have a 4×4 or high clearance vehicle to better enjoy drives inside the park. There are also a number of eco-trails for which a 4×4 is required.

Vredefort Dome




Perhaps one of the most unnoticeable – to the naked eye – of South Africa’s eight heritage wonders, yet one that speaks volumes about Earth’s sometimes precarious existence among its varied neighbours in space, is to be found in the Free State.


Called the Vredefort Dome, and added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2005, it represents a 300km-wide impact crater where one of the largest asteroids ever struck the Earth 2.020-billion years ago. Today, the small farming town of Vredefort with its 3,000 residents, sits slap bang on the dome in the centre of the crater. Had they been there over 2-billion years ago, the entire town and everything around it for hundreds of kilometres would of course have been obliterated in an instant!