South Africa’s Unesco World Heritage Sites

The oldest visible meteor crater on earth. The island prison that held Nelson Mandela. The remains of an ancient African city state. Evidence of the earliest humans, and the richest and most beautiful collection of cave paintings south of the Sahara. South Africa is home to eight Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Game Pass Shelter in Kamberg Nature Reserve
The Game Pass Shelter in Kamberg Nature Reserve, just south of Giant’s Castle, has some of the best-preserved San Bushman rock paintings to be found in the Drakensberg range of mountains. (Photo: Qambathi Mountain Lodge)

Compiled by Mary Alexander

Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, has identified these eight sites to be of “outstanding value to humanity”.

Four of South Africa’s World Heritage Sites are classified as cultural, three as natural, and one as a mixed cultural and natural site.

The three natural heritage sites are:

The four cultural sites are:

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park is the eighth, a mixed natural and cultural World Heritage Site.

uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

  • Year inscribed: 2000
  • Core zone: 242 813 hectares
  • Location: KwaZulu-Natal
  • Coordinates: 29º 23′ S 29º 32′ 26″ E
  • Type: Mixed cultural and natural heritage
  • Unesco reference: 985
Drakensberg World Heritage
Both the Zulu name uKhahlamba (barrier of spears) and the Afrikaans name Drakensberg (dragon mountains) fit the formidable horizon created by South Africa’s major mountain range. (Photo: South African Tourism)

The Drakensberg is a vast mountain range that rises dramatically at the escarpment in the south of the country, snakes north to encompass the nation of Lesotho, and winds down into smaller ranges deep in the northeast of South Africa. Its dramatic volcanic peaks make it an obvious natural heritage site, but its value to human history is the wealth of ancient rock art painted on the walls of its caves and crevices. Created over 4 000 years, it is the richest collection of rock art south of the Sahara.

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park lies in the west of KwaZulu-Natal on the Lesotho border. It is 242 813 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 Bushman people, who created a vast body of rock art – the largest collection in the world, south of the Sahara desert.

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.”

iSimangaliso Greater St Lucia Wetland Park

  • Year inscribed: 1999
  • Core zone: 239 566 hectares
  • Location: KwaZulu-Natal
  • Coordinates: 27º 50′ 20″ S 32º 33′ E
  • Type: Natural heritage
  • Unesco reference: 914

At dawn, storm clouds build up over the peaceful waterways of the iSimangaliso Greater St Lucia Wetland Park.
At dawn, storm clouds build up over the peaceful waterways of the iSimangaliso Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. (Photo: South African Tourism)

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park – previously known as the Greater St Lucia 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, Unesco’s World Heritage Committee noted the park’s “exceptional biodiversity, including some 521 bird species”.

Lying on the central Zululand coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the park is made up of 13 adjoining protected areas with a total size of 239 566 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 Unesco 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

  • Year inscribed: 1999
  • Core zone: 507 hectares
  • Location: Western Cape
  • Coordinates: 33º 48′ S 18º 22′ E
  • Type: Cultural heritage
  • Unesco reference: 916

Robben Island, the prison that held Nelson Mandela
Robben Island, a barren two-kilometre-long piece of rock lying 11 kilometres off the coast in Table Bay, has held South Africa’s social outcasts for centuries. Today it is most famous as the place Nelson Mandela jailed for 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner of the apartheid state. (Image: South African Tourism)

Robben Island, a barren two-kilometre-long piece of rock in Table Bay off the coast of Cape Town, is famous as the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years in jail.

Lying 11 kilometres offshore, the small, windswept island is now home to the Robben Island Museum, a favourite for many tourists 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, the first democratically elected president of South Africa. 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 to confine people suffering from leprosy, 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 it 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 Unesco committee noted, adding that the island “symbolises the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, and of democracy over oppression.”

Cradle of Humankind

  • Year inscribed: 1999, extended 2005
  • Core zone: 47 000 hectares
  • Location: Gauteng and North West provinces
  • Coordinates: 25º 55′ 45″ S 27º 47′ 20″ E
  • Type: Cultural heritage
  • Unesco reference: 915

3D reconstruction of the Taung-Child the first specimen of Australopithecus africanus ever found
A 3D reconstruction of the face of the Taung Child, the first ancient human fossil found at the Cradle of Humankind and the type specimen of the hominin species Australopithecus africanus.

The region of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs has one of the world’s richest concentrations of hominin fossils, evidence of human evolution over the last 3.5-million years. It is known in South Africa as the Cradle of Humankind.

Found in the provinces of Gauteng and North West, the cradle covers 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 hominins, 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, known as Little Foot, 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 and known as Mrs Ples – 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 2008 two skeletons were discovered at Gladysvale in the cradle and have been called Australopithecus sediba, an entirely new hominin species, and dating back 1.9 million years. The new species, revealed to the world in 2010, has long arms, like an ape, and short powerful hands, making it likely that it could have retained its ability to climb. A very advanced pelvis and long legs suggest that it was capable of striding and possibly running like a human. Sediba has been described as a transitional species between Australopithecus africanus and either Homo habilis or Homo erectus. The site is still rich in undiscovered finds.

In granting the Cradle of Humankind 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.

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

  • Year inscribed: 2003
  • Core zone: 28 168 hectares
  • Location: Limpopo
  • Coordinates: 22º 11′ 33″ S 29º 14′ 20″ E
  • Type: Cultural heritage
  • Unesco reference: 1099

One of the tiny gold-foil rhino sculptures found in the ruins of the ancient kingdomof Mapungubwe in South Africa's Mpumalanga province
One of the tiny gold-foil rhino sculptures found in the ruins of the ancient kingdom of Mapungubwe, in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. (Image: University of Pretoria)

Mapungubwe – “place of the stone of wisdom” – was South Africa’s first kingdom, the subcontinent’s largest realm 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. But it was kept secret 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

  • Year inscribed: 2004
  • Core zone: 553 000 hectares
  • Buffer zone: 1 315 000 hectares
  • Location: Western Cape and Eastern Cape
  • Coordinates: 34º 10′ S 18º 22′ 30″ E
  • Type: Natural heritage
  • Unesco reference: 1007

The flowers of pincushion proteas, on of the thousands of unique plant species found only in the Cape Floral Kingdom
The flowers of the pincushion protea, on of the thousands of unique plant species found only in the Cape Floral Kingdom.

The earth has only six major floristic kingdoms, most of which stretch over vast regions and continents. But one kingdom is confined to a small area of a single country: South Africa’s Cape Floral Region.

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.”

Vredefort Dome

  • Year inscribed: 2005
  • Core zone: 30 000 hectares
  • Location: Free State and North West
  • Coordinates: 26º 51′ 36″ S 27º 15′ 36″ E
  • Type: Natural heritage
  • Unesco reference: 1162

Vredefort Dome
Two billion years later the Vredefort Dome has been overrun with human activity – mines, factories, farms, cities and suburbs – but it’s still the oldest visible meteor impact crater on earth.

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

The meteorite, larger than Table Mountain, caused a thousand-megaton blast of energy, vaporising about 70 cubic kilometres of rock.

“Vredefort Dome bears witness to the world’s greatest known single energy release event, which caused devastating global change, including, according to some scientists, major evolutionary changes,” Unesco says of the site.

“It provides critical evidence of the earth’s geological history and is crucial to our understanding of the evolution of the planet. Despite their importance to the planet’s history, geological activity on the earth’s surface has led to the disappearance of evidence from most impact sites and Vredefort is the only example on earth to provide a full geological profile of an astrobleme below the crater floor.”

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.

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape

  • Year inscribed: 2007
  • Core zone: 160 000 hectares
  • Buffer zone: 398 425 hectares
  • Location: Northern Cape
  • Coordinates: 28º 36′ S 17º 12′ 14″ E
  • Type: Cultural heritage
  • Unesco reference: 1265

Richtersveld mountainsThe dramatic, dry mountainous desert of the Richtersveld Community Conservancy is confined in the east by the deep canyons of the Orange River and Nababiep mountains, and to the north by the largely impenetrable Vandersterrberg Mountains. (Image: South African Tourism)

The Richtersveld Community Conservancy covers 160 000 hectares of arid mountains in the northwest Northern Cape, South Africa’s vast desert province. In this harsh and dry region live the Nama people, who own and manage the land communally according to their semi-nomadic pastoral lifestyle.

The Nama are descendants of the Khoi-Khoi people, the San Bushmen and Khoekhoen who were the original inhabitants of South Africa. The Nama’s pastoral way of life is thought to have lasted for some 2 000 years in the region. The Richtersveld is also the only area in which they still construct rush-covered domed houses, known in their language as |haru oms, portable dwellings appropriate to their nomadic existence.

A remote wilderness, with few passable roads and sparsely populated by sheep and goat herders, the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape was nominated as a cultural site shaped by the semi-nomadic Nama pastoralists, one of the last transhumance – or seasonally migrating pastoralist – cultures in Southern Africa.

The dramatic, dry mountainous desert of the Richtersveld Community Conservancy is confined in the east by the deep canyons of the Orange River and Nababiep mountains, and to the north by the largely impenetrable Vandersterrberg Mountains. To the south and west it merges with grazing land.

The Nama live in three small villages, established as mission settlements. Many of the men work as migrant labourers elsewhere in the country. Those that keep grazing animals tend to be the elderly and are few in number, no more than 300 people at certain times of year.

Particular features of their cultural landscape that earned Unesco’s recognistion were the Nama’s seasonal migrations and grazing grounds, the stockposts or camps where their livestock are corralled, and the |haru oms rush-mat houses they erect at these camps.

The houses are small hemispherical portable structures, consisting of a wooden frame of intersecting wooden hoops, covered over with fine mats of braided local rushes. Traditionally the houses were dismantled and moved with their owners from camp to camp.

“In terms of the wider geo-cultural area, the Nama pastoralists are not unique,” the Unesco advisory body says in its report on the Richtersveld. “However … the Nama pastoralists in the Richtersveld are exceptional as the last practitioners of a form of transhumance developed by the Khoi-Khoi branch of the San, the indigenous people of the area and represent a distinctive culture that was once much more widespread.”

The Richtersveld Community Conservancy was established in 2002, evolving out of the Richtersveld Community Heritage Area that was set up in 2000 to protect both the environment and culture of the area.

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