10 World Heritage Sites In South Africa

The United Nations is saddled with the task of discovering, evaluating, and listing heritage sites in South Africa and across the world, due to their natural formations or the historical significance they may have. Sometimes the Heritage Sites are chosen because nature gives us the unusual formations, while other times these are the handiworks of our ancestors who lived thousands of years before us; giving us these gifts as windows through which we can look at the past, and appreciate the eras gone by.

Presently, there are 10 world heritage sites in South Africa, and they are almost evenly divided between natural sites and cultural sites. This abundance of important sites has not really been appreciated adequately, but recently, both the government and the people of South Africa have started to pay attention to these heritage sites, and how they can contribute to the economy and cultural identity of South Africa.

We are all passing through time; even though many of us do not know it, the world heritage sites are the relics left behind by past generations, just as we will leave something behind for future generations to marvel at, and to learn from.

World Heritage Sites In South Africa

Fossil Hominid Sites Of South Africa     

Location: Sterkfontein

Time Period: Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs

The Fossil Hominid Sites Of South Africa are among the most important world heritage sites in South Africa and the world at large because they prove that South Africa was one of the early habitations of primitive man. Furthermore, these sites are important sites where fossils have been found to corroborate the theories about the development of mankind.

The Fossil Hominid Sites contains various fossils and other traces of human occupation and evolution, and the scientific dating put them at 3.3 million years ago. These sites have been proclaimed as the Cradle of Humankind, and are regarded in some circles as the very birthplace of humanity; the site of the development of human-kind, from whence men, started to spread out to other locations on the surface of the earth.

This site declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. It occupies about 47,000 hectares (180 sq mi) of land, and is basically a complex maze of limestone caves. It is located in Sterkfontein, Gauteng Province, South Africa. The registered name of the site in the list of World Heritage Sites is Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa.

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

Location: Limpopo Province

Time Period: 10th to 12th Century (Medieval Period)

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape is very important because it is where the earliest evidence of stone masonry in Sub-Saharan Africa is found. Looking at this site one may see little more than a hill; however, it was the site of an extensive civilization that extends from what is now South Africa to Zimbabwe. The Mapungubwe Kingdom existed between the 10th and up till the 14th century, and then the area was abandoned, leaving behind palaces and settlements that were largely untouched for many centuries.

Kingdom of Mapungubwe was a medieval state in South Africa located at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers. The name is said to mean “Hill of Jackals”. This was the site of the early development of what later became the Kingdom of Zimbabwe. At the strongest of this city, there were about 5,000 people living inside a walled enclosure.

This area was discovered by a local farmer ESJ van Graan and his son, in 1939. The two of them went on a mission to find out more about a legend he had heard about.

Their discovery opened up extensive excavation works which brought to light the living quarters, burial chambers and historical figures- including a certain golden rhinoceros. The buildings were quite intricate; stone works were combined with wood to show that the inhabitants of Kingdom of Mapungubwe were quite skilled and intellectually developed.

Richtersveld Cultural And Botanical Landscape

Location: Northern Cape

Time Period: 12th Century – Present Day

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape is a delicate and almost completely pristine land; that is almost as though mankind has not passed through it. This area is a mountainous desert range in altitude from sea level, to 1,377 m. The land is characterized by rugged kloofs and high mountains. You will also find flat, sandy, coastal plains, as well as craggy sharp mountains of volcanic rock. Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape also have part of the Orange River as its territory which forms the border with neighboring Namibia.

This area is unique because of its beauty and changing scenery, but also because there are few places on earth like it; where man has not wielded his destructive power. This is a place where you can observe nature in its original form. The land is communally owned and managed; the Namaqua people have lived here for centuries. However, their culture is minimalist is nature; they are semi-nomadic, and live as pastoralists; moving from place to place.

They live in mat huts, which can easily be dismantled and moved to other locations. This lifestyle has left a minimal impact on the landscape; leaving it almost untouched. Furthermore, Richtersveld is regarded as the only arid biodiversity hotspot left on earth, which is why it was declared a world heritage site in 1991.

Robben Island  

Location: Northern Cape

Time Period: 17th to 20th centuries

Robben Island is one of the world heritage sites in South Africa, although it was not chosen as because of good or pleasant memories. Robben Island is an iconic island facility just 8 kilometres away from mainland Cape Town.

This facility will be remembered as the place where Nelson Mandela was held, although between the 17th and 20th centuries, it was used for different purposes. At different times, Robben Island was used as a prison, a hospital for socially unacceptable groups (leper colony), and a military base. Only 3 years after the end of Apartheid, it was decommissioned as a prison, and turned into tourist attraction.

Robben Island is therefore a reminder of South Africa’s cruel past, and a reminder of what man can do to his fellow man.  Robben Island is a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Robben Island has been inhabited for a long time; Dutch settlers occupied the island in 1654; living there with their sheep. They built a shelter and lived there because they decided that the isolation of the place gave them better protection from wild animals.

Cape Floristic Region

Location: Cape Town

The Cape Floristic Region is a world heritage site that was chosen for its beauty. Cape Florist Region is located near the southern tip of South Africa. It is the only floristic region of the Cape (South African) the Floristic Kingdom.

The Cape Floristic Region of South Africa is very important because it the smallest of the six recognized floral kingdoms of the world. This is an area of extraordinarily high diversity of plant species; and South Africa is extremely lucky to have this place within its borders. Cape Floristic Region is home to over 9,000 vascular plant species.

Cape Florist Region is also significant not just for its bio diversity, but for its economic implications; the economic worth of the flower harvests as well as eco-tourism is estimated to be in the region of R77 million per year. The medicinal value of the plants in this area has not been completely quantified.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

Location: Durban

iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a world heritage site that is selected for its beauty and biodiversity. The Wetland Park is located on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This area is the third-largest protected area in South Africa; spanning some 280 km of coastline, and 3,280 km2 of natural ecosystems. This wetland is open to the public; it is managed by the iSimangaliso Authority.

Before ever the land was listed as a heritage site, its beauty has been appreciated by local people; the word Isimangaliso means “a miracle” or “something wondrous” in Zulu.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park has a lot of biodiversities aside from the great number of plant life it has; there is also a great diversity of animal life as well. At Isimangaliso you can find elephants, leopards, black and southern white rhinos, Cape buffalo, and in the surrounding ocean you will find whales, dolphins, and marine turtles including the leatherback and loggerhead turtles. Isimangaliso is home to about 1200 crocodiles, and 800 hippos.

The land itself is diverse; there are coral reefs and sandy beaches to subtropical dune forests, as well as savannas, and wetlands; all in a rather small land area.

Vredefort Dome             

Location: Vredefort

Time Period: Paleoproterozoic era

Vredefort Dome is an important site; it is one of the few relics of times long before our own. This 190km wide crater is the largest, oldest and most deeply eroded astrobleme found on Earth. The crater is estimated to date back to more than 2 billion years. This is a unique occurrence throughout the world; experts call it the largest verified impact crater in the world.

Named after the town of Vredefort, in the Free State Province of South Africa, this is crater has been here for about 2 billion years before the dinosaurs appeared. It was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2005- a great move to preserve any secrets it may hold about our past; to prevent damage to the site from uncontrolled human activity.

uKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park                             

Location: KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho

Time Period:      2000 B.C.

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is a protected area in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. This world heritage site covers an area of 2,428.13 km2. The park includes Royal Natal National Park, as well as the Drakensberg, which is a land formation with the highest elevations in southern Africa. The park is part of a larger natural enclosure including the Sehlabathebe National Park in the Kingdom of Lesotho. Together, the area is called the Maloti-Drakensberg Park, and it was first declared a World Heritage Site in 2000.

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park was listed by UNESCO because of having “exceptional natural beauty.” Aside of the natural beauty and incisive dramatic cutbacks, the area also serves as a home for a several plant and animal species; some of which are listed as threatened or endangered. Another notable resource which the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park possesses are cave paintings. Here you will find the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. Some of the paintings are estimated to date as far back to 40,000 or 100,000 years ago.

ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape

Location: Northern Cape

Time Period: 1545, – Present Day

The ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape is an area protected because of its ecological and cultural importance; it is one of the few places where the destructive power of man has not really been felt. This place is located at the South African border with Botswana and Namibia all the way up in the northern part of the country. The land adjoins the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (KGNP). This land is important because it contains very great biodiversity, and also because it contains in its vast sands evidence of human occupation from dating back to the Stone Age.

This land is inhabited by the ǂKhomani San people; they were formerly nomadic people; and that nomadic lifestyle has left the land relatively untouched; therefore keeping the archaeological finds intact.

Interesting; the local people have developed a very interesting set of cultural practices which help them live in complete harmony with their environment. Many people visit the Khomani to learn their world view.

Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains          

Location: Mpumalanga

Time Period: Archean era

The Makhonjwa Mountains contain exceptional beauty. The area is known as the Barberton Greenstone Belt or Barberton Mountain Land. This area is not particularly big, but it is beautiful beyond words. Aside from the beauty; these lands contain mountains and hills that are known for having some of the oldest exposed rocks on Earth, dating as far back as the Paleoarchean era which was some 3.2 to 3.6 billion years ago.

This place was designated a world heritage site as recently as 2018; to help preserve it as close to its natural state as possible.


These world heritage sites are those that have been evaluated and that are chosen for preservation. However, there are several other sites in South Africa that are at different stages of evaluation; pending final approval for them to be declared as world heritage sites.

These include;

Succulent Karoo Protected Areas,

Human Rights, Liberation Struggle and Reconciliation: Nelson Mandela Legacy Sites

Liberation Heritage Route

Early Farmsteads of the Cape Winelands

The Emergence of Modern Humans: The Pleistocene occupation sites of South Africa.