Her­itage sites are fas­ci­nat­ing win­dows into the past.

The sta­lag­mites in the Sterk­fontein Caves, for instance, took mil­lions of years to form, and a vis­it here gives you a glimpse of a world that exist­ed long before Homo sapi­ens. A vis­it to Robben Island is an emo­tion­al jour­ney into South Africa’s trou­bled past. And a vis­it to Mapun­gub­we offers a look at an ancient civil­i­sa­tion that flour­ished in the 11th century.

There are more than 1 000 World Her­itage Sites across the globe, nine of them in South Africa.

These sites are all care­ful­ly cho­sen by the Unit­ed Nations Edu­ca­tion­al, Sci­en­tif­ic and Cul­tur­al Organ­i­sa­tion (Unesco).

To be includ­ed on the World Her­itage list, sites must be of out­stand­ing uni­ver­sal val­ue and meet at least one out of 10 selec­tion cri­te­ria,” Unesco says on its web­site.

These stip­u­late that a site must have excep­tion­al his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al val­ue, be a rare nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non, be of eco­log­i­cal impor­tance, or have excep­tion­al nat­ur­al beau­ty or aes­thet­ic importance.

There are 136 World Her­itage Sites in 37 coun­tries across Africa. Ethiopia and Moroc­co have the most sites (11 each). South Africa comes sec­ond with nine.

In order to high­light the continent’s unique her­itage sites, Unesco has launched a social media com­pe­ti­tion called #MyAfrican­Her­itage, in which you can sub­mit your pic­ture of an African her­itage site and win a trip to the Ngoron­goro Con­ser­va­tion Area and Serengeti Nation­al Park in Tan­za­nia (first prize); Robben Island in South Africa (sec­ond prize); or Cidade Vel­ha, the his­toric cen­tre of Cape Verde’s old­est set­tle­ment, once called Ribeira Grande (third prize). Get the details here.

For inspi­ra­tion, here are snap­shots of some of South Africa’s World Her­itage Sites.

Fos­sil Hominid Sites of South Africa (the Cra­dle of Humankind World Her­itage Site)

The area con­tains essen­tial ele­ments that define the ori­gin and evo­lu­tion of human­i­ty. Fos­sils found there have enabled the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of sev­er­al spec­i­mens of ear­ly hominids, more par­tic­u­lar­ly of Paran­thro­pus, dat­ing back between 4.5-million and 2.5-million years, as well as evi­dence of the domes­ti­ca­tion of fire 1.8-million to a mil­lion years ago,” Unesco notes on its web­site.


Take a trip through time at the Sterk­fontein Caves. (Image: Maropeng)

The Cape Flo­ral Region

Accord­ing to Unesco, It is one of the world’s great cen­tres of ter­res­tri­al bio­di­ver­si­ty. The extend­ed prop­er­ty includes nation­al parks, nature reserves, wilder­ness areas, state forests and moun­tain catch­ment areas.”

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Swart­berg – part of the Cape Flo­ral Region. (Image: John Kar­wos­ki)

iSi­man­gal­iso Wet­land Park

The mosa­ic of land­forms and habi­tat types cre­ates breath­tak­ing scenic vis­tas,” Unesco notes. The site con­tains crit­i­cal habi­tats for a range of species from Africa’s marine, wet­land and savan­nah environments.”

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(Image: west­ewoud)

Hip­po-gaz­ing in iSi­man­gal­iso. (Image: west­ewoud)


Mapun­gub­we devel­oped into the largest king­dom on the sub-con­ti­nent before it was aban­doned in the 14th cen­tu­ry. What sur­vives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites … pre­sent­ing an unri­valled pic­ture of the devel­op­ment of social and polit­i­cal struc­tures over some 400 years,” says Unesco.

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(Image: South African Tourism)

The gold­en rhi­no of Mapun­gub­we is an 800-year-old arte­fact. (Image: South African Tourism)

Robben Island

Prob­a­bly one of the most famous sites in South Africa, Robben Island’s sig­nif­i­cance is unde­ni­able. As Unesco notes, Its build­ings, par­tic­u­lar­ly those of the late 20th cen­tu­ry, such as the max­i­mum secu­ri­ty prison for polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, wit­ness the tri­umph of democ­ra­cy and free­dom over oppres­sion and racism.”

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(Image: South African Tourism)

A view of Robben Island from the main­land. (Image: South African Tourism)

Richtersveld Cul­tur­al and Botan­i­cal Landscape

This site sus­tains the semi-nomadic pas­toral liveli­hood of the Nama peo­ple, reflect­ing sea­son­al pat­terns that may have per­sist­ed for as much as two mil­len­nia in South­ern Africa. The pas­toral­ists col­lect med­i­c­i­nal and oth­er plants and have a strong oral tra­di­tion asso­ci­at­ed with dif­fer­ent places and attrib­ut­es of the land­scape,” notes Unesco.

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(Image: Mar­tin Heigan)

Richtersveld. (Image: Mar­tin Heigan)

ǂKhomani Cul­tur­al Landscape

The ǂKhomani Cul­tur­al Land­scape was named a World Her­itage Site last year, mak­ing it the newest addi­tion to South Africa’s list. The area is locat­ed on South Africa’s bor­der with Botswana and Namib­ia and includes part of the Kgala­ga­di Trans­fron­tier Park.

The large expanse of sand con­tains evi­dence of human occu­pa­tion from the Stone Age to the present and is asso­ci­at­ed with the cul­ture of the for­mer­ly nomadic ǂKhomani San peo­ple and the strate­gies that allowed them to adapt to harsh desert con­di­tions,” Unesco notes.

The ǂKhomani Cul­tur­al Land­scape bears tes­ti­mo­ny to the way of life that pre­vailed in the region and shaped the site over thou­sands of years.”

Mal­oti-Drak­ens­berg Park

The site has excep­tion­al nat­ur­al beau­ty in its soar­ing basaltic but­tress­es, inci­sive dra­mat­ic cut­backs and gold­en sand­stone ram­parts, as well as visu­al­ly spec­tac­u­lar sculp­tured arch­es, caves, cliffs, pil­lars and rock pools,” notes Unesco.

This spec­tac­u­lar nat­ur­al site con­tains many caves and rock-shel­ters with the largest and most con­cen­trat­ed group of paint­ings in Africa south of the Sahara. They rep­re­sent the spir­i­tu­al life of the San peo­ple, who lived in this area over a peri­od of 4 000 years.”

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(Image: Esther West­er­veld)

A view of the Drak­ens­berg moun­tain range. (Image: Esther West­er­veld)

Vre­de­fort Dome

The Vre­de­fort Dome in the Free State is the site of a mete­orite strike more than two mil­lion years ago.

Vre­de­fort Dome bears wit­ness to the world’s great­est known sin­gle ener­gy-release event, which had dev­as­tat­ing glob­al effects includ­ing, accord­ing to some sci­en­tists, major evo­lu­tion­ary changes. It pro­vides crit­i­cal evi­dence of the Earth’s geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry and is cru­cial to under­stand­ing of the evo­lu­tion of the plan­et,” notes Unesco.

Isn’t it time you took a trip to all South Africa’s her­itage sites? Start with a vis­it to the Cra­dle of Humankind. First stop: Maropeng.