South African UNESCO World Heritage Sites

South African UNESCO sites header

Written by Supernova

Jul 21, 2020

Anyone up for a road trip? Are you in? Let’s go!
Our country is full of rich and diverse cultural, historical and natural elements. There are many wonderful places you can visit. You don’t just have to go overseas to experience the magic of new places.

Eight great places in South Africa were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) recognises places of natural or cultural significance worldwide.


Hominid Sites

Found in Gauteng, Limpopo and North West provinces, these are the sites where archaeological discoveries of human-like remains have been made. The 1924 discovery of the Taung Child was very controversial until Mrs Ples, as she is known, was discovered in 1947. Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and surrounding areas with the Makapan Valley and Taung Skull Fossil Site, all form what we know as The Cradle of Humankind. All human life on Earth is thought to originate here. Fossils are also studied at these sites to find out about the ecosystems of the distant past.

Underwater lake inside the Sterkfontein Caves
This underwater lake is deep inside the Sterkfontein Caves.
Nobody knows how deep it is.
It’s too dangerous to dive in!


Cultural Landscape

Found in Limpopo, Mapungubwe is one of SA’s first class-based civilisations, created during the Iron Age (900 to 1300 AD). The site shows evidence of trade with other countries like those of East Africa, Egypt, China, India and Persia (now a part of Iran). The burial sites led to interesting discoveries as royalty were buried separately from the common people. It’s also where they found the famous golden rhino. It shows their fine craftsmanship in gold and other metals. You can see the golden rhino and more at the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria.

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape


Cultural and Botanical Landscape

In the Northern Cape lies a beautiful desert wilderness mainly inhabited by the Nama, a semi-nomadic people. They move their herds to different pastures according to the seasons, keeping the land from being overgrazed. This shows the sustainable relationship between the Nama and the land, which is a great example to us all. This is also an integral part of their culture, as is their language which is recognisable by the many clicks as a Khoisan language. Richtersveld is also where you can find several petroglyphs – pictures engraved by the San into rocks.

Petroglyphs by the San in Richtersveld

Cape Floral Region

Protected Areas

In the Western Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape, the Capensis Region is the smallest of the six floral kingdoms worldwide. It may be small, but it’s the most diverse of the six kingdoms with over 9000 flora species! It’s called the ‘hottest hotspot’ because of the various, mainly endemic plants that grow there (they’re not found anywhere else in the world).
About 70% of southern Africa’s most endangered plants are also found there. The region is studied for the adaptability that plants show to changes in the environment.
Most of the species are fynbos, which is Dutch for ‘fine-leaved plants’.

Floral species in protected areas

Robben Island

Located in the Western Cape, just off the coast of Cape Town, this island was found by Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias. The Dutch named it ‘robben’ after the Dutch word for seal. They first used it as a way station. Around 1671, they began using it as a prison. The English did the same, sending ‘undesirables’, like the mentally ill and lepers, there from 1846 to 1931. Years later, from 1961, it was a prison for political prisoners during the apartheid era. One of those prisoners was Nelson Mandela with the prison number 466/64.

Robben Island


Wetland Park

“iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale).”

President Nelson Mandela, 2001.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park


Drakensberg Park

Found on the border between Kwa-Zulu Natal and Lesotho, the Maloti-Drakensberg Park is home to some of the most beautiful mountain scenes, as well as San rock art paintings. Later, Bantu speaking people added rock art of their own. The park is also a big part of the botanical biodiversity of our country, as well as a home to endangered and endemic birds.

Vredefort Dome

In Gauteng 2023 million years ago, a meteorite crashed, causing a crater over 300km wide. This is the largest and oldest eroded meteorite crash site in the world. The Vredefort Dome is only part of that crater at around 190km wide. It’s studied because of its geological importance. It shows how the Earth has changed before, during and after this massive impact event.

How many of these places will you add to your bucket list?

Supernova Vol 6.2 cover

This article first appeared in Supernova Volume 6.2
Words by Caitlin Brown


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