SA History: Defining culture, heritage and identity.

What is heritage and identity?

People learn and are influenced by the place and the people around them. In a country like South Africa many people have learned from stories told to them. These stories carry information and ideas about life and living and shared customs, traditions and memories passed on from parents to children. In this article we will look at heritage, culture, identity and World Heritage Sites in South Africa.


Culture refers to the way of life of a specific group of people. It can be seen in ways of behaving, beliefs, values, customs followed, dress style, personal decoration like makeup and jewellery, relationships with others and special symbols and codes. Culture is passed on from one generation (parents) to the next (children). Culture is not static but always changing as each generation contributes its experience of the world and discards things that are no longer useful to them.

Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.” As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief.

Various definitions of culture reflect differing theories for understanding, or criteria for evaluating, human activity. Edward Burnett Tylor writing from the perspective of social anthropology in the UK in 1871 described culture in the following way: “Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

More recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2002) described culture as follows: “… culture should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.

While these two definitions cover a range of meaning, they do not exhaust the many uses of the term “culture.” In 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of “culture” in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions.

These definitions, and many others, provide a catalog of the elements of culture. The items cataloged (e.g., a law, a stone tool, a marriage) each have an existence and life-line of their own. They come into space-time at one set of coordinates and go out of it another. While here, they change, so that one may speak of the evolution of the law or the tool.

A culture, then, is by definition at least, a set of cultural objects. Anthropologist Leslie White asked: “What sort of objects are they? Are they physical objects? Mental objects? Both? Metaphors? Symbols? Reifications?” In Science of Culture (1949), he concluded that they are objects “sui generis”; that is, of their own kind. In trying to define that kind, he hit upon a previously unrealized aspect of symbolization, which he called “the symbolate”–an object created by the act of symbolization. He thus defined culture as “symbolates understood in an extra-somatic context.” The key to this definition is the discovery of the symbolate.

Seeking to provide a practical definition, social theorist, Peter Walters, describes culture simply as “shared schematic experience”, including, but not limited to, any of the various qualifiers (linguistic, artistic, religious, etc.) included in previous definitions.

How does culture happen?

Culture is not something you are born with. It is learned from family, school, religious teachings, television and media and the government of a country. Advertisements, magazines and movies are also powerful guides. For example American music videos promote a certain style of dress, values, expression and attitude for young people. Many young people like the cool speak of American pop music rather than talking in their home language. Schools and religious organisations also play a big role. Religion has many rituals specific to a particular culture.

South Africa has been called the rainbow nation because it is made up of so many diverse cultures. Cultural practices are how we talk and behave, the ways in which we pray, the special things we do when we have festivals, births and deaths. We have groups with different languages, religions, race, customs and traditions e.g. Zulu, Ndebele, Khoisan, Hindu, Muslim and Afrikaner people. All of these people are united by being South African and all of their ways of life form part of our country’s identity and culture. It is important to promote and be proud of our South African culture and identity. This helps South Africans to understand and respect each other and to learn from each other’s cultural practices. This is part of the healing that democracy has brought after culture was used to divide South Africans in the past. For this reason the government has a project called “Proudly South African” that encourages South Africans to value each other and the country.


A person’s identity is made up of their own character combined with their family and social roots. Identity, like culture, is ever changing. For example a woman can be a teacher, mother, wife and driver to her children. She can also be a famous politician fighting for justice or a farmer growing crops for food. She may also be involved in looking after her community or supporting the extended family. To herself she may be all of these and much more. At the same time her being a woman of a particular race or being rich or poor influences her identity.


A person’s heritage is made up of the practices and traditions that are passed on from parents to children. Heritage is also about what has been passed on from the family, community and place where people have been raised. For example a person may have grown up in a family of medical professionals or in a proudly Zulu family where the old customs are still followed. This is part of their heritage. People also have a national heritage. A person who was born in South Africa has a South African heritage. This also means they have an African heritage because they were born on this continent.

There are different types of heritage. A country’s natural heritage is its beautiful environment and natural resources like gold and water. Areas that are very special and where animals or plants are in danger of extinction like the St. Lucia Wetlands and uKhahlamba Drakensberg Parks in KwaZulu Natal are world heritage sites. They are respected and protected against harm.

Cultural heritage is formed by those things or expressions that show the creativity of people. These can be special monuments, like a building, sculpture, painting, a cave dwelling or anything important because of its history, artistic or scientific value. The styles of buildings can also be part of our cultural heritage because of their architecture, where they are built or what they were used for. Robben Island, The Cradle of Humankind at the caves of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai in Gauteng, the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and the ancient city of Mapungubwe in Limpopo are all examples of South Africans cultural heritage.

Heritage and the South African Constitution

What is a constitution?

A constitution is the guiding law on a country’s values and rules. A constitution directs the government and all the people who live in a country on the rules for how citizens should be treated and how they should treat others. A constitution supports and protects a country and its peoples’ heritage and culture. South Africa is said to have one of the fairest constitutions in the world.

In South Africa everybody is equal. This means that nobody should discriminate against anyone else because of things like skin colour, age, religion, language or gender. South Africans have human rights that are protected. For example, some schools have turned away children who have AIDS. However, the law protects these children’s rights to an education. In the same way the right to practice different religious beliefs is protected. Every person has the right to be part of any religion and to use the language of their choice. For this reason South Africa has 11 official languages so that all the major languages used in the country are given equal value. These languages are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. Languages used by smaller groups such as the Khoi, Nama, San and sign language must also be respected. Other languages used in South Africa like German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil, Portuguese, Telegu and Urdu and languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit, used in certain religions, must also be respected.

The constitution of South Africa rules that everyone in South Africa is free to practice whatever culture they wish and speak any language they choose so long as this does not harm anyone else’s freedom to do the same.

World Heritage Sites in South Africa

A World Heritage Site is declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). For a place to be included on the World Heritage List it has to meet certain requirements.

South Africa has 6 places declared as World Heritage Sites. These are:

  1. The Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park
  2. The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park
  3. Robben Island
  4. The Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site (old classroom piece focused on this site, been incorporated into SAHO feature)
  5. The Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs
  6. The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

They were chosen because they meet the UNESCO requirements for the declaration of a World Heritage Site. There are two types of World Heritage Sites. The first represents cultural and the second natural heritage.

Cultural sites

Cultural heritage sites have to show a masterpiece of human creativity or an important exchange of human values over a long period of time. This exchange must be seen in architecture or technology, the planning of the town or city and the design of the landscape. It has to show evidence of a tradition or civilisation that has disappeared or is still alive. It can also be a very good example of a type of building, group of buildings, and use of technology or reflect important stages in human hist

A place where humans settled and used the land in a way that represents their culture can also be a cultural heritage site, especially if the area is affected by change that cannot be reversed. The authenticity and the way the site is protected and managed are also important factors.

Natural sites

Natural sites that can be considered to become World Heritage Sites must show major stages in the earth’s history. This can be in fossils, rocks and how the land and natural features like mountains have been influenced.

If an area contains rare natural formations, like unique rock shapes, or is very beautiful, or has habitats and species of animals and plants that can only exist there, it becomes important to protect it. This also makes it a possible World Heritage Site. As with cultural sites, preservation is very important.

Some special places fall into both cultural and natural heritage sites and in 1992 UNESCO decided that places that show the relationship between people and their environment could also be cultural landscapes.


Source; sahistory.org


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