By Sinazo Mkoko

When it comes to heritage, South Africa is one rich country. The country recognises September as Heritage Month with the 24th of September marking Heritage Day, where the cultural wealth of the nation is celebrated. 

The day is celebrated by remembering the cultural heritage of the people that make up the population of South Africa. Various events are staged throughout the country to commemorate this day.

The South African government says that “living heritage is the foundation of all communities and an essential source of identity and continuity.”

“Aspects of living heritage include: cultural tradition, oral history, performance, ritual, popular memory, skills and techniques, indigenous knowledge system and the holistic approach to nature, society and social relationships.” 

In South Africa the term “intangible cultural heritage” is used interchangeably with the term “living heritage”.

For this year’s heritage month, the government is urging members of the public to use this time to foster greater social cohesion, nation-building and a shared national identity.

“The celebration of Heritage Month has created a conducive environment for all people to embrace and celebrate what was inherited or bequeathed to us by our forebears. We call on all South Africans to support the culture of reading and incorporate it into their daily lifestyles. It is important to encourage your children to visit a library and start reading at an early age so that they grow up with the passion for reading as this develops a broader vocabulary and increased general knowledge.” 

Here Public Sector Leaders looks into several aspects of our country’s heritage. 

Cultural heritage

A home to millions of culturally diverse people, South Africa is known as the rainbow nation because of the myriad of people with different cultures and religions. The country has 11 officials languages which include: isiZulu, isiXhosa, Setswana, Sesotho sa Leboa (also known as Northern Sotho), Sesotho, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, Afrikaans and English.

During Heritage Month, people who speak these languages take pride in their languages and dress up in their different traditional attires to celebrate their cultural heritage. They are all united South Africans who proudly form part of South Africa’s cultural heritage. The well-known activist, Mahatma Gandhi, summed it up perfectly when he said: “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.”

Living Heritage and Indigenous Peoples

The rich and vast knowledge that indigenous people pass from generation to generation from cultural practices to expressions, representations and knowledge, is of utmost importance to our societies. According to UNESCO, “the practice and transmission of this heritage contributes to the ongoing vitality, strength and wellbeing of communities.”

In its preamble, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage says that “‘communities, in particular indigenous communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals, play an important role in the production, safeguarding, maintenance and recreation of the intangible cultural heritage.” 

Performing arts 

South Africans have innate artistic skills from dancing to singing, poetry and story-telling, performing arts has always been a huge part of our heritage. When words fail, the performances start and the rhythm and ullulations tell stories and express the pride South Africans have in their roots. 

However, UNESCO warns that many forms of performing arts are under threat today. “As cultural practices become standardised, many traditional practices are abandoned. Even in cases where they become more popular, only certain expressions may benefit while others suffer.” 

“Cultural media, institutions and industries can also play a crucial role in ensuring the viability of traditional forms of performing arts by developing audiences and raising awareness amongst the general public. Audiences can be informed about the various aspects of a form of expression, allowing it to gain a new and broader popularity, while also promoting connoisseurship which, in turn, encourages interest in local variations of an art form and may result in active participation in the performance itself,” says UNESCO. 


The purpose of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage:

(a) to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage;

(b) to ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned;

(c) to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of the importance of the intangible cultural heritage, and of ensuring mutual appreciation thereof;

(d) to provide for international cooperation and assistance.


The “intangible cultural heritage” is manifested inter alia in the following domains:

(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;

(b) performing arts;

(c) social practices, rituals and festive events;

(d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;

(e) traditional craftsmanship.


SA Gov

SA History


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