Our Heritage

How we define heritage and culture

a) Definition of Heritage

“Heritage is what is preserved from the past as the living collective memory of a people not only to inform the present about the past but also to equip successive generations to fashion their future. It is what creates a sense of identity and assures rootedness and continuity, so that what is brought out by dynamism of culture is not changed for its own sake, but it is a result of people’s conscious choice to create a better life.”

b) Definition of Culture

“Culture is the sum total of what is produced collectively by a people’s creative genius. It is dynamic and it is always in motion. It is, therefore, always developing as a result of human action and interaction. Every society has a culture and at times a heterogeneous society like ours has several cultures. Some of these cultures are exploitive while others are liberating. All cultures have a material base and values which are reflective of a people’s creativity and uniqueness. They include tangible and the intangible”.

Quotes from Presidents

“When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation. 

We did so knowing that the struggles against the injustice and inequities of the past are part of our national identity; they are part of our culture. We knew that, if indeed our nation has to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of division and conflict, we had to acknowledge those whose selfless efforts and talents were dedicated to this goal of non-racial democracy.” Nelson Mandela Mandela, 23 September 1996, Uitenhage in Eastern Cape

“Clearly, we have a responsibility to utilise the many positive attributes of Ubuntu to build a non-racial, non-sexist and united South Africa. We also have to use to better effect the values and ethos of Ubuntu in our Moral Regeneration Campaign. This we should do because I am confident that all South Africans, black and white, will agree that this value system should characterise a South African.” Thabo Mbeki,Presidendent of RSA, 24 September 2005 in Taung North West Province. 

“We have suffered the indignity and the pain of the failure by the apartheid government to acknowledge and affirm our culture, in its efforts to separate and marginalised our people and discredit our very roots.

But our roots are strong and reach far beyond the narrow confines of any system of oppression. The strength of our past, the depth and breadth of our pre-colonial history, and our ability to adapt and grow have nourished us. Today Africa is recognised as the cradle of mankind. In our part of the continent we have a rich and varied past that is only now being appreciated for its complexity and diversity. Indeed our heritage is the foundation from which we are working to rebuild our society.” Jacob Zuma, President of RSA, 24 September 1999 in Pretoria

“I believe that a truly democratic country is a country that uses the spiritual talents and the heritage of its people to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” 

Our ancestors survived life in this extreme desert landscape because of their knowledge of the land, their ability to find and conserve water, their understanding of animals, as well as their vast knowledge of traditional plants and medicines. Indigenous knowledge too is part of our heritage” Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, Heritage Day 2019, Mxolisi Dicky Jacobs Stadium, Upington

Days of historic significance

When South Africa became a democratic state in 1994, the new government decided that the history of the country should be proudly celebrated by all South Africans. Significant days of the calendar marking historic events and turning points in the struggle for liberation were declared public holidays. This was one of the efforts of the government of national unity to remind all its citizens of where the country has experienced to earn the democracy that is presently enjoyed by all. Other days were declared public holidays to give the citizens an opportunity to unite and build one nation.

The public holidays for celebration and commemoration that will always be part of the heritage of South Africa are:

21 March – Heritage Day
27 April – Freedom Day
1 May – Worker’s Day
25 May – Africa Day
16 June – Youth Day
9 August – Women’s Day
16 December – Reconciliation Day

10 ways to celebrate our Heritage

  1. Find out what is the theme for this years’ Heritage Day celebrations and where the nearest public event will be held.
  2. Explore and discover our country by visiting heritage sites, museums, zoo or an elderly in the family or community.
  3. Learn the story of our flag – Did you know that our flag is the third most recognised flag in the world? It is also certainly one of the most loved by its people. Show your true colours and fly our flag – be an ambassador for South Africa and fly our flag in thought, word and deed. Take time to find out more about our national symbols (….list them here…).
  4. Celebrate our successes and share your life story; we have a lot to be proud of – we continue to inspire the world to a new way of doing things, because our unique combinations create refreshing possibilities.
  5. Learn our anthem – We must be the only country to have a national anthem composed in five different languages. Our anthem, with its different languages and its different tunes, is a reflection of the diversity of our nation, and the words of each verse proudly proclaim the love we all have for this awesome country.
  6. Recognise the role our past has played in shaping what South Africa has become today – read up on the parts of our history that you don’t know or haven’t thought of since you were a child. Read the biographies of some of South Africa’s awesome heroes and heroines. Remember the challenges and celebrate the successes.
  7. Get together with friends, family and neighbours to share a traditional meal and a great conversation about the good old days. Share stories and knowledge about cultural practices, traditions, ‘feel good’ stories and jokes.
  8. Learn one more of our 12 languages, including Khoi San, or at least some greetings and exciting phrases. Explore the culture attached to it – learn more about the other races of the South African nation and open your eyes to the amazing diversity of South Africa’s people.
  9. Celebrate our progressive constitution – no other country in the world is blessed with a constitution like ours – it’s one of the most progressive in the world. You can celebrate and commemorate this by exercising your democratic rights and respecting the rights of others to begin with.
  10. Live “Ubuntu” – “I am because we are” – show hospitality and warmth to fellow countrymen and visitors alike.

Mostly, it is about togetherness and teamwork, attributes that have helped to build the rainbow nation and that will keep the rainbow intact for years to come.

Historic Background

Our national holidays and their historic backgrounds


Human Rights Day
21 March


Historical background


In 1952, the Native Laws Amendment Act extended Government control over the movement of Africans to urban areas and abolished the use of the Pass Book in favour of a reference book that had to be carried by all Africans at all times.

Failure to produce the reference book on demand was a punishable offence, so the Pan-African Congress proposed an anti-pass campaign to start on 21 March 1960. All African men were to refuse to show their passes and to present themselves for arrest.

Campaigners gathered at police stations near Johannesburg. At the Sharpeville police station a scuffle broke out and part of a wire fence was trampled, allowing the crowd to move forward. The police opened fire, killing 69 people and wounding 180.

What happened next


In apartheid South Africa, this day became known as Sharpeville Day and although it was not part of the official calendar of public holidays, the event was commemorated by anti-apartheid movements.


Then, in 1996, in post-apartheid South Africa, the Constitution provided for the establishment of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC); its aim: to promote respect for human rights; to protect, develop and attain of human rights; and to monitor and assess the observance of human rights in South Africa. 

The SAHRC was launched on 21 March 1996, 35 years after the fateful events of 21 March 1960, and this is why we celebrate Human Rights Day on this date.

Freedom Day
27 April

Historical background


Freedom Day commemorates the first democratic elections held in South Africa on 27 April 1994, and is a day for thinking about peace, unity and the preservation of human dignity. 


Special meaning today


Why is this so important? Because we no longer have a situation in which political power is exercised by a minority of our population, to the exclusion of the majority. Instead, we focus on the fact that, when South Africa was liberated, both the oppressor and the oppressed were liberated. South Africans are now ‘One people with one destiny’. 


On Freedom Day, we also celebrate the efforts of those who fought for liberation and those who are still fighting for the vital and fundamental objective of a better life for all. We commit ourselves to ensuring the defence of the sacred freedoms we have won and we remind ourselves that the guarantee of these freedoms requires permanent vigilance.

Workers’ Day
1 May 

Historical background


In January 1973, there was a strike by 2 000 workers from the Coronation Brick & Tile Works in Durban, who marched to a nearby football stadium chanting Filumuntu ufesidikiza (‘Man is dead, but his spirit lives’). The next day there was a stoppage at the A.J. Keeler transport company, spurring stoppages at other factories. By the end of January, all of Durban’s major industrial complexes were faced with a wave of strikes as factory after factory downed tools. In fact, by early February, 30 000 workers had embarked on strike action for higher wages and better working conditions. 


A global day of salute


So why isn’t workers’ day in January? 

Well, our government salutes the workers of South Africa on 1 May, which is celebrated by workers and people around the world. This international public holiday is a testimony to the hard battles that workers in this country and in other parts of the globe have waged for workers’ rights and social justice over many decades. It is also a reminder of the many challenges that still confront working people and the poor in South Africa.

The South African working class has led the struggle for a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous, united nation. It has understood that workplace struggles can’t be separated from broader social struggles; that economic justice and equality can’t be achieved without national liberation. And it has argued that these struggles can’t be separated from the struggle for gender equality and women’s emancipation. 


Youth Day
16 June

Historical background


In 1975, protests started in African secondary schools after a came directive from the Bantu Education Department that Afrikaans had to be used on an equal basis with English as a language of instruction.

The issue, however, was not so much the Afrikaans as the whole system of Bantu education – which was characterised by separate schools and universities, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers.

On 16 June 1976, more than 20 000 pupils from Soweto began a protest march and in the wake of clashes with the police, and the violence that ensued, about 700 people, many of them youths, were killed. 


What happened next


This day, 16 June, became known as ‘Soweto Day’ – but today, we call it ‘Youth Day’.



National Women’s Day
9 August

Historical background


On 9 August 1956, over 20 000 women of all ages and races from across South Africa participated in a national march against the hated Pass laws that proposed restrictions on their movements. They marched together towards the Union Buildings in Pretoria. 


Many women wore traditional clothing, while others displayed the green, black and gold of the African National Congress. Some of the women marched with babies on their backs, or were accompanied by small children – both black and white.


The women concluded their demonstration by singing freedom songs like Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika and a new song which became not only the anthem of the march, but also the credo of South African women: ‘If you strike a woman, you strike a rock.’ 


The situation today


Today, Women’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on the status of women and the advances made since that historical day when South African women organised one of the largest and most successful protests in the country’s history. 


Even though the issues that concerned women then were very different to the issues facing women in modern-day South Africa, the background of the 1956 march has helped women to organise themselves to take up the challenges of the day. 

Heritage Day
24 September

Heritage Day, one of our recently declared public holidays, focusing on recognising aspects of South African culture that are both tangible and difficult to pin down: creative expression, our historical inheritance, language, the food we eat and the land in which we live.

Heritage has been defined as ‘that which we inherit: the sum total of wildlife and scenic parks, sites of scientific or historical importance, national monuments, historic buildings, works of art, literature and music, oral traditions and museum collections…’

Government determines a theme for each year’s celebrations. Within a broader social and political context, the day’s events have been a powerful way to encourage a unified South African identity, foster reconciliation and promote the idea that variety is a national asset.


The first Heritage Day commemoration took place on 24 September 1995


“When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.We did so knowing that the struggles against the injustice and inequities of the past are part of our national identity; they are part of our culture. We knew that, if indeed our nation has to rise like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of division and conflict, we had to acknowledge those whose selfless efforts and talents were dedicated to this goal of non-racial democracy.”

-Former President Nelson Mandela


 “We must work to rediscover and claim the African heritage, for the benefit especially of our young generations. From South Africa to Ethiopia lie strewn ancient fossils, which, in their stillness, speak still of the African origins of all humanity. Recorded history and the material things that time left behind also speak of Africa*s historic contribution to the universe of philosophy, the natural sciences, human settlement and organization and the creative arts. Being certain that not always were we the children of the abyss, we will do what we have to do to achieve our own Renaissance. We trust that what we will do will not only better our own condition as a people, but will also make a contribution, however small, to the success of Africa’s Renaissance, towards the identification of the century ahead of us as the African Century.”


-President Thabo Mbeki (taken from him his inaugural speech)

National Symbols

1. South African flag

Find out more

2. National Anthem

Find out more

3. National Orders

Find out more

4. Coat of Arms

Find out more

5. National Tree

Find out more

6. National Bird

Find out more

7. National Fish

Find out more

8. National Flower

Find out more

9. National Animal

Find out more

Cultural (5)

Natural (4)

Mixed (1)