Posted on August 29, 2013
In its deliberations to determine its main function and its programmes in 2012, the Council of the National Heritage Council of South Africa agreed to first determine a common understanding of its members of what they were about. Their point of departure was to ask if they are to protect, promote and preserve heritage, what is it that they were to preserve. The answer that they were looking for was not to tabulate each and everything that had to be declared as heritage; however they were looking for a generic definition that could give a clear articulation of that which can be defined as heritage.

They further went on to acknowledge that there were different definitions of heritage informed by UNESCO and other conventions, different International dictionaries, scholars and practitioners, however, there was no definition that was found to be uniquely African and without a Eurocentric bias.

In terms of South African legislation;

i) The National Heritage Council Act, 1999 (Act No.11 of 1999) does not define Heritage let alone make a distinction between natural and cultural heritage as such but provides a definition of Living Heritage instead. Section 2 of the Act provides that: Living Heritage means the intangible aspects of inherited culture, and may include,
a) Cultural traditions;
b) Oral history;
c) Performance;
d) Ritual;
e) Popular memory;
f) Skills and technology;
g) Indigenous knowledge system; and
h) The holistic approach to nature, society, and social relationships.
(Section 2 NHC Act, 1999)

ii) The National Heritage Resources Act, 1999 (Act No. 25 of 1999) equally defines Living Heritage the same way the NHC Act, 1999 does.

iii) The White Paper on Arts and Culture does not define Living Heritage and makes no distinction between cultural and natural heritage.

Over the past year the Council commissioned different groupings and task teams to investigate and research a definition that could be found to be all encompassing. A definition which is short, precise and generic has now been agreed on.

As part of the recommendations that had been proffered to the different Task Teams, the following breakdown of the definition of the concept of Heritage was given:

a) The first point to be made was that a definition should not tell a story but should be short enough in order to be internalised by all those who use the concept on a daily basis.

b) The second point was that there is a difference between a definition and characteristics of a 'thing' or 'matter'. In this regard, when defining heritage it is difficult to remain within the boundaries of a definition and exclude the characteristics.

c) Thirdly, heritage is being referred to as being tangible or intangible meaning that some can be touched, felt or seen, while other forms cannot. In the definition this is aligned with the words remnants, which could be replaced by remains. The alternative word 'remains' was offered since the definition of remnants in the dictionary implies that remnants are not necessarily important.

The Council adopted definition for your input is as follows:

'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.'

The NHC invites you to scrutinise the definition of heritage provided above, and to forward your comments:

Email to:, or
Fax: (012) 348 1698
Post: PO. Box 74097, Lynnwood Ridge, South Africa, 0040

For further information please contact Mr Siseko Ntshanga at 012 348 1663.