South Africa’s first World Heritage Site

Saved from dune mining, the 1,328,901 hectare iSimangaliso Wetland Park was listed for its outstanding natural values as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 1999.

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The beauty and biological wealth of the greater iSimangaliso area was recognised by its proclamation as one of the first World Heritage Sites in South Africa. iSimangaliso Wetland Park was entered on the World Heritage List in 1999.

What is a World Heritage Site?

The member states of UNESCO adopted the World Heritage Convention in 1972. Countries who sign the Convention agree to work together to identify, protect, conserve and present the world’s irreplaceable cultural and natural heritage. While respecting national independence, the Convention recognises that there are some places on earth that are important to all the people of the world. Member states protect these outstanding sites in their country.

All countries have places of local or national heritage significance that are sources of national pride, but sites chosen for World Heritage listing represent, according to a set of agreed criteria, the best examples of cultural and natural heritage in the world. It is the universal value of World Heritage Sites, transcending national values, that makes a site in Egypt important to the people of Indonesia, Argentina and Australia, as well as to Egyptians. World heritage status places a particular responsibility for stewardship of World Heritage Sites on member states and site managers by recognising that all the people of the world have an interest in their survival.

Why was the iSimangaliso Wetland Park chosen?

Ten natural and cultural values have been identified which are used as criteria for choosing World Heritage Sites. A site has to fulfil only one criterion to be selected as a World Heritage Site. iSimangaliso was listed on the World Heritage List for three of the ten values recognised by the Convention.

These are:

  1. Outstanding examples of ecological processes (criterion vii)
  2. Superlative natural phenomena and scenic beauty (criterion ix)
  3. Exceptional biodiversity and threatened species (criterion x)

iSimangaliso Wetland Park’s rich biodiversity.

South Africa’s World Heritage Convention Act

South Africa signed the World Heritage Convention in 1997. In 1999, government developed special legislation, the World Heritage Convention Act (Act 49 of 1999), which incorporates the World Heritage Convention into South African law, in order to make sure that the principles and values of the Convention are applied to South Africa’s World Heritage Sites.

The Act brings a South African perspective to the management of World Heritage Sites by acknowledging the urgent national need for development and poverty alleviation. The Act requires government to find innovative and effective ways of combining the conservation of South Africa’s extraordinary endowment of natural resources with wealth-creating sustainable economic development. It is this integration of conservation and development that makes World Heritage Sites such as iSimangaliso a “new model in protected area management”.

South Africa’s World Heritage Convention Act supports the World Heritage Convention by placing a national obligation on the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority to present, promote and conserve the Park’s natural and cultural heritage. Apart from its extraordinary beauty and irreplaceable biodiversity, the Park is the largest protected area of recorded and potential Stone Age and Iron Age sites in South Africa. These sites provide significant evidence of the presence of people for thousands of years in the area, and important insights into how they lived in southeast Africa over time. The communities living in and around iSimangaliso today have a rich relationship with the land and natural environment. Cultural traditions, land use management practices and indigenous knowledge systems continue to shape the current environment. Less tangible but equally important are resources such as significant sacred spaces, oral traditions and rituals.

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