Defining culture, heritage and identity (2023)

What is heritage and identity?

Questions of heritage and identity are not as straightforward as they might first appear. Perhaps the first and best place to begin addressing these topics is by acknowledging that in a country like South Africa, there is not one heritage, or an easily delineated set of distinct identities. The cultures, languages and heritages of South Africa are multiple, diverse, and dynamic. Intersectional issues of gender, ethnicity, and race further complicate the matter of identity and make it highly inadvisable to categorise the different people contained within South Africa’s borders. This is especially true in the wake of segregationsit Apartheid policies which attempted to divide and conquer the majority of the country's population by emphasising the ontological immiscibility of different races.

South Africa is heir to a legacy of autochthonous livelihoods (see, most famously, the Khoi and the San) as well as Bantu immigration; slavery; colonisation; settler economies; and liberation movements. These histories have all had a drastic effect on the make up of South Africa's population. Yet somehow through the interchange of cultures and sharing of cultural influences in the age of globalisation, there defiantly remains a tapestry of phenomena which can identifiably and unabmiguously to termed 'South Africa.' In this article we look at heritage, culture, identity in South Africa and attempt to provide some overview of what is meant when people speak of South African Heritage.


(Video) The importance of Heritage, Culture and Identity

Like 'heritage' and 'identity,' 'culture' is a term that causes much confusion and suffers from its misuse. Traditionally it has been used to refer to the ways of life of a specific group of people, including various ways of behaving, belief systems, values, customs, dress, personal decoration, social relationships, religion, symbols and codes. The pitfalls of the term are however, considerable. For instance, it is not unusal for European visitors to South Africa or Africa at large, to innocently enquire into the nature of "African Culture." Such an enquiry clearly makes little sense, for the Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Dinka, Himba, Berber, Arab, and so forth all represent vastly different modes of practice and have little in common save for the relative geographic proximity in relation to the rest of the globe. Even to ask about 'Zulu culture' is potentially wide of the mark, given how varied and dynamic the Zulu population is. While it is a stretch of the imagination to state that culture simply does not exist, as has been claimed by certain postmodern intellectuals, it remains difficult to reach a consensus about what the term really denotes. Is there such a thing as 'White culture' or 'Coloured culture,' for instance?

Throughout history, various people and institutions have attempted to define what is meant by culture. In 1871, one of the fathers of British social anthropology, Edward Burnett Tylor attempted to describe it 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." Once one begins to search for an adequate definition of culture, one quickly realises that there are so many to choose from it is virtually impossible to decide which one is best.

In South Africa, the question of definition according to race and culture carries an especially sharp edge to it, which potentially makes it a more contentious issue here than elsewhere. This is primarily due to the policies of the Apartheid government that sought to distinguish and segregate the country according to rigid definitions of race between 1948-1991. These policies reached their apotheosis in the establishment of the 'Bantustans,' which were created as homelands for the major different ethnic groups represented within South Africa's borders. For this reason, subsequent attempts to define the people of South Africa may easily carry an unpleasant connotation of racist categorisation from the past. With this proviso, South Africa has a hugely diverse population, representative of a vast spectrum of different languages, practices, and values.

Culture in South Africa

South Africa has been famously referred to as the rainbow nation because it is made up of so many diverse cultures and religions. Contained within South Africa's borders are Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Ndebele, Khoisan, Hindu, Muslim, and Afrikaner people to name but a few. All of these people are united by calling South Africa home, and therefore their lives all contribute to forming a part of the country’s heritage, identity and culture. Understanding that South Africa is composed of all these various influences is essential for helping 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.

(Video) The Relevance of Cultural Heritage: Identity


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 person can be a teacher, parent, spouse and driver to their children, as well as being a famous politician fighting for justice or a farmer growing crops for food. To this person it is possible to be all of these and much more. At the same time being a person of a particular race or class also influences one's identity. When people speak of 'intersectionality,' they are broadly referring to this way that a single person can be at the intersection of multiple different social identities. The experiences of a White, heterosexual, urban, and middle-class mother, for instance, will be vastly different to that of a Black, homosexual, rural, and working class single woman. Identity, in short, is made up of a multitude of factors and an individual is both subject to their circumstance and an agent able to influence which parts of themselves they present to the world.


Heritage might be best broken up into two types: natural and cultural. A country’s natural heritage is its 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 often designated World Heritage sites. They are respected and internationally protected against harm. Cultural heritage, on the other hand, can be an altogether more contentious issue. Normally, the term 'cultural heritage' is used to describe those things that contribute to the sense of identity of a particular population or community 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 area in which this can become problematic is when a part of somebody's cultural heritage seems to clash directly with the dignity of another person's, or where it appears to transgress established global human rights practices (as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). An example might be the practice of female genital mutilation or the display of monuments that celebrate the lives of people who were responsible for the deaths of vast numbers of people, such as Cecil John Rhodes.

Heritage and the South African Constitution

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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 the heritage and culture of its peoples. South Africa is widely considered to have one of the fairest and most progressive constitutions in the world.

In South Africa the vision of the constitution is for everybody to be equal. This means that nobody should be permitted to 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 recognition. 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 under the constitution. Other languages used in South Africa include Shona, French, Swahili, Lingala, Portuguese, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Tamil, Portuguese, Telegu and Urdu. Other languageslike Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit,used in certain religions, must also be respected.

World Heritage Sites in South Africa

A World Heritage Site is declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). There are two types of World Heritage Sites: the first represents cultural and the second natural heritage.

Cultural sites

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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 history.

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 display major stages in the earth’s history. They can be in fossils, rocks or other geological features.

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.

(Video) Fun Cultural Identity Examples Video What is Special about Cultural Heritage, Cultural Diversity?

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.

South Africa has 8 places declared as World Heritage Sites. These are:

  1. The iSimangaliso Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park
  2. The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park
  3. Robben Island
  4. The Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs
  5. The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
  6. Vredefort Dome
  7. The Cape Floral Region
  8. The Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape


What is culture heritage and identity? ›

Culture and identity shape the life expressions and needs of people. And precisely those expressions and needs of the cultures of the world basically constitute the diversity of cultures and the wealth of heritage. The protection of this heritage is only possible by acknowledging diversity.

What are the 3 types of cultural identity? ›

Any of these identity types can be ascribed or avowed. Ascribed identities are personal, social, or cultural identities that are placed on us by others, while avowed identities are those that we claim for ourselves (Martin & Nakayama, 2010).

How do you define cultural identity? ›

Cultural identity refers to identification with, or sense of belonging to, a particular group based on various cultural categories, including nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, and religion.

What are the 4 aspects of cultural identity? ›

Aspects of cultural identity
  • Nationality. It is the country that the person is born in, and/or the country that the person currently lives in. ...
  • Ethnicity. ...
  • Religion. ...
  • Education.
Dec 20, 2017

What are the 5 cultural identities? ›

Categories that make up cultural identities include sexuality, gender, religion, ethnicity, social class, or region. We are often born into our cultural identities.

What are examples of culture and heritage? ›

Cultural heritage includes artefacts, monuments, a group of buildings and sites, museums that have a diversity of values including symbolic, historic, artistic, aesthetic, ethnological or anthropological, scientific and social significance.

What is an example of a culture and identity? ›

Race, gender, sexuality, and ability are socially constructed cultural identities that developed over time in relation to historical, social, and political contexts. Race, gender, sexuality, and ability are cultural identities that affect our communication and our relationships.

What are examples of my cultural identity? ›

Sample Cultural Identifiers
  • Age.
  • Ethnicity.
  • Gender.
  • Race.
  • Religion.
  • Sexual Orientation.
  • Socioeconomic Status (Class)
  • Size and Weight.

What are the key elements of culture identity? ›

The major elements of culture are symbols, language, norms, values, and artifacts. Language makes effective social interaction possible and influences how people conceive of concepts and objects. Major values that distinguish the United States include individualism, competition, and a commitment to the work ethic.

What is cultural heritage in simple words? ›

1 Definition of Cultural Heritage. Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of society inherited from past generations.

What are the 7 characteristics of culture? ›

Traits: Seven (7) Major Traits of Culture
  • Learned.
  • Transmitted.
  • Based on Symbols.
  • Changeable.
  • Integrated.
  • Ethnocentric.
  • Adaptive.

How do you establish cultural identity? ›

8 Ways Students Can Build a Cultural Identity
  • Bond with Someone Who Knows the Culture. ...
  • Learn a Traditional Game and Share It. ...
  • Cook Traditional Foods. ...
  • Do a Traditional Dance. ...
  • Study Oral Traditions and Learn to Tell the Stories. ...
  • Read the Works of Early Authors. ...
  • Learn the Traditional Language.
Oct 4, 2022

What is the relationship between culture and identity? ›

Culture is a set of norms and values that we may not even know we have because we learn them as part of growing up in a group that shares them. Identity includes culture and many other personal things about you such as gender identity, education, religion, sexual orientation, and many others.

What are the 6 characteristics of culture? ›

There are several characteristics of culture. Culture is learned, shared, symbolic, integrated, adaptive, and dynamic.

What is the best definition of culture? ›

Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called "the way of life for an entire society." As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, art.

How do I identify my culture? ›

To identify your culture, examine your rules and traditions, and note what kinds of behaviors and employee interactions they result in. For example, if you have a dress code, what effect does it have on the workplace? Do your onboarding procedures cause new employees to feel welcomed or overwhelmed?

What is an example of identity? ›

Examples of social identity include: race, ethnicity, gender, sex, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, age, religion/religious beliefs, national origin, and emotional, developmental disabilities and abilities.

What are the 8 aspects of culture? ›

In this section, we will address eight cultural variables: human nature, time, action, communication, space, power, individualism/collectivism, and competitiveness/cooperativeness. These major variables offer a simple frame of reference for examining culture and understanding its major characteristics.

What are the 3 types of heritage? ›

The three elements used to describe historic heritage are Fabric, Stories and Culture. One or all of these things make up the historic heritage of a place.

What are four cultural heritage examples? ›

Examples of cultural heritage include tangible assets such as visual art, food, clothing, and styles of architecture along with intangible assets such as legends, music, and values like generosity or respect.

How does heritage impact identity? ›

Heritage is important because ...

In helping shape our identity, our heritage becomes part of what we are. Our expression of this identity shows others what we value; it highlights our values and priorities. Our heritage provides clues to our past and how our society has evolved.

What are 10 examples of culture? ›

The following are illustrative examples of traditional culture.
  • Norms. Norms are informal, unwritten rules that govern social behaviors. ...
  • Languages. ...
  • Festivals. ...
  • Rituals & Ceremony. ...
  • Holidays. ...
  • Pastimes. ...
  • Food. ...
  • Architecture.
May 10, 2018

What is identity and its types? ›

Multiple types of identity come together within an individual and can be broken down into the following: cultural identity, professional identity, ethnic and national identity, religious identity, gender identity, and disability identity.

Why is cultural identity important? ›

We all have a right to know who we are, and where we are from. The people, places and stories of our families are a part of the unique story of who we are. Understanding your history can help build your personal growth and well being, and helps to connect us with each other.

What is an example of American culture? ›

Most Americans are always on the go. It seems they are often running from one appointment to the next, going to and from work, picking up kids, running errands, and going to business meetings and social outings. Because Americans are regularly on the move, there is often not enough time to have a formal, sit-down meal.

Is age a cultural identity? ›

Age identities

Age is also one aspect of our identity. Cultures view and treat people of different ages in different ways. For example, in Asian cultures, getting old is seen as positive.

What are the two main characteristics of identity in culture? ›

Identity has two important features: continuity and contrast. Continuity means that people can count on you to be the same person tomorrow as you are today. Obviously, people change but many important aspects of social identity remain relatively stable such as gender, surname, language and ethnicity.

What is the most important element of cultural identity? ›

1. Language. Your culture and identity are first formed when you learn to speak. Depending on the language that you are born into will help to define who you become.

What are the four essential elements of identity? ›

The Four Core Elements
  • Your Sense of Significance.
  • Your Purpose.
  • Your Personal Qualities.
  • Your Values.

What is an example of culture and identity? ›

Race, gender, sexuality, and ability are socially constructed cultural identities that developed over time in relation to historical, social, and political contexts. Race, gender, sexuality, and ability are cultural identities that affect our communication and our relationships.

What is the meaning of culture and heritage? ›

Culture - Culture can be defined as the sum of habits, skill, traditions, customs, religion, beliefs. Heritage - Heritage are the various touchable and untouchable things that are passed to us by our ancestors and have a cultural or social significance.

How does cultural heritage affect identity? ›

It is not a matter of buildings, stones or about intangible traditions; our cultural heritage is our identity, it represents our values, belongings, our strength, continuity and our pride. It is the treasure that we want our children to learn about and to keep for the following generations.

How is culture and identity important? ›

We all have a right to know who we are, and where we are from. The people, places and stories of our families are a part of the unique story of who we are. Understanding your history can help build your personal growth and well being, and helps to connect us with each other.

How do you define culture? ›

Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called "the way of life for an entire society." As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, art.

What defines your heritage? ›

Defining Your Heritage

Heritage is a person's unique, inherited sense of family identity: the values, traditions, culture, and artifacts handed down by previous generations. We absorb a sense of our heritage throughout our lives as we observe and experience the things that make our family unique.

Why is identity and heritage important? ›

Our expression of this identity shows others what we value; it highlights our values and priorities. Our heritage provides clues to our past and how our society has evolved. It helps us examine our history and traditions and enables us develop an awareness about ourselves.

What are the cultural identity issues? ›

Challenges related to race and cultural identity
  • Interpersonal discrimination: Many people face racial and/or cultural discrimination on a direct, personal level. ...
  • Structural and institutional discrimination: Large-scale racial and cultural inequalities are entrenched in many modern-day societies.

How do you maintain cultural identity? ›

Share your culture's art and technology with others. Each culture has its own clothing, music, visual art, religious beliefs, and other characteristics that make it special. Members of your cultural community will be overjoyed to teach or talk about their hobbies, jobs, projects, and what they do for fun.

What is a sentence for cultural identity? ›

It has become an integral part of our cultural identities. The wealth of marine life contributes significantly to the country's economy and cultural identity. Much of her photography is concerned with issues of migration and cultural identity.

What is an example of cultural identity conflict? ›

Examples of such conflicts include conflicts between Blacks and Whites, Arabs, or Hispanics about race-related issues; conflicts between different ethnic or religious groups, conflicts about sexual-orientation, even gender conflicts.


1. WHAT IS CULTURAL HERITAGE? And how can we preserve our world heritage through Science?
(Maria Baias)
2. Cultural Heritage: What is It?
(Kraków Heritage)
3. defining culture, heritage and identity. #africanwear #africanstich #africanfashion
(The African Stich (Pty) Ltd)
4. Culture, Heritage & Identity.
(Sojourn Psychology)
5. Heritage and Identity
(The Sustainable Culture Lab)
6. Aleida Assmann "The Concept of Cultural Heritage"
(Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte)


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