The South African Constitution and the National Heritage Resources Act form the cornerstone of heritage legislation in South Africa.

The Constitution enshrines the right to a healthy and protected environment. Everyone has the right to have the environment protected through, among others, the promotion of heritage conservation. It also dictates that the state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on the basis of culture.

The National Heritage Resources Act gives form to the protection of heritage rights. The preamble to the Act succinctly captures the positive role of heritage in our society:

This legislation aims to promote good management of the national estate, and to enable and encourage communities to nurture and conserve their legacy so that it may be bequeathed to future generations. Our heritage is unique and precious and it cannot be renewed. It helps us to define our cultural identity and therefore lies at the heart of our spiritual well-being and has the power to build our nation. It has the potential to affirm our diverse cultures, and in so doing shape our national character. Our heritage celebrates our achievements and contributes to redressing past inequities. It educates, it deepens our understanding of society and encourages us to empathise with the experience of others. It facilitates healing and material and symbolic restitution and it promotes new and previously neglected research into our rich oral traditions and customs.

Making the case for heritage conservation

There are many reasons why heritage is important to our country. These can be grouped as economic, environmental and social.

The economic argument  

  • The cultural and creative industries (of which heritage forms a subset) account for nearly 3% of total employment in South Africa. Those working in cultural occupations account for slightly more jobs than the mining sector and about two-thirds as many as agriculture.
  • South African Tourism in 2017 reported that 16,2%, or 1 666 202, of all foreign tourists engaged in activities linked to culture, heritage and history. This is a 54,2% increase over the previous figures in 2016 and 2015. Cultural and heritage tourism is therefore earning international tourism receipts and is set to grow in a sector that has been prioritised by government.
  • Preservation and conservation of buildings are much more labour intensive than new-build construction. Simply put, the rehabilitation of buildings creates more jobs on average than new construction. When you consider that 2–3% of building stock needs to be rehabilitated annually, this means perpetual employment in building trades.
  • The skills required for building rehabilitation, restoration and conservation tend to be higher earning skills. In essence, therefore, heritage offers decent, skilled employment.
  • Heritage conservation tends to support small and medium-sized businesses that are locally owned. Conservation boosts local entrepreneurship.
  • Internationally, heritage tourism is a fast-growing sub-set of the tourism economy. In the US, for example, research shows that heritage tourists tend to spend more than other tourists and they tend to stay longer. In the US, cultural tourists are also more likely to visit more than one state, thus boosting the geographic spread of tourism.
  • In the US, the revitalisation of historic inner-city centres and main streets have demonstrated how such initiatives benefit property values, reduce business vacancies and boost both formal and informal retail activities. Investment in the heritage environment creates and sustains investment and jobs. Research in Europe and North America also shows that investment in heritage conservation can have counter-cyclical economic benefits.
  • The restoration and conservation of buildings can help to put unutilised buildings back to productive use. Investment in heritage buildings – particularly landmark public buildings – creates long-term, sustainable assets for the community.

The environmental argument  

It has been argued that the greenest buildings are heritage buildings, and with good reason. Research by the Department of Environmental Affairs shows that waste from construction and demolition is the third biggest contributor of waste to landfill in South Africa. At present only 6% of this waste is recovered and recycled.

By rehabilitating or repurposing existing buildings a number of environmental benefits can be achieved:

  • Reduction in vehicle miles travelled during construction and hence a reduction in CO2 emissions
  • Retention of embodied energy (the amount of labour and energy consumed in the production of a building, from the harvesting of natural resources to the fabrication and delivery of materials to the installation of these materials and products)
  • Preservation of greenfield land
  • Less construction debris in landfills which in turn means less land required for new landfills
  • Reduction in infrastructure investment which would otherwise be required to service a greenfield development

Historic communities also tend to be more sustainable. They are better located in relation to existing transport infrastructure and they are more efficient owing to compact building design and urban layout. As a result, they are more pedestrian and cycle friendly. In the US, they tend to have higher densities due to smaller erf sizes. Heritage conservation is also a close ally of nature conservation and local conservation bodies actively lobby for the preservation of open space, trees, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas.

The social argument

In the US, historic communities tend to be more racially inclusive and more integrated. They also tend to offer their residents a better urban quality, improved walkability and are more likely to be mixed-use and more culturally diverse. Heritage buildings often provide opportunities for affordable housing and support small business incubation as older historic properties are often found in areas where rents are more affordable. Historic communities are also more likely to be distinctive and attractive, creating a strong sense of place. In essence heritage buildings form a major component of a quality urban environment – the better the quality of the urban environment the more likely that community will attract skilled workers and tourists.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the United Nations sustainable development goals call on governments and communities to strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Concern with heritage conservation is therefore a global sustainable concern.


Construction Education and Training Authority. Undated. A five year sector skills plan: 2017 – 2002

Department of Environmental Affairs. 2018. South Africa State of Waste: A report on the state of the waste. First draft report.

Hadisi, S & Snowball, J. Undated. Employment in the Cultural and Creative Industries in South Africa.

Rypkema, D. 2001. Heritage Conservation and the Local Economy. Presentation delivered to the Urban Heritage Strategies course, Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies, Rotterdam, 22 June 2011. 

South African Cultural Observatory. 2016. Research Report: Transformation and job creation in the cultural and creative industries in South Africa.