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Thursday, March 5, 2020 - 12:27

In order for an archaeological or palaeontological site to be declared a National Heritage Site, it must first be Graded as being of appropriate national cultural significance. At the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), our approach is that the Grading process should encompasses the lion’s share of the work in assessing a site’s significance in order to compile an extensive Grading nomination dossier. This paper represents observations gleaned from roughly six years’ experience as a heritage officer working with the grading of archaeological and palaeontological sites as National Heritage Sites, within the Archaeology, Palaeontology and Meteorites Unit, at SAHRA.

The Need for Grading

Section 3(3) of the National Heritage Resources Act (No. 25 of 1999)(NHRA) requires that all heritage resources be graded in order to be assigned the appropriate level of management responsibility - whether this responsibility rest at the Local, Provincial or National level – to a heritage resource and to indicate its significance. Therefore, cultural significance serves as the primary guideline whereby a site is graded. Grading is the process whereby an appropriate level of significance, and consequently the applicable level of management is established. Grading then informs what degree of formal site protection will be recommended.

Grade 1 sites are expected to exemplify development within South Africa, from its earliest geological formation, to the beginnings of humanity, and through its peopling - that illustrates the traditions, values, conflicts and achievements which formed contemporary South Africa, and possibly South Africa’s contribution to the world. Grade 1 sites are consequently regarded as having outstanding significance to South Africa. In order for a site to be recognized as Grade 1, it must satisfy the criteria set out in Section 3(3) and Section 7 of the NHRA, including the display of authenticity and carrying a national value and symbolic importance that promotes human understanding and contributes to nation building. The loss of a Grade 1 heritage site would significantly diminish the national heritage.


Klasies River Caves Eastern Cape


Grading and South African Heritage Legislation

Section 27 of the NHRA makes provision for places of exceptional cultural heritage significance to be designated as national heritage sites. The Act came into effect on 1 April 2000 and resulted in all national monuments declared by the former National Monuments Council and its predecessors to become provincial heritage sites, as provided for in Section 58 of the Act.

Under the terms of Section 27 of the NHRA, a permit is required for any changes, destruction, excavations or damage to a national heritage site. Once declared, Grade I sites, in accordance with Sections 7 and 27 of the NHRA, become National Heritage Sites and are managed by SAHRA. Provincial heritage sites fall within the domain of the various provincial heritage resources authorities.

Grading and Declaration - Two associated, yet distinct processes 

SAHRA is mandated to identify places and objects that have such exceptional qualities, through their association with historical events, persons and organisations, or that have such scientific, social or cultural value, that their influence is felt across the country. National Declaration is the acknowledgement of a site’s national significance, and aims to protect its authenticity and integrity. National Declaration represents the permanent, formal protection of a site, offered under Part 1 of Chapter 2 in the NHRA.

However, before an archaeological or palaeontological site is declared a National Heritage Site, it must first go through a process whereby its significance is Graded as being of Grade 1 national significance.


SAHRA at times acts as the site nominator and is then responsible for the whole Grading process, but since the NHRA allows for any person to submit a Grade 1 site nomination, numerous site nominations are received externally. When evaluating external nominations for Grading, some challenges have repeatedly presented themselves:

  • Mapping: It may sound simplistic; but deciding where a heritage site or landscape starts and ends, can present significant challenges. This is particularly the case with large geographical areas that can comprise of numerous sites, since including one site and excluding another can create the impression that one site is of greater significance - ideally one would like to declare an entire landscape, but this desire has to be tempered with cognizance of what can be effectively managed.
  • The deferment of conservation management plans can also be a problem - compiling these plans can take considerable time and expense, and experience has shown that they may end up being deferred indefinitely. This also means that, when considering a Grading nomination there is a bias towards sites that are being efficiently managed already. 
  • At times, efforts to get a site Graded represent less of an endeavour to formally recognise archaeological or palaeontological significance, than an attempt to try and halt development in an area where a heritage site happens to be present. This is often the case where calling on other developmental constraints, such as natural environment elements, has failed, and turning to heritage then represents a last ditch effort to constrain development.
  • Lack of capacity within SAHRA itself results in fewer sites being investigated and assessed for Grading per financial year than is desirable.
  • Conflict between the nominator and landowner can scupper the Grading of a heritage site: if the relationship between the landowner and academic researchers who have worked on a site has soured, this can lead to lack of support for Grading from the landowner. While landowner support is not explicitly required for Grading, in practice it is unlikely that a Grade 1 site will be formally declared a National Heritage Site in the absence of landowner support. 

When Grading is Successful

The decision whether or not to approve an archaeological or palaeontological site for Grade 1 significance is taken by the SAHRA Grading and Declarations Committee, who are informed by a nomination dossier compiled by the Archaeology, Palaeontology and Meteorites (APM) Unit. The comprehensiveness of this dossier is highly influenced by the quality of the information provided to the APM Unit by the nominator.

Sites Graded successfully have clearly defined and expressed significance on a national scale.

Conservation management plans do not have to be long or complex - but they do have to be practicable in that they clearly describe what remedial conservation efforts are or will be applied, and that the responsibility for the efforts is clearly assigned and accepted, and that demonstrates that a monitoring programme is in place or will be implemented..

About the author: Andrew Salomon is a Heritage Officer in the Archaeology, Palaeontology and Meteorites Unit at the South African Heritage Resources Agency.

Main image: Bushmanskloof San rock paintings in the Cederberg.


  1. The National Heritage Resources Act (No. 25 of 1999).
  2. Heritage Western Cape. Grading: Purpose and Management Implications.
  3. Department of Environmental Affairs. May 2017. Cultural Heritage Survey Guidelines And Assessment Tools For Protected Areas In South Africa
  4. The South African Heritage Resources Agency: https://www.sahra.org.za/heritage-protection/ 

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