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Heritage Objects

What is Heritage Objects?

SAHRA is mandated by the National Heritage Resources Act, No 25 of 1999 (the Act), to regulate the movement of heritage objects that may be publicly or privately owned. Heritage Objects described on the Gazetted List of Types of Objects (No 24116, 6 December 2002) are assessed according to certain criteria described in the Act (S32 (23). If the objects meet the criteria, and form part of the National Estate, they are protected and may not be exported without a permit. As the management of Heritage Objects is a national function, SAHRA is the permitting body. The List of Types has been aligned with and incorporated into the South African Revenue Services Prohibited and Restricted List. To see this list, go to:

Heritage Objects may be found in homes, museums, churches, schools, government buildings and universities. Most objects were produced to serve a specific purpose: a chair for sitting on, a weapon for defence, an artwork that expresses creativity, or jewellery for personal adornment. Some have been imbued with additional social and cultural meaning and, consequently, have a broader heritage value or significance for South Africa. They become meaningful when we know how and why they were made, who used them and how they may have influenced, or been influenced by individuals and communities. Irrespective of whether these heritage objects are in public or private ownership, they form part of what is defined as the National Estate.

What is the National Estate?

The National Estate is the total sum of heritage resources in South Africa worthy of preservation. These include places and objects to which oral traditions are attached or which are associated with living heritage; objects of historical and cultural significance; objects associated with leaders; historical settlements; landscapes and natural features of cultural significance; archaeological and paleontological sites; graves and burial grounds, including ancestral and royal graves; graves of traditional leaders and graves of victims of conflict; as well as sites relating to the history of slavery in South Africa.

Protection of Heritage Objects

Heritage Objects are protected either as types of objects as described on the List of Types referred to earlier or these may be Specifically Declared.

1. Types of Objects:

  • Objects recovered from the soil or waters of South Africa, including archaeological and paleontological objects, meteorites and rare geological specimens;
  •  Objects to which oral traditions are attached and which are associated with living heritage;
    Cultural objects including those sometimes referred to as decorative or fine arts, ethnographic and cultural objects;
  •  Military objects;
  • Objects associated with leaders and events in the history of South Africa;
  • Objects of scientific or technological interest; and
  • Books, records, documents, photographic positives and negatives, film or video material or sound recordings, excluding those that are public records as defined in section 1 (xiv) of the National Archives of South Africa Act, 1996 (Act No 43 of 1996).

Types of Objects in the custody of State institutions may not be alienated without SAHRA’s consent. SAHRA has systems and procedures in place and have good relations with the South African Police Service regarding the assessment of firearms intended for destruction. SAHRA also has good relations with Transnet in order to assess railway heritage intended to be alienated. SAHRA also ensures that interested and affected individuals and heritage bodies are consulted in the process. SAHRA has developed guidelines and procedures to ensure compliance

2. Specifically Declared Heritage Objects

Certain Types of Heritage Objects which are considered to be unique, special and/or under threat may be Specifically Declared. An example is the Broster Beadwork Collection, which was designated as a Specifically Declared Collection in 2014. Members of the public are welcome to nominate objects that they think are special in relation to the history and development of South Africa and submit these to SAHRA to be considered for declaration, and this nomination can also be done via SAHRIS. The ultimate decision to declare a Heritage Object/Collection as a Specifically Declared Heritage Object/Collection lies with the SAHRA Council.

Owners or Custodians of Specifically Declared Heritage Objects or Collections must apply for a permit from SAHRA if they intend to destroy, damage, disfigure or alter any Heritage Object or disperse any Collection. Apply for such a permit on SAHRIS.

The Export of Heritage Objects

Anyone who intends exporting an object described on the List of Types must apply for a permit from SAHRA and pay permit fees. Applications for permits to export a Heritage Objects are obtained via the South African Heritage Resources Information System (SAHRIS). Go to to login and make use of the system.
SAHRA is mandated to issue a permit or refuse an export permit. See list of permits refused. If SAHRA refuses to grant an export permit, the applicant has the right to appeal against SAHRA’s decision.

Import Control

No person may import any foreign cultural property of heritage value into South Africa other than through a Customs Port of Entry, and the export permit issued in the country of origin must be produced. A Customs Officer who has reason to believe that a person is attempting to import an object in contravention of the above, may attach the object concerned. The object will be kept in the custody of SAHRA until such time (not exceeding six months) as an investigation into the provenance of such object is completed.

Combatting Illicit Trafficking in Heritage Objects

Illicit trafficking refers to the illegal means by which heritage objects leave or enter South Africa. In order to combat illegal trafficking of South African heritage objects and to provide frameworks for appropriate action in the event of foreign heritage objects entering South Africa illegally:

• South Africa accepted the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in December 2003.
• South Africa is in the process of ratification of the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Property.

The above Conventions are international instruments to combat illicit trafficking of movable cultural property. In addition, SAHRA is a participant in the International Committee on Museums (ICOM) International Observatory on Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Goods.

The SAPS and Interpol investigates heritage related crime which includes objects stolen from museums as well as illicit trafficking. Reports of thefts of objects in museums can be reported on SAHRIS. The public are urged to inform SAHRA, report crimes on SAHRIS and/or to report heritage related crime to the SAPS.