Iconic South African heritage buildings and sites

Annually on 24 September, South Africa celebrates Heritage Day in recognition of its rich and diverse cultural wealth.


Located on Burgers Park in Pretoria, Melrose House is a stately mansion and museum. This is where the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902 between the British and the then two Boer republics, Transvaal and Orange Free State, thus ending the Anglo-Boer War (now called the South African War) of 1899 to 1902. The house belonged to a wealthy businessman, George Heys, who had to leave his home for the duration of the war after the British commander Lord Roberts requisitioned it as his headquarters. Image by Sam J Basch.

Heritage Day encourages South Africa’s citizens to share different traditional foods. We are definitely up for braais/shisha nyama, chakalaka and pap, biltong, droewors or boerewors, bunny chow or bobotie, malva pudding and melktert! Then there’s our wonderful and diverse music and art. We can also showcase our historic buildings – many now popular tourist spots. Heritage Day is definitely the day to promote South African traditions and customs.


Bo-Kaap: This area is well-known for its quaint and colourful homes with its cobble-stoned streets. Image supplied.

While many of us await this day to celebrate; others, like our very own, Sam J Basch, avid photographer with a passion for architecture and history, took to the streets to photograph some iconic historic commercial buildings.

“South African historic buildings are fascinating – they tell stories of yesteryear – and over the years, one can see how much has changed in architecture and the stories they tell now,” says Basch.


Chancellor House: Located at the corner of Fox Street and Gerard Sekoto Street in Ferreirasdorp Johannesburg, this was home to the law firm of the late former Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. This heritage site is now a popular tourist attraction. Image by Sam J Basch.

On his many assignments, Basch has captured amazing photographs of buildings, mostly historical. These buildings add to the richness of South Africa’s history, and have resulted in noteworthy references for academics, architects, historians and ordinary South Africans and visitors. Basch’s love for architecture is seen in the unwritten stories he tells through the lens of his camera.


Bo-Kaap: Formerly known as the Malay Quarter in Cape Town, Bo-Kaap is a historical centre of Cape Malay culture, and is also home to the Nurul Islam Mosque established in 1844. Image supplied.

Renowned architects who designed many of these historic buildings include Sir Herbert Baker –the main architect for the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and Helmut Jahn, who designed 11 Diagonal Street in Johannesburg among others. Baker is famous for designing many affluent and heritage homes in Johannesburg.


11 Diagonal Street (Diamond building): Designed by Helmut Jahn, the 80 metre-tall building looks like a diamond, with spectacular views of the inner city. According to Johannesburg In Your Pocket, this is a great place to buy fabrics, examine traditional artefacts, see public art and soak in the city atmosphere. Image by Sam J Basch.

Artefacts.co.za describes Baker’s architectural style as “a combination of the indigenous Cape Dutch which evolved into designs that fulfilled the practical needs of his time, while providing an adequate response to the challenge of the African landscape.”


Bo Kaap: According to the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the area contains the largest concentration of pre-1850 architecture in South Africa, and is the oldest surviving residential neighborhood in Cape Town. Image supplied.

One science daily describes architecture as being the art and science of designing a building, which also has various styles that speak of a certain era. In fact, if you look around, architecture really is everywhere. For example, our homes are architecturally designed (okay…not all homes are fit for flaunting on TV, but they are functional for those who live there). Our schools, hospitals, shopping centres and gyms are also designed for purpose with various elements to inspire our senses.

What are heritage properties?

No person may alter or demolish any structure or part of a structure which is older than 60 years without a permit issued by the relevant provincial heritage resources authority. These buildings require preservation because of their historical, architectural, cultural, aesthetic or ecological value – also to preserve parts of the past for the benefit of the generations to come. Archaeological sites, ruins and remains are also covered under the term heritage sites.


No person may alter or demolish any structure or part of a structure which is older than 60 years without a permit issued by the relevant provincial heritage resources authority. Image supplied.
Image by: Supplied

There are a number of heritage homes across South Africa, with some that are notable in Johannesburg and the Western Cape. They too, “are considered to be heritage when the structure is over 60 years,” says Byron Thomas, principal at Byron Thomas Properties.

Thomas advises that if you want to buy a heritage property, you should do some thorough research first. Portals such as The Heritage Portal contains useful information for anyone interested in historic buildings.

“Any buyer or new owner who wants to make changes to a heritage property will require approval to enable the property’s heritage to be well-cared for and preserved in line with the regulations,” says Thomas.


Gauteng Legislature: Situated at the corner of Rissik and Helen Joseph Streets in Johannesburg, this iconic building is the legislature of the South African province of Gauteng. Image by Sam J Basch.

According to Tony Clarke, managing director of the Rawson Property Group, there are three tiers of rules that apply to anyone who owns a heritage property, or a property in a heritage area.

  • Tier One is a Heritage Overlay Zone, usually found in historic suburbs such as Chelsea Village in Cape Town. This protects the unique character and style of an area as a whole, and affects all the properties in the zone, regardless of their individual heritage statuses.
  • Tier Two is specific to individual properties, and applies to any building older than 60 years or of particular architectural value.
  • Tier Three applies only to buildings that are officially classified as National Monuments or Provincial Heritage Sites.

A person who buys a heritage home to live in usually appreciates the charm, character and integrity of these properties. Thomas says that buyers fall in love with the spacious houses and established gardens, unusual pressed ceilings, stripped wooden floors, the architecture and build quality, which characterise many heritage homes and buildings.

“These homes are often found in established areas that are in close proximity to the best schools, treed roads, as well as wonderful restaurants and parks. All of which offer a lifestyle that is not easily replicated in the newer suburbs.”


Old South African Reserve Bank: The Old South African Reserve Bank building, now called 40 Church Square, was designed by Sir Herbert Baker and A.L Scott. The entrance doors and screens are of cast bronze; the domed vestibule that is panelled in slate has a number of strongly modelled reliefs representing sources of African wealth, according to Artefacts.co.za. The South African Reserve Bank opened for business on 30 June 1921, making it the oldest central bank in Africa. The first banknotes were issued to the public by the bank on 19 April 1922. Image by Sam J Basch.

According to Thomas, depending on where you are looking, heritage homes can start from as little as R850 000 and can go up to R40 million.

Owning a heritage property means owning a valuable and sentimental South African artefact – both aesthetically pleasing and with a rich historical story attached to it.

Edited by fellow-Safrean, Gudrun Kaiser.

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