Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve in Mpumalanga. Picture: 123RF/ BENJAMINBOECKLE
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve in Mpumalanga. Picture: 123RF/ BENJAMINBOECKLE

SA hopes the Barberton mountains will be added to the global list of UN World Heritage Sites this weekend.

The 42nd session of the World Heritage Committee will decide on 31 applications for sites to be given heritage status on Friday and Saturday.

The annual conference of the committee is being held in Bahrain‚ where Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa is representing SA.

There are 1‚037 World Heritage sites around the world and SA has nine including Robben Island‚ the Cape Floral Kingdom (fynbos) and the Cradle of Humankind.

Sites that are deemed World Heritage Sites are recognised as having global historical or environmental significance‚ may signify a phenomenal achievement of humanity or reveal ancient civilisations. The recognition allows the country to access funds for conservation from the World Heritage Fund and may increase tourism to the area.

The mountains in Mpumalanga‚ also known as the Makhonjwa Mountains‚ are thought to be one of the oldest sites on Earth‚ with its volcanic rocks estimated to be between 3.2-billion and 3.6-billion years old.

The mountains are also believed to contain the oldest signs of life‚ with a micro fossil of bacteria discovered there that is estimated to be 3.1-billion years old.

This weekend, a committee of people from 21 countries will vote on which sites make the cut.

To be accepted onto the list‚ a country must meet stringent criteria and show how the site will be conserved‚ while allowing the world a say in how the site is run.

Mthethwa chaired a meeting at the global event in Bahrain‚ where he asked senior African leaders to ensure the continent was better represented on the World Heritage list.

Mthethwa said: "It’s common knowledge that our African heritage is extremely rich and diverse. Africa is the ‘cradle of humankind’. It is also the only place in the world where one has the privilege to observe the Big Five in their natural environment. Unfortunately‚ Africa has less than 9% of the sites inscribed on the World Heritage List."

This is the breakdown of the recognised sites according to region:

Africa: 8.67%

Arab states: 7.64%

Asia and the Pacific: 23.58%

Europe and North America: 47.16%

Latin America and the Caribbean: 12.95%

Italy has the highest number of heritage sites‚ with 53.

Mthethwa called on African leaders to ensure that by 2020‚ more sites from the continent were ready to be nominated for world heritage status.