Why do we celebrate Heritage Day?

Why do we celebrate Heritage Day?

Written by: Jamie Fernandez, Content Specialist, B.Sc. in Genetics

Heritage Day on 24 September recognises and celebrates the cultural wealth of our nation. South Africans celebrate the day by remembering the cultural heritage of the many cultures that make up the population of South Africa. Various events are staged throughout the country to commemorate this day.

South Africa is a uniquely beautiful country with a rich history that has shaped our nation. A history that has defined the genetic data passed onto future generations, the genetic legacies of the current populations of South Africans.

Brief history 

In 1652, Cape Town was established as a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company ships en route to and from the East. This establishment bought Dutch settlers to South Africa and enslaved people from the East Coast of Africa, India, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and the Indonesian Archipelago. These enslaved people served as the major labor force at the Cape, following failed attempts to enslave the indigenous Khoisan people. However, most enslaved people were Cape-born and had mixed parentage due to the mixed relations among early White settlers, the Khoisan, enslaved people, and Bantu-speaking people. This history has driven so much genetic diversity in South Africa [1], [2]. 

South African Coloured population 

The resulting population of mixed unions is known as the South African Coloured (SAC) population. Initially, analysis of the SAC population showed nearly equal heritage promotions from four ancestries, southern African Khoisan, Bantu-speaking, Indian, and European. However, Quintana-Murci, et al. (2010) investigated the gender-based influence of these ancestries using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited through the maternal line and DNA from the non-recombinant Y chromosome (NRY), which is inherited through the male line. The most surprising discovery of this study was that more than 60% of the maternal contribution to SAC is from the Khoisan population. Additionally, there is an almost negligible maternal contribution of Europeans with respect to their paternal counterparts. These genetic results directly reflect what is known about the cultural normalities during the period of colonization of South Africa. There was a shortage of European women, and European men commonly married enslaved women during this period, as many enslaved women were given their freedom. Conversely, unions between autochthonous African men or Southeast Asian enslaved men and European women were not tolerated[2].

Cape Malay

In addition to the enslaved people, convicts, and political exiles, mainly from Indonesia, were also sent to the Cape, some of whom were prominent Muslim clerics. These people were known as the Vryezwarten or Free Blacks. Islam faith spread rapidly as Free Blacks were well-schooled in Islam and converted the enslaved people. The Dutch encouraged this in response to the Placaaten law that prevented the sale of baptized enslaved Christians. By 1840, a third of the total Colony population consisted of Muslims, which had then become a more cohesive group later to be known as Cape Malay. An investigation into the maternal and paternal lineages of the Cape Malay population using mtDNA and NRY DNA showed some interesting findings. The results showed that the maternal lines of the Cape Malay population are mostly from   Asian (41.68%) and African (40.05%) ancestry. The remaining contribution is from European origin. On the other hand, the paternal line showed a predominance of Asian contribution with 78.52% [1]. 


The Lemba are a southern African Bantu-speaking population of Jewish ancestry. According to oral history, Lemba's ancestors are believed to have come from a huge town across the seas, where there were many craftsmen in metalwork, pottery, textiles, and shipbuilding. They came to southern Africa through trade and tended to leave behind men with unsold cargo, establishing posts on the coast and further inland. It's believed that these men at the posts received news that the enemy had taken their hometown, and they could not return. These men began taking local wives, and the different trading posts marked the establishment of the clans known today. A 1996 paper used genetic markers on the Y chromosome, such as the p12F2 gene support these historical facts of the Lemba oral tradition, as the genetic data suggests that half the Y chromosomes are Semitic in origin [3]. However, later studies do not necessarily support this research [4].


The most dominant contribution to the Afrikaner population came from European immigrants. Based on genealogical research, contributions to the Afrikaner population include 34–37% Dutch, 27–34% German, and 13–26% French. In addition to this, Afrikaner populations also have a non-European fraction of genes estimated to be 4.7% on average. Further investigation of the non-European portion of the Afrikaner genome revealed that 3.4% of this comes from the enslaved populations bought to the Cape. Specifically, 2.6% is contributed from South and East Asians. The remaining non-European genes come from the Khoisan population, which is estimated to be 1.3% [5]. 

Let's face it; your genetics doesn't make you a South African. What makes you a South African is the sheer force with which you boom out "Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika" as the Springboks or Bafana Bafana take to the field. The bliss you feel in your heart as the clouds drape over Table Mountain. It knows the sounds of a hadeda and a hooting taxi. Ensuring staples of your diet include Milo, Nik Naks, sarmies, and biltong. Associating "robot" with a traffic light and not R2-D2. And, of course, greeting your chinas with ‘howzit’. What makes us true South Africans is pride and unity as is reflected in the words: Sounds the call to come together and united we shall stand. Let us live and strive for freedom in South Africa, our land.


[1] S. Isaacs, T. Geduld-Ullah, and M. Benjeddou, “Reconstruction of major maternal and paternal lineages of the Cape Muslim population,” Genet. Mol. Biol., vol. 36, no. 2, p. 167, 2013.

[2] L. Quintana-Murci et al., “Strong Maternal Khoisan Contribution to the South African Coloured Population: A Case of Gender-Biased Admixture,” Am. J. Hum. Genet., vol. 86, no. 4, p. 611, Apr. 2010.

[3] A. B. Spurdle and T. Jenkins, “The origins of the Lemba ‘Black Jews’ of southern Africa: evidence from p12F2 and other Y-chromosome markers.,” Am. J. Hum. Genet., vol. 59, no. 5, p. 1126, 1996.

[4] H. Soodyall, “Lemba origins revisited: Tracing the ancestry of Y chromosomes in South African and Zimbabwean Lemba,” South African Med. J., vol. 103, no. 12, pp. 1009–1013, Oct. 2013.

[5] N. Hollfelder et al., “Patterns of African and Asian admixture in the Afrikaner population of South Africa,” BMC Biol., vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 1–13, Feb. 2020.

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