Managing heritage resources in the digital age

March 16th, 2018, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

The South African Heritage Resources Information System (SAHRIS) online content management system allows South Africans to play a role in the preservation and conservation of their heritage, and offers the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) a way to effectively coordinate the management of heritage resources.

 The South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) is the national implementing agency of the Department of Arts and Culture responsible for coordinating the identification and management of heritage resources in South Africa in compliance with the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA), No. 25 of 1999. As such, the mandate of SAHRA requires that the entity finds innovative and progressive ways to effectively coordinate the management of the heritage resources.

The development of the online content management system, the South African Heritage Resources Information System (known as SAHRIS) enables all South Africans – public and private institutions; researchers, learners and communities – to play a role in the preservation and conservation of their heritage. This article explains how the system works and invites readers to take part in managing heritage resources for the enjoyment of current and future generations.

System overview and origins

SAHRIS is a database of the national estate – all the identified and known heritage resources information as submitted to the agency. It provides an interactive system for the management of the national estate at a national, provincial or local level.

Before the system was implemented, SAHRA was heavily reliant on manual paper processes, in which both it and its clients were dependent on the postal system to receive and respond to applications. Based on its mandate, the agency needed to improve the efficiency of its heritage resources management processes and provide a complete heritage management solution that could be accessed anywhere with an internet connection. This led to the development of SAHRIS.

The opening statement of the NHRA states that SAHRA’s purpose is “to introduce an integrated and interactive system for the management of the national heritage resources; to promote good government at all levels, and empower civil society to nurture and conserve their heritage resources so that they may be bequeathed to future generations [1].

The NHRA also sets out the principles of the three-tiered system of heritage management in which SAHRA is responsible for the management of heritage resources at the national level, the provincial heritage resources authorities (PHRAs) at the provincial level, and local authorities at the municipal level.

Furthermore, SAHRA is mandated under section 39 of the Act to maintain a database of all heritage resources that form part of the national estate, whether managed on the national, provincial or local level.

The design of SAHRIS was tailored to fulfil this function through the provision of an interactive platform that can be used for the management and identification of heritage resources at all management tiers.

The groundwork for the development of SAHRIS began in the mid-2000s as an identified need to know and protect the heritage resources, especially movable heritage objects. The development of the system was informed by a thorough understanding of the Act and formulated around several system specifications and data coding standards. Through various trials, the full development of SAHRIS took shape from 2011 [2].

Taking its cue from government policy on open source, the agency implemented the use of open source technology for the development of SAHRIS, using Drupal. In 2012, SAHRA transitioned from manual processing of applications to using the system. The public launch in 2013 invited the rest of the role players to take part in the rollout of the system [3].

The Act and supporting legislation place a responsibility on SAHRA to ensure that heritage and management information is readily available to the public in order to foster transparency. In order to fulfil this, they system utilises the Creative Commons Share-Alike (CCBYSA) licence for data distribution, which allows for sharing data freely, provided that the author of the data is acknowledged [4]. This licensing system ensures that the data collected in the system is shared and utilised legally while safeguarding the rights of the data owners and contributors.

Functionality and documentation

Informed by a comprehensive data coding standard [5], the system provides a standardised interface for the capture of heritage data that allows not only for the basic management of heritage resources, but also for capturing more detailed information to provide a credible data-bank which can be used for research purposes.

Every object, site and management record created through SAHRIS has a standard structure, meaning that all entries in the system can be linked and related to one another. The standard data structure also allows for searches to be conducted easily and makes the data comparable. This is extremely useful as it provides access to comparable data from across a variety of institutions, as opposed to being institution specific.

The system ultimately serves three core functions: It serves as a repository of information on identified heritage sites, as a national collections management system, and as an integrated heritage management platform for heritage applications in terms of the NHRA [3].

Fig. 1: Example of recorded site on SAHRIS.

Fig. 1: An example of recorded site on SAHRIS.

National repository of heritage sites

The SAHRIS interface provides a comprehensive tool for the recording of identified heritage sites, which allows for the capture of site histories, condition, as well as specialised recording fields for aspects of the built environment and archaeological sites. Included within the site recording functionality is the ability to record the geographic location and boundaries of the site through the built-in geographic information sytems (GIS) functionality. By 31 January 2018, there were 48 723 sites recorded on SAHRIS.

National collections management

The provision of a fully functional museum collections management system allows for the capture and tracking of heritage objects across South Africa. This facility is available free of charge to all museums and other institutions that are in custody of and managing heritage objects. Through this interface the custodians of heritage objects can capture detailed records including full descriptions, object histories, and condition assessments. Furthermore, being a collaborative platform, other institutions utilising the system can easily record institutional transfers. By 31 January 2018 there were 36 943 objects recorded on the system.

Fig. 2: Example of recorded object on the system.

Fig. 2: An example of recorded object on the system.

Integrated heritage management

SAHRIS makes it easy for applicants and heritage authorities to interact through the submission of applications via a standard four-page online wizard which allows users to fill out all relevant details about their application in a quick and easy process. This platform has allowed for the entire assessment process to be managed and completed online through integrated communication functions, up to the final issuing of comments and decisions by SAHRA and other heritage authorities. This process, conducted within the public sphere, allows for transparency and ultimately accountability for all decisions taken by the relevant authority.

Beyond merely recording and storing information pertaining to management actions, the data captured during the application process enables heritage authorities to begin assessing the impact of development and mining activities on the wider heritage landscape, rather than on a solely individual basis. During the application process the impact area of any given development is recorded through a simple GIS interface.

Fig. 3: Cumulative impact of development applications in the Northern Cape Province.

Fig. 3: Cumulative impact of development applications in the Northern Cape Province.

Collaboration and data sharing

SAHRIS also creates a collaborative environment through which associated government departments can engage on matters that pertain to the management of heritage resources as is called for by both the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) and the NHRA. Taking the idea of collaboration further, the system provides a platform for researchers to share information while maintaining a level of privacy to protect both the integrity of the resource they are studying as well as their own research topic. SAHRIS makes extensive use of organic groups (OG) functionality. The OG module allows for the collation of content on SAHRIS under a specific group page where designated people can access the content [2].

The data collected on the system is invaluable for the identification of management issues and can be used to identify knowledge gaps and to direct the operations of authorities.

Public engagement and conservation bodies

One of the key benefits of having a publicly accessible and transparent system is the ability for civil society and the public at large to take an active role in the management of heritage.

The public nature of the system’s application process allows the public and civil society to actively engage with existing applications and provide comment through the SAHRIS commenting system. This allows heritage authorities to take account of public comments and aids in ensuring that decisions are not taken within a vacuum. Furthermore, conservation bodies are able to officially register their interest in a specific area or category of heritage resource.

Fig. 4: Registered conservation body with geographic area of interest shown.

Fig. 4: Registered conservation body with geographic area of interest shown.

Using the data

The public nature of the inventory is enshrined within the NHRA, and emphasised by the requirement to publish a summary and analysis of the inventory of the national estate as stipulated in Section 39(7) [1].

The inaugural release of the Section 39(7) report, the summary and analysis of the national estate occurred for the first time in the 2016/2017 financial year. It was made available in the SAHRA annual report and through a dedicated web portal which was designed to facilitate the dissemination of this information in an easy-to-use and accessible format.

This portal can be accessed at It provides an accessible tool through which the general public and heritage management authorities can engage with trends and issues in the management of heritage resources.

The information on SAHRIS also plays a crucial role for developers. In their planning stages they are able to identify already recorded resources within the development footprint, and whether sites are of national or provincial significance. This means that they are able to obtain as much relevant information as possible about sites in one central place.


South African legislation regulating the management of heritage resources makes provision for communities, the public, and private institutions to come together for the effective conservation of our heritage. SAHRIS is an online platform that makes this possible. SAHRA calls on every role player in heritage to visit SAHRIS at and explore the system.

In the coming months SAHRA will further its compliance with the Act and the provisions of Section 39 of NHRA and also avail resources to further assist the public. 


[1] Department of Arts and Culture, South Africa, 1999. National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999. Government Gazette, 506(19974), Pretoria, Government Printers, 28 April (10 October 2015).
[2] N.G. Wiltshire, 2013. The use of SAHRIS as a state sponsored digital heritage repository and management system in South Africa. In: XXIV International CIPA Symposium: Recording, Documentation and Cooperation for Cultural Heritage, Strasbourg, France, September 2-6 (10 October 2014).
[3] C. Jackson and R. Redelstorff, (2016). The South African Heritage Resources Information System (SAHRIS): development and challenges through management of cultural heritage resources through an integrated web-based platform. In 8th International congress on archaeology, computer graphics, cultural heritage and innovation. Editorial Universitat Politècnica de València. 480-483. doi:10.4995/arqueologica8.2015.4170.
[4] K. Smuts, N. Mlungwana, and N. Wiltshire, 2016. SAHRIS: South Africa’s integrated, web-based heritage management system. Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development., Vol. 6 Issue: 2, pp.138-152, doi: 10.1108/JCHMSD-01-2016-0002.
[5] R. Layton, 2006. SAHRIS Data Coding Standard. Unpublished internal document.

Contact Clinton Jackson, SAHRA, Tel 021 462-4502,