His­toric sites such as the Bakoni ru­ins are dis­ap­pear­ing. If we don’t pre­serve our his­tory, who will?

CityPress - - News - SIZWE SAMA YENDE sizwe.yende@city­press.co.za

His­to­ri­ans and ar­chae­ol­o­gists who have flown over Mpumalanga’s es­carp­ment will tell you about spec­tac­u­lar views of iso­lated clus­ters of stone cir­cles. These struc­tures are set in be­wil­der­ing mazes of stone ridg­ing, and are linked by stone pas­sages. They oc­cupy an area of about 150km2 from Ohrigstad to Carolina, and con­nect 10 000 hectares of land to the es­carp­ment on hill­sides and val­leys be­low.

In some places, they are sparse and in­ter­mit­tent. In oth­ers, they are dense, con­tin­u­ous and in­tri­cate, with paths, roads and ter­races.

The struc­tures, which re­searchers say are also vis­i­ble in the veld as one drives past, are the only re­main­ing ev­i­dence of the stonewalled cities of the Bakoni peo­ple, who lived in the Mpumalanga area from 1500 to the 1820s.

These sites of Bakoni his­tory also de­bunk the apartheid-era myth that blacks were sim­ple sub­sis­tence farm­ers be­fore whites ar­rived on the con­ti­nent. Re­search by ar­chae­ol­o­gists at Wits Univer­sity over the past few years has found that the Bakoni were in­volved in in­ten­sive farm­ing, in­clud­ing mas­sive stone ter­rac­ing, which al­lowed for the cul­ti­va­tion of rich vol­canic soils on the side of the es­carp­ment.

There is also ev­i­dence that the Bakoni traded with the out­side world, but more re­search still needs to be done through records of Por­tuguese, Dutch and Aus­trian traders.

Over­looked by res­i­dents, and ne­glected by govern­ment and her­itage in­sti­tu­tions, these sites of his­tor­i­cal and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal im­por­tance are dis­ap­pear­ing. They have been saved only by the ini­tia­tives of pri­vate land own­ers.

Peter Delius, a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Wits, said Mpumalanga was not only miss­ing out on pre­serv­ing its his­tory and her­itage, but also on a chance to de­velop its tourism in­dus­try. But this, he says, is a com­mon problem across all our prov­inces.

The for­mer premier of Mpumalanga, Deputy Jus­tice and Cor­rec­tional Ser­vices Min­is­ter Tha­bang Mak­wetla, com­mis­sioned Delius to doc­u­ment the her­itage and his­tory of the prov­ince more than a decade ago. The out­come was a book ti­tled Mpumalanga: His­tory and Her­itage.

The cur­rent Mpumalanga lead­er­ship has done lit­tle to con­tinue this work. Premier David Mabuza’s spokesper­son, Zi­bonele Mncwango, did not re­spond to ques­tions about govern­ment’s plan for the an­cient stonewalled cities.

“As a mat­ter of ur­gency, an au­dit of the sites needs to be done. They should be pro­claimed as na­tional or pro­vin­cial her­itage sites, and it should be made clear that any per­son tam­per­ing with, re­mov­ing ob­jects or van­dal­is­ing the sites is com­mit­ting a crime and will be pros­e­cuted,” Delius said.

Delius be­lieves some of the sites should be de­vel­oped in a way that pre­serves and se­cures them, but also makes them ac­ces­si­ble to tourists.

“There needs to be ac­cess con­trol and lit­er­a­ture avail­able that ex­plains the na­ture and sig­nif­i­cance of the sites, and trained guides who will show tourists, pupils and stu­dents around,” he said.

He also said that many peo­ple were un­aware of the ex­is­tence of the Bakoni cities, even though they strad­dle the main routes to and from ma­jor tourist at­trac­tions, such as the Kruger Na­tional Park, the Lowveld re­gion and the Ma­puto Cor­ri­dor.

“If ap­pro­pri­ate sig­nage, de­fined routes and prop­erly man­aged sites are de­vel­oped, it may pro­vide a mas­sive boost to the lo­cal econ­omy – with vis­i­tors cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­ploy­ment for builders, guides and guards, and the pro­tected sites be­com­ing mar­kets for arts, crafts and other com­modi­ties,” he said.

Amanda Ester­huy­sen, an archaeology pro­fes­sor at Wits, said most ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites were only recog­nised and pro­tected when they were in im­mi­nent dan­ger of de­struc­tion from min­ing or other devel­op­ment.

“It is quite an­noy­ing that African his­tory sites are be­ing over­looked. Why are peo­ple get­ting up­set about, for ex­am­ple, Ce­cil John Rhodes’ statue, but say­ing noth­ing about pre­serv­ing this his­tory?” she asked.

“At a time when we talk about de­colonis­ing Africa, how do we think we can get to African his­tory if it’s not through these sites? We don’t see any­thing be­fore colo­nial his­tory as be­ing his­tory. Un­less some­one acts, these sites will be gone in no time,” she said.

What more do you think should be done to en­sure South Africa’s cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal sites are bet­ter pre­served, and to in­spire cit­i­zens to be ac­tive par­tic­i­pants in the process?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word HER­ITAGE and tell us what you think. Please in­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R 1.50


BIRD’S EYE VIEW The walled cities of the Bakoni peo­ple are scat­tered across the Mpumalanga es­carp­ment. They are a tes­ta­ment to the fact that black civil­i­sa­tions were com­plex, and they dis­pel the myth that indige­nous peo­ple were sim­ple sub­sis­tence farm­ers be­fore whites ar­rived

FAD­ING AWAY One of the ru­ins of a walled city once in­hab­ited by the Bakoni

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