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