THE RU­INS OF OUR his­tory

For 150km in Mpumalanga, the ru­ins of the Bakoni lie like fig­u­ra­tive grave­stones, mark­ing a cul­ture that fell from pros­per­ity to ex­tinc­tion in lit­tle more than a gen­er­a­tion, writes Luke Al­fred

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This fea­ture is part of a jour­nal­ism part­ner­ship called Our Land be­tween City Press, Rap­port, Huf­fPost SA, Land­bouweek­blad and Code for Africa to find the un­told sto­ries, air the de­bates, am­plify the muted voices, do the re­search and, along the way, find eq­ui­table so­lu­tions to SA’s all-im­por­tant land is­sue

One of con­tem­po­rary ar­chae­ol­ogy’s bet­ter-kept se­crets con­cerns a group of peo­ple called the Bakoni who lived in the Mpumalanga Mid­dleveld re­gion be­tween 1500 and 1820.

By all ac­counts, the Bakoni (roughly trans­lated as Peo­ple from the North) were a peace­able and in­dus­tri­ous lot, who num­bered 65 000 at the height of their pow­ers.

They built stone kraals and ter­races, and cat­tle and goat path­ways, which are scat­tered gen­er­ously across Mpumalanga in a rough 150km line stretch­ing from Ohrigstad on the edge of the es­carp­ment in the north to Carolina in the south.

Their ru­ins and ter­races are so ridicu­lously wide­spread that you can ca­su­ally catch sight­ings of the for­ma­tions through the car win­dow while speed­ing along the N4 out­side of Machadodorp on the road to Nel­spruit.

Look care­fully at al­most any hill or kop­pie in the area and you will see the lines of stone walls, cir­cu­lar kraals and grassed-over ter­races. Win­ter is the best time to see the ru­ins be­cause the grass is low and the veld is burnt in places.

Smart farm­ers and ad­ven­tur­ous chefs

The ru­ins sug­gest the ex­is­tence of a flour­ish­ing pre­colo­nial cul­ture and what the Bakoni be­queathed us is a mas­sive open-air mu­seum spread across hun­dreds of square kilo­me­tres.

How­ever, out­side of lo­cal landown­ers and a group of aca­demic his­to­ri­ans, ar­chae­ol­o­gists and ge­og­ra­phers, the Bakoni’s story re­mains largely un­told. Cur­rently ne­glected by dys­func­tional pro­vin­cial her­itage author­i­ties and stig­ma­tised for years by an apartheid world view that saw them as static and back­ward, their story of en­ter­prise and en­deav­our with a tragic twist is past due for the telling.

Here was a so­ci­ety that recog­nised, for in­stance, that they could pro­long their growing sea­son if they stayed away from the win­ter frosts of the Highveld and planted in the in­ter­me­di­ate zone called the Mid­dleveld. They built their kraals and ter­races on east and south-fac­ing hill­sides close to wa­ter, but far enough away to avoid flood­ing. They kept cat­tle in stone pens close to where they lived and drove them to graz­ing along stone-lined cat­tle roads, fer­til­is­ing the ter­raced fields with cat­tle and goat dung. They were as­sid­u­ous re­cy­clers long be­fore it be­came fash­ion­able.

The fields them­selves, of­ten in­ge­niously built, con­sti­tuted mas­sive out­door ex­er­cises in wa­ter fil­tra­tion, the ter­rac­ing pre­vent­ing ero­sion and pre­serv­ing mois­ture. The rich vol­canic soil con­tained ev­ery­thing from sorghum and mil­let to pump­kin, squash, peanuts and wild spinach. Sup­ple­mented by meat, food was flavour­ful and var­i­ous.

Peter Delius, a Wits Univer­sity his­to­rian who has stud­ied the Bakoni, has found ev­i­dence of more than 20 recipes for cook­ing and pre­par­ing sorghum por­ridge.

This is a cul­ture that ap­pears to have been far more in­dus­tri­ous and cre­ative than they’ve been given credit for. Their farm­ing was in­ten­sive and their crop ro­ta­tion was smart. On the mod­er­ate slopes of the Mid­dleveld, they might have had a growing sea­son al­most eight months long.

A tale of en­ter­prise and tragedy

One of the finest pre­served ex­am­ples of Bakoni in­ge­nu­ity stands on Eric and Heidi John­son’s farm Ver­loren­kloof, which is close to the Kwena Dam south of Mashish­ing (for­merly Ly­den­burg). Beyond the lit­tle grave­yard of the Dutch Ah­lers fam­ily and a slightly larger ceme­tery con­tain­ing mem­bers of the lo­cal black com­mu­nity who work on the farm, there is a fine ex­am­ple of ter­rac­ing that is hun­dreds of years old. Sup­ported by a 2m-high re­tain­ing wall both but­tressed and scal­loped, the ter­race is re­mark­ably well pre­served.

The walls them­selves are con­structed with care and fore­thought; they con­tain a kind of pre-wall made up of a line of ver­ti­cal rocks be­fore giv­ing way to the wall it­self, which is of­ten thick and varies in height. Although the ter­races are func­tional, they are not purely so. This is a beau­ti­ful, peace­ful space.

“The work here may have been done for a fam­ily that was so­cially el­e­vated,” says Eric John­son.

While the Bakoni were savvy in taking ad­van­tage of lo­cal phys­i­cal con­di­tions and tem­per­a­tures, their cul­ture also pros­pered be­cause it was at the cross­roads of a far-reach­ing trade net­work.

The area ex­ported gold and ivory to Por­tuguese and Arab traders, who shipped it off the east coast, prob­a­bly from ports in what is now Mozam­bique. In re­turn, they im­ported iron, bead­work and cloth.

While ini­tially ad­van­ta­geous, the fact that the Bakoni were sit­u­ated at the junc­tion of trade routes flow­ing to all four points of the com­pass ul­ti­mately led to their un­do­ing.

The rid­dle of their de­cline

The aca­demics and re­searchers aren’t com­pletely sure – there is a fair amount of spir­ited guess­work where Bakoni his­tory is con­cerned – but the pre­vail­ing view is that they got caught be­tween ma­raud­ing Pedi from the north and Swazi raiders from the south. They were ul­ti­mately un­able to de­fend them­selves in the en­su­ing Mfe­cane slaugh­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to Joseph Mothupi, John­son’s right-hand man and guide to relics on the farm, the Bakoni fought at least one pitched battle in the vicin­ity of Mashish­ing, but were un­able to de­fend them­selves for a pro­longed pe­riod of time. Per­haps this had to do with the com­par­a­tive loose­ness of their so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion or a dis­taste for com­bat. Maybe their re­luc­tance was meta­phys­i­cal – they sim­ply wanted to be left alone.

The rid­dle of their de­cline – and, in some cases, re­ab­sorp­tion into other tribes – looks no closer to be­ing solved now than it was 100 years ago.

With the Mfe­cane in full, blood-cur­dling swing, aca­demics have sug­gested that, as a pre-emp­tive de­fen­sive move, the Bakoni re­treated out of the sun-rich val­leys and into the kloofs. While this of­fered protection, the forests lim­ited their crops’ ac­cess to sun­light, and there­fore af­fected the sta­bil­ity of their food stocks. This, pos­si­bly com­bined with suc­ces­sive years of drought, meant that, by 1825, the Bakoni were mor­tally wounded.

By then, many of their women and chil­dren had been cap­tured by other tribes, in­clud­ing the Swazis, Nde­be­les and Pedis, while their men had ei­ther fled or were dead. The stone cir­cles and ter­rac­ing we see on the land­scape are not only once-func­tional ma­te­rial re­mains, but fig­u­ra­tive grave­stones, a long and melan­choly lyric to a cul­ture that fell from pros­per­ity to ex­tinc­tion in lit­tle more than a gen­er­a­tion.

Nowhere is this bet­ter il­lus­trated than on the John­son’s farm. In the lee of tow­er­ing or­ange cliffs and once cam­ou­flaged by hacked­away trees is a cor­belled, once moss-cov­ered hut with a tiny, ground-level en­trance that looks more suited to chil­dren than adults. There are many such huts scat­tered across the land­scape, but the one on the farm is uniquely well pre­served.

“We tie our­selves in knots over the cor­belled hut,” says Delius, not­ing later that such huts were prob­a­bly look­out posts with fine long views up the Bad­fontein val­ley.

“Though they may well have had a range of func­tions,” he says. The hut, there­fore, is both the ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion and the sym­bol of a cul­ture in re­treat. In a sense, whether it was a gra­nary, a smelter (un­likely), a look­out or a shel­ter is im­ma­te­rial. Within only a hand­ful of years, this re­treat be­came per­ma­nent.

“The Bakoni were caught in a kind of no-man’s land be­tween the Pedi and Swazi, and were sub­dued com­pletely,” says Delius. “Rad­i­cal de­pop­u­la­tion of the area was com­plete by about 1830.”

Such a re­treat was prob­a­bly ex­ac­er­bated by the ar­rival of the trek­boers in the north­ern reaches of the area in the 1840s.

The ne­glect of the Bakoni

The ne­glect of the trou­bled Bakoni con­tin­ues to this day, a ne­glect sharp­ened by the fact that is­sues of resti­tu­tion rather than her­itage and preser­va­tion have hur­tled to the fore­front of the na­tional de­bate about land and land own­er­ship.

When it comes to resti­tu­tion, the Bakoni’s fate is com­pli­cated. Firstly, their dis­pos­ses­sion took place roughly 100 years be­fore the Na­tives Land Act of 1913, which is seen as the marker be­fore which claims for land resti­tu­tion (in the Resti­tu­tion of Land Rights Amend­ment Act) can­not be made.

Sec­ondly, with his­tor­i­cal un­cer­tainty about whether they con­sti­tute a tribe, a se­ries of so­cial group­ings or a se­ries of dis­parate but linked clans, comes con­fu­sion about where they stand in terms of resti­tu­tion.

“In a sense, they’ve suf­fered a dou­ble tragedy,” says Delius. “Not only do they ex­ist no more, but, af­ter 1994, the le­gal ad­vice of­fered to them was for them to lodge their claims as a com­mu­nity – which has proven to be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.”

Bakoni her­itage is the­o­ret­i­cally pro­tected by the Her­itage Act, but, prac­ti­cally, the Mpumalanga Her­itage Re­sources Au­thor­ity doesn’t ap­pear to have any in­ter­est in pro­tect­ing any of the hun­dreds of Bakoni struc­tures scat­tered across the Ohrigstad to Carolina cra­dle. Landown­ers, aca­demics and in­ter­ested groups stand in op­po­si­tion to such bu­reau­cratic blind­ness, but they are hard-pressed to make in­roads amid the ap­a­thy for the Bakoni. Their rear-guard ac­tion for recog­ni­tion and fund­ing is in­creas­ingly des­per­ate.

Where you can touch the walls of his­tory

Beyond de­bates about resti­tu­tion and her­itage, progress in putting flesh to the bones of the Bakoni story is slow. Delius, for ex­am­ple, doubts that oral his­tory will pro­vide the key to un­lock­ing the trea­sure that is the Bakoni’s in­ge­nious past. Mothupi says that, even on the Ver­loren­kloof farm it­self, there is need for fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause knowl­edge is in­com­plete.

Although they are thrilled with what has so far been dis­cov­ered, ev­ery­one in­volved with the enigma of the Bakoni and their rapid dis­ap­pear­ance is also painfully aware of what they do not or can­not know.

Then again, we have one of the world’s great open-air mu­se­ums in the Bakoni’s stone re­mains. You can touch the walls and walk the ter­races in a won­der­land that al­lows you to step into a com­pletely dif­fer­ent time.

How­ever, this won­der­land is be­ing en­croached upon. Delius points to a po­ten­tial min­ing boom in the area, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to chrome and platinum. With a pos­si­ble boom comes a frenzy for per­mits and prospect­ing by those with lit­tle re­gard for the Bakoni’s tor­tured past. Should the op­por­tu­nity arise, they will fur­ther pro­fane these sites that are an ir­re­place­able part of our shared his­tory.


STEPS INTO THE PAST These ter­races built by the Bakoni on the Ver­loren­kloof farm near Mashish­ing in Mpumalanga are beau­ti­fully well pre­served. His­to­rian and au­thor Peter Delius joined Ver­loren­kloof farm owner Eric John­son and guide Joseph Mothupi for a spe­cial week­end of dis­cov­ery of the area’s ar­chae­o­log­i­cal her­itage. Ver­loren­kloof Es­tate is home to a rich stone-walled legacy and lies at the epi­cen­tre of an ex­ten­sive com­plex of late Iron Age (1500 to 1830 AD) ar­chae­ol­ogy stretch­ing along the es­carp­ment from Carolina to Ohrigstad. Stonewalled homesteads with cat­tle tracks and ter­races mark the slop­ing hills

CRE­ATIVE The Bakoni kept cat­tle in stone pens close to where they lived and drove them to graz­ing along stone-lined cat­tle roads, where their dung fer­tilised the ad­ja­cent fields of vegeta­bles. The Bakoni’s farm­ing meth­ods were so in­ge­nious that they may have had a growing sea­son al­most eight months long

OPEN-AIR MU­SEUM Ver­loren­kloof guide Joseph Mothupi speaks about the cor­belled hut on the farm that has a tiny, ground-level en­trance that looks more suited to chil­dren than adults. The huts may have been look­out posts with long views up the Bad­fontein val­ley

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