Tampering with the past

The ongoing row over a coal-mining licence granted on the border of the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site has highlighted the cultural significance of preserving global treasures. Intellectual and writer Vele Neluvhalani recently added his voice to protests against the mining, saying it would be “an offence to our ancestors”.

Neluvhalani, a retired public servant from Shayandima in Limpopo, has studied indigenous knowledge systems and is a member of the commission for the promotion and protection of the rights of cultural and linguistic communities.

He was involved in the reburying of his ancestors’ remains at Mapungubwe, after they were reclaimed from the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria and restored to their rightful place. In a video clip that has become part of the Save Mapungubwe Campaign, Neluvhalani says people have always been connected to the Earth and are visible by the traces they leave behind, such as the ancient rock art on the sandstone outcrops at Mapungubwe.

Heritage Day isn’t just a day for South Africans to get out the braai tongs — it’s a time to celebrate our great diversity and culture. And this year the celebrations started early.

“Once we tamper with Mapungubwe, we will be tampering with the past,” he says. “Everyone in South Africa should be united to help preserve Mapungubwe.” Mapungubwe was the capital city of a flourishing African kingdom a thousand years ago and includes rock-art sites, as well as stone-age and iron-age sites.


In the 1930s a golden rhinoceros made from gold foil and a gold sceptre and bowl were excavated from graves on its hilltop.

Besides its archaeological and palaeontological treasures, it is part of the Mapungubwe National Park and an intended future transfrontier park with Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was added to the World Heritage List by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2004. Its listing hangs in the balance, however, after the government gave the go-ahead to an Australian mining company, Coal of Africa, to construct an open-cast mine just outside the boundaries of the Mapungubwe National Park.

Inscription on the list ensures site protection under Unesco’s World Heritage Convention and possible financial assistance from the World Heritage Fund. At its 35th session in Paris at the end of June, the World Heritage committee expressed its concern at the potential adverse impacts of the mining site.

Far reaching implications
“In terms of both culture and nature, any development of this site could have far-reaching implications for the sustainability of the Limpopo Basin, could derail international agreements on the trans-frontier conservation area and could completely destroy a landscape that has the potential to contribute significantly to an understanding of the wider settlement history of Mapungubwe,” the committee said.

Earlier this month the department of environmental affairs and South African National Parks said they had signed a memorandum of agreement with Coal of Africa to “ensure the integrity of the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site”.

Details of the agreement were not spelled out, but they said the site’s integrity would be maintained through “comprehensive biodiversity offsets programmes, thereby optimising benefits to local communities”. These would include programmes aimed at natural and cultural heritage conservation, tourism development and water resource management.

The Save Mapungubwe Campaign, comprising a coalition group of local community members and a number of civil society organisations, including the Association of Southern African Professional Archaeologists, objected to the confidentiality of the agreement. The coalition is appealing the mining right as well as the approval of Coal of Africa’s environmental management programme. It has also lodged an appeal against the water-use licence granted for mining in March.

“The information held by Mapungubwe is important to all of us because, like the people at Mapungubwe, we are facing various social and environmental crises today,” said the campaign’s spokesperson, Nick Hiltermann. “People in this area interacted, co-operated and fought with one another long before South Africa was colonised and understanding the history held here can shape the way that we interact with one another today.”

Not the only biodiverse region under threat

Mapungubwe is not the only World Heritage Site in South Africa under threat. The seven other listed sites face various challenges:

  • The Cape Floral Kingdom in the Western Cape was listed as a natural World Heritage Site in 2004. Covering some 553 000ha, it is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. About 70% of its 7 700 plant species, commonly referred to as fynbos, is unique. The biggest threat is climate change, which biologists say could reduce the fynbos by 50% in the next 50 years. Other endemic species will also be affected, among them unique species of ants that carry fynbos seeds underground and are essential for germination.
  • The Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng and North West was listed in 1999. Its fossil hominid sites continue to yield abundant scientific information on the evolution of humans, most recently the remains of Australopithecus sediba in a subterranean cave at Malap. The underground cave network is threatened by the decanting of acid water bubbling out of abandoned gold mines on the western basin of the Witwatersrand gold fields. There is evidence that acid mine water is decanting to the surface and filtering into the Cradle of Humankind.
  • Robben Island, listed in 1999, is threatened by feral rabbits that devastate the local vegetation and burrow under its historic buildings.
  • Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park in KwaZulu-Natal was listed in 2000, not only to protect its natural beauty and rock art sites, but also to maintain the integrity of its watershed that supplies a large part of Gauteng’s needs. Threats include land claims within certain areas of the park and the spread of invasive alien plants. Tourism developments have had a negative impact on trails in the vulnerable alpine areas, caves and on the rock art.
  • Vredefort Dome in the Free State, listed in 2005, is the oldest and largest meteorite site in the world. Its main threats are pollution of the nearby Vaal River and the mushrooming of tourism developments and golf estates. Tourists and even scientists have been known to chip off pieces of rock at the site.
  • The Richtersveld in the Northern Cape was inscribed as a site of cultural significance in 2007 to protect the semi-nomadic pastoral livelihood of the Nama people. According to the Unesco evaluation, the site reflects “seasonal patterns that may have persisted for as much as two millennia in Southern Africa”. Diamond mining has wrecked large parts of its national park, but the Richtersveld community conservancy, which forms the core zone of the World Heritage Site, is not subject to diamond mining.
  • iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal, formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, was listed in 1999 because of its unique combination of ecosystems in a relatively small area, including coral reefs and salt-water lakes, dune forests, savannahs and wetlands. Its estuary is threatened by the removal and pollution of upstream wetlands that once served to filter its water. Recent droughts and a decision to divert fresh water flowing into Lake St Lucia in the 1950s have caused high concentrations of seawater in the lake.
  • Possible heritage sites
    Thirteen sites have been identified as possible World Heritage Sites in the future:

  • The Alexandria Coastal Dunefield in the Eastern Cape, one of the largest and most pristine coastal dunefields in the world.
  • The Barberton/Makhonjwa Mountain land in Mpumalanga, which contains the oldest well-preserved sequence of volcanic and sedimentary rocks on Earth.
  • The Cape Floral Region Protected Areas, recognised as the world’s “hottest hot spot” for its diversity of endemic plants.
  • The Liberation Heritage Route, a series of sites linked by a narrative of the liberation struggle. Included are Robben Island, the University of Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication and Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe House.
  • Kimberley Mines and Associated Early Industries, the site of the first great 19th-century African mineral find.
  • Namaqualand Copper Mining Landscape.
  • Pilgrim’s Rest Reduction Works industrial heritage site in Mpumalanga, where the first gold rush started.
  • The Pleistocene occupation sites of Klasies River, Border Cave, Wonderwerk Cave and comparable sites in the Eastern Cape, for their contribution to understanding the origin of modern humans.
  • Succulent Karoo Protected Areas, the worlds’ only arid, internationally recognised biodiversity hot spots.
  • The Cape Arc of Meridian, the first accurate measuring of a long segment of a meridian in the southern hemisphere.
  • The Cape Winelands Cultural Landscape.
  • The Prince Edward Islands, two small islands in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean that harbour a significant percentage of the world’s population of breeding seabirds.
  • The !Xam Khomani Heartland, where the San have left an artistic and archaeological record.
  • Visit our special report.

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    Fiona Macleod
    Fiona Macleod

    Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

    She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

    An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

    She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

    She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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