The golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe, the defining symbol of precolonial civilisation in South Africa, could leave the country for the first time next year, on loan to the British Museum for an unprecedented exhibition of South African art.
It has been described as Southern Africa’s equivalent of Tutankhamun’s mask or the Staffordshire hoard, but the small foil figurine could also become a political football as the South African government considers the request. Some fear it will be a decision motivated by anti-Western grandstanding. It rejected a proposal for the rhino to be displayed in Paris in 2001.
Mapungubwe, in the far north of South Africa bordering present-day Botswana and Zimbabwe, was the biggest kingdom on the subcontinent in the 13th century. It had a sophisticated state and economic system, which included agriculture, mining and advanced artisanship, and traded gold and ivory with Asia and Egypt.
The site was rediscovered in 1932 and excavated by the University of Pretoria, yielding gold jewellery including anklets, bracelets, necklaces, beads and animal figurines recovered from three elite burials.
But for decades it was largely ignored in South Africa because it contradicted the racist ideology of apartheid, which taught that history began when the first Dutch settler arrived in Cape Town in 1652.
Few were willing to contemplate that the rhino, made of several pieces of thin gold foil originally nailed on to a wooden carving, could be the work of a much earlier black culture.
“A civilisation like this existed nearly a thousand years ago,” said Theo van Wyk, the head of the arts department at the University of Pretoria. “The conventional view is that it was dark Africa, but it was a trading point for many.”
Since the dawn of multiracial democracy, Mapungubwe has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco and incorporated into a national park. Now the site is under threat from coal-mining interests.
A museum on the Pretoria university campus holds 9kg of gold treasures found at the site – the biggest archaeological collection of gold artefacts in sub-Saharan Africa – of which 3.5kg, including the rhino, are on display.
Sian Tiley-Nel, the museum manager and chief curator of the Mapungubwe collection, said: “You can compare it with the great Staffordshire hoard. It’s not as ornate as your Anglo-Saxon gold but it’s just as impressive and just as beautiful. But, for centuries, these artefacts were neglected.”
The British Museum intended to request loans of the rhino along with a golden sceptre and a golden bowl, all of which its experts helped to reconstruct more than a decade ago, Tiley-Nel added. The bowl was taken to London for that purpose, becoming the only gold object from Mapungubwe to leave the country so far. The formal request had not yet been received by the university, she said, and would depend on export permit approvals.
Past glory: The historial importance of Mapungubwe plays a huge part in South Africa’s post-independence narrative. (Neels Jackson/Gallo)
“The government might say sorry. In 2001, we had a request for the golden rhino to go to Paris. The university had agreed but it was just after September 11 and the government said no for terrorism reasons. It was so ridiculous. It would have been the centrepiece of the exhibition. The world needs to see this rhino. The world needs to see this collection.”
The ANC might argue that the golden rhino is such a precious crown jewel that it ranks alongside Tutankhamun’s mask or the Mona Lisa as off limits to foreign museums in recent years.
It could also point to the long and painful history of African treasures being looted by colonisers for display in European museums, many of which have never been restituted. Such is Mapungubwe’s importance in the post-apartheid national narrative that South Africa’s highest honour is the Order of Mapungubwe, of which Nelson Mandela was the first recipient.
Van Wyk added: “There are ideological connotations. Some if it might be politically driven.”
The British Museum confirmed it has scheduled a proposed South African art exhibition from October?27 to February 26 2017. Kate Morais, a spokesperson, said: “This exhibition will explore South African art from the world’s oldest art object hellip; to the contemporary art of today. In so doing, the exhibition will tell an object-based history of South Africa.
Too early to discuss
“The exhibition will draw on the British Museum’s extensive South African collection, which will be exhibited alongside key archaeological, historic and contemporary loans from South Africa. It is too early for us to discuss what these loans from South Africa might be.”
Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said on Monday: “There have been discussions. I don’t have a response as to whether the government will accede to the loan.”
Meanwhile, the University of Pretoria plans to move the rhino and other key artefacts to a new, more publicly accessible museum on its campus next year, despite calls to return the rhino to its original Iron Age site. In 2007, ancient human remains that had been excavated were sent back for reburial on top of Mapungubwe Hill.
Tiley-Nel cast the debate as “Elginism” – a reference to the British Museum’s tug-of-war with Greece over the Parthenon marbles – and said the university museums had received 20 000 visitors so far this year, whereas Mapungubwe was a six-hour drive from Johannesburg.
“We have loaned a large part of the collection to the interpretive centre, but it’s in the middle of nowhere and security is a main concern. It’s not a functioning museum.
“It would be like taking the golden rhino and displaying it on top of Table Mountain. We need to be responsible for its security because it’s completely priceless.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015