MAPUNGUBWE NATIONAL PARK, South Africa — After surviving for a millennium, South Africa’s most precious historical site is facing a new threat: a nearby coal mine that has started production despite warnings from the United Nation’s heritage agency.
A team of UNESCO experts visited South Africa recently to see whether the coal mine is jeopardizing Mapungubwe, the site of the oldest known kingdom in southern Africa and a World Heritage Site. Their report, released this month, calls for a halt to the open-pit mining at the Vele colliery because it will “irreversibly damage” the cultural landscape.
But so far the mining continues. There has also been a rush of new applications to mine the coal-rich Mapungubwe area, where South Africa meets Zimbabwe and Botswana at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers.
The battle over mining is just the latest dispute over the site, which is little-known, even in South Africa, despite its historical significance.
Mapungubwe was a walled city-state that flourished between 1220 and 1290, more than 500 years before the first Dutch settlers arrived in 1652 in Cape Town. It was a wealthy society of about 5,000 people that had trade links to Asia and was known for its exquisite gold treasures crafted by unknown artists — most famously, a tiny golden rhino. The astonishing gold objects found in ancient graves have been dubbed “South Africa’s crown jewels.”
“It was compared in the media with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s mask,” said Sian Tiley-Nel, chief curator of the Mapungubwe Collection at the University of Pretoria.
Because of its remote site, Mapungubwe has been largely neglected since its discovery in 1932 by treasure seekers looking to plunder gold from the royal graves. A variety of other uses were found for the neglected land: citrus orchards, cattle pastures, diamond mining and military bunkers.
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In the 1970s and 1980s, the apartheid government built electric fences and deployed soldiers to guard the borders around the site against freedom fighters from Botswana and Zimbabwe.
With the end of apartheid in 1994, Mapungubwe’s fortunes changed: It became a national park, stocked with lions, elephants and oryx, and was registered as a World Heritage Site in 2003. Tourists can now visit Mapungubwe Hill and see the ruins of the ancient kingdom, abandoned in 1290 AD. The South African government plans to create a trans-border conservation area with Zimbabwe and Botswana.
In February a museum opened at the park in a stunning new building that has won international design awards.
But just as Mapungubwe was being discovered by tourists, it was threatened by a new coking coal mine near the park. Angry conservationists and archaeologists banded together to fight mining company Coal of Africa (CoAL)’s plans for the Vele colliery, arguing that noise and coal dust from the open-pit mine could threaten the ancient ruins at Mapungubwe, and the national park that surrounds them.
“We’re passionate about the area,” said Paul Hatty, who owns a nearby safari lodge and who helped form the Mapungubwe Action Group. “Anything that we perceive may have a deteriorating effect on the area we love, we are sensitive to.”
Their court challenges shut down mining operations for 18 months, before CoAL reached a tentative agreement with the Save Mapungubwe coalition last year.
In April, CoAL shipped its first coal delivery from the Vele colliery to Asian markets, and production is being ramped up to full capacity. But CoAL and the Save Mapungubwe coalition have yet to reach a formal memorandum of agreement, and the deadline has been extended as talks continue.
The report by UNESCO’s monitoring mission notes a lack of community consultation by CoAL, and calls for an expanded buffer zone around Mapungubwe National Park to protect the area from future mining, among other recommendations.
The aim of negotiations with the mining company “is to set a benchmark for best practice in relation to managing and mitigating the impacts of coal mining and related activities on the environment, specifically the impact on water and heritage resources — not only for the Vele colliery but for all future coal mines,” said coalition spokesman Nick Hiltermann.
Coal of Africa CEO John Wallington said the process “cannot be rushed,” and described his mining firm as a “pioneer” in finding a balance between conservation and economic development.
“It’s setting a new benchmark for how companies are going to have to act in these areas,” Wallington said.
“It’s raised the bar for Vele,” he added. “And it has set the bar higher for those who want to come into the area.”
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Mapungubwe remains a highly contested place, bogged down by conflicting interpretations of history and the self-interests of politicians, said Tiley-Nel from the University of Pretoria.
“People use it to fit different agendas,” she said.
Under the previous South African president, Thabo Mbeki, Mapungubwe and its golden rhino became a symbol of “African renaissance.” South Africa’s highest honor was named the Order Mapungubwe, and Nelson Mandela was the first recipient.
President Jacob Zuma has used the discovery of Chinese pottery at Mapungubwe as evidence of pre-colonial trade with China, in order to bolster relations with Beijing. In truth, it is unclear how four tiny shards of celadon, dated to the southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), got to Mapungubwe Hill, but direct trade with China is considered highly unlikely.
Nevertheless, Zuma, on his last trade mission to Beijing, spoke of a kingdom that “already had commercial links with China” more than 1,000 years ago.
In a nod to the complexity of Mapungubwe, the new interpretive center at the park presents modern-day politics alongside African iron-age history.
“Mapungubwe has now been resurrected and transferred to meet the demands of a new society,” a signboard says, quoting University of South Africa history professor Jane Carruther. “[It] has been given a role to play in national identity, national pride, national and transnational economics and politics.”
Wallington said that what attracted people in ancient times to the Mapungubwe area was its supply of water, trees for firewood and floodplains to facilitate agriculture. Today, he said, his company’s coal mining is a continuation of the use of Mapungubwe for its natural resources.
He added: “We’re using this just like the ancient people used this, except we’ve got equipment.”
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