Symbol of South Africa’s Pre-colonial Past


The golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe, the defining symbol of pre-colonial civilisation in South Africa could be loaned to the British Museum for an unprecedented exhibition of South African art proposed for Oct 2016.

Described as Southern Africa’s equivalent of Tutuankhamun’s mask or the Staffordshire hoard, the country’s precious crown jewel is currently lodged with the University of Pretoria, along with 9 kg of gold treasures which is the biggest collection of gold artefacts in sub Saharan Africa.

Mapungubwe, in the far north of South Africa bordering present-day Botswana and Zimbabwe, was the biggest kingdom on the sub continent in the 13th century. It had a sophisticated state and economic system, which included agriculture, mining, and advanced artisanship that traded ivory and gold with Asia and Egypt, glazed stoneware with China, and imported glass beads from India.

The site was rediscovered in 1932 and excavated by the University of Pretoria, yielding gold jewellery including anklets, bracelets, necklaces, beads and figurines recovered from three elite burial sites.
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 the Cape in 1652. Few were willing to to contemplate that these artefacts could be the work of a much earlier black culture that existed nearly a thousand years earlier.

Since multiracial democracy in 1994, Mapungubwe has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco and incorporated in a national park.  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.

As Frances Wilson says in Dinosaurs, Diamonds and Democracy about Iron Age and archaeological evidence showing Mapungubwe to be the first settlement in southern Africa to boast 5,000 inhabitants, it pioneered the stone wall building techniques used over the next two centuries at Great Zimbabwe – as well as global trading.

Courtesy David Smith ”The world must see our golden rhino”: Guardian News & Media

We visit here on our ”Cultural Crossroads” tour – find out more about this ancient and alluring site …


Mapungubwe settlement with the commoners living at the bottom of the hill, royalty on the high terraces and the king on top. 

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