by Martin Hall
Southern Africa is a region of extremes and contradictions. Its history is no exception: the way South African and Zimbabwean history has been taught during the colonial period and even today remains a source of controversy.
The southern African landscape is one richly layered with the culture of its people. It is the home of the oldest continual tradition of painting in the world; the broken and scattered remains of pottery from hundreds of ancient farming villages — the oldest going back two thousand years; the stone walls of innumerable settlements scattered across the vast grasslands of the interior, including the towering, dry stone walls of Great Zimbabwe that were home to many hundreds of people almost a millennium ago; and now a World Heritage Site. It may also even be the part of the world to which modern humans everywhere owe their origins.
To drive north from Cape Town in South Africa to Harare, the capital of modern-day Zimbabwe, is to travel through a history book. Yet when the first Dutch settlers splashed ashore at the Cape in 1652 they saw a land they believed to be empty of civilization. And when, a little over two centuries later, the settlers forded the Limpopo River and climbed the highlands on the other side, they saw in Great Zimbabwe evidence for the Queen of Sheba’s lost city of the Old Testament — an outpost of northern civilization in a sea of southern “barbarism.”
In 1948, the National Party came to power in South Africa and formalized years of racial discrimination in the web of legislation that became notorious as apartheid. Children were taught in school that, save for the primitive “Bushmen,” southern Africa had been empty before Europeans had arrived, and that black Africans had only entered the subcontinent from the north at the same time that the Dutch had arrived in the far south. In an epic battle between civilization, superstition and dark violence, Christianity had prevailed over the indigenous culture.
A similar denial of history was offered in Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was known proir to its independence in 1980. Africans, it was said, were incapable of building in stone or of fashioning fine gold. The Bible was used to offer proof that the gold brought in homage to Solomon came from the south, and where else than from the long-used mines that the white pioneers had found in abundance. Anyone arguing otherwise was accused of being unpatriotic or, worse, in secret conspiracy with black terrorists intent on overthrowing an ordered colonial society.
Today, with literally tons of evidence of African civilizations that stretched back centuries before Europeans even knew where the subcontinent was, it is difficult to give credence to this colonial version of history. One wonders how these fictitious versions of history could have taken root. Partly, it served the political and economical motives of white settlers to believe that the land of southern Africa was empty and the colonial enterprise was high-minded. But the denial of Africa’s true history was also due to the pervasive effects of widespread assumptions about the “dark continent.” A century ago, Henry Rider Haggard, a minor colonial official and unsuccessful ostrich farmer, made his name and fortune through King Solomon’s Mines, She and other novels. Each story played to the romance of Africa as a timeless continent of wild game, fiercely beautiful scenery and simple people with no history. In Haggard’s view, Africa was little more than the foil for Europe’s history, and the idea of cities a thousand years old would have been incredible.
Today, the history books are being rewritten. Great Zimbabwe is a national symbol of black pride and accomplishment, known to every Zimbabwean. And although few South Africans know much about the past of their country before colonial settlement, this is changing as the far-reaching tenets of apartheid are dismantled. But the world’s more general assumptions about Africa — the contemporary connection with the popular writers of the 19th century — are still pervasive. The tourism and leisure industries thrive on fables that are unchanged from Rider Haggard’s day, and Hollywood’s Lion King still rules over a timeless landscape, empty of history.
But beneath the veneer of airport novels, architects’ dreams and impresarios’ fantasies is a solid mass of convincing evidence for a rather different history. About a thousand years ago, villagers along the banks of the Limpopo began to trade down the river, exchanging animal skins, ivory and other exotic items for glass beads, which were as valuable to them as was gold in the economies of the medieval north. Their partners in this barter were itinerant traders who made their way south along Africa’s Indian Ocean coastline, setting up temporary camps close to river estuaries.
Soon, some of these Limpopo villages became wealthy, growing rapidly in population as they attracted people from the surrounding countryside like magnets. And, within the villages, some became more wealthy than others, gaining power and prominence in their communities. As in many other parts of the world, this elite claimed its status through architecture, setting some houses above others, and using the possibilities of the landscape to best advantage. Some places became far more important than others — cities in a landscape of villages. Among them was Mapungubwe, which thrived in the 12th century A.D.
The design of Mapungubwe makes the best use of a dramatic landscape. The city is centered on a steep-sided, flat-topped hill that towers above the valley. The wealthy lived on the top of the hill, signifying their claim to status both by this physical elevation, and also through the goldwork and trade beads that adorned their bodies in life and in death. Prosperity rested on the work of skilled craftsmen, who fashioned ivory and bone for trade, smelted and smithed iron, finely decorated hand-built pots and worked gold. Today, this heritage is best represented in the small, exquisite gold foil rhinoceros, surely one of South Africa’s national treasures.
Within a century, Mapungubwe was in decline. A number of theories have been put forth to explain this — environmental decline through overgrazing by the massive herds of cattle that supported a population in excess of 10,000 people, or bubonic plague that spread inland from the coastal trading settlements. But the most likely explanation is that Mapungubwe was eclipsed by the rise of a new economic power to the north of the Limpopo.
Great Zimbabwe is one of many settlements that had at their center dry stone walls with distinctive designs and characteristic decoration. For the most part, these were not the walls of houses, but were rather intended to emphasize the importance of those who lived near them — the same symbolic logic as Mapungubwe’s hilltop. The distribution of these stone buildings – which extended from the Kalahari Desert in the west to the Indian Ocean lowlands in the east — suggests that they were regional centers in a complex social and economic network. Great Zimbabwe was the largest of them, sufficiently more substantial to mark it as the capital of a complex state that rested on the gold trade.
Great Zimbabwe and its hinterland prospered for three centuries. The memory of this prosperity was sufficiently fresh in people’s memories for the Portuguese to collect rumors of it when they invaded the Mozambican coastline at the very beginning of the 16th century. But the Portuguese were intent on plunder and on finding the Bible’s lost cities, legendary for their wealth. Before long, Africa’s history was shrouded by the myths and justifications of colonialism. But fortunately, the very weight of Africa’s past has kept it alive. Mapungubwe’s foil rhinoceros was hidden away for decades, but now tells its own tale of sophisticated ancient African wealth and craftsmanship. Great Zimbabwe was plundered by expedition after expedition, desperately burrowing for proof the Queen of Sheba once wandered around the walls. Instead, undeniable evidence for centuries-old black civilizations was discovered, now validated by an irrefutable series of radiocarbon dates. The cities of the south are lost no longer.
Re-blogged from http://www.pbs.org/wonders/fr_rt.htm