Mapungubwe rhino comes to town

Lucille Davie

5 January 2007

An 800-year-old rhino has come to town ... and is here to stay. A metre-long golden fibre-glass rhinoceros has been placed on a plinth in the mining precinct in Main Street, Johannesburg, to serve as a reminder of the city's gold-mining history - and of Mapungubwe, South Africa's first "city of gold".

The rhino is a replica of the iconic gold rhino of Mapungubwe, South Africa's first kingdom, dating back 800 years. The original is housed in a museum on the University of Pretoria campus, while the Mapungubwe site - now a World Heritage site - is within the Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo province.

Main Street has become an enclave of elegance, cleanliness and safety in Johannesburg's CBD. With sponsorship from the mining industry, the street has been remodelled, with curved pavements made attractive by the addition of trees, flower beds and street furniture like period lampposts, coco pans and mining headgear.

Guards patrol the street, ensuring that the pavements remain spotless and monitoring the comings and goings of passersby. Pavement restaurants offer a haven from the bustle of traffic.

The aim is to raise awareness of the history of the country's first gold explorers, says John Dewar, director of the Johannesburg Land Company.

Dewar says it took several years to work out how to produce the rhino replica. It had to be made durable, yet couldn't be constructed of metal, for fear of theft. The final product is made of fibreglass, sprayed gold.

SA's first class society
Storyboards alongside the rhino tell its history. Dating back to pre-colonial times, Mapungubwe (meaning "place of wolves") was the first society in South Africa in which class distinctions appeared. The king separated himself from his subjects, living with his royal entourage on an impressive oval-shaped mountain top, to which his subjects carried food and water daily.

These Bantu peoples were the first people, after the Bushmen, to settle in South Africa. The area they settled is on the border with Zimbabwe and Botswana, at the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers.

The exquisite golden rhino, some 12cm in length and 6cm in height and made of gold foil nailed around a wooden interior, was excavated at the site in 1933. The rhino has delicately formed ears, horn and upright tail (found in fragmented form and restored by the British Museum).

Other gold items found at Mapungubwe include the top of a sceptre 15cm in length, a golden bowl about 10cm in diameter, and strings of gold bead necklaces and bracelets. These were found in what is believed to be one of three royal graves on the top of the Mapungubwe mountain.

The broader area around Mapungubwe had been occupied for several hundred years before people settled on the mountain. An area east of Mapungubwe, called Schroda, was believed to have been settled around 800 AD. When that was abandoned, the community moved to a hill about a kilometre south-west of Mapungubwe, now called K2, setting up their homesteads between 1000 and 1200 AD.

This site was also abandoned, and Mapungubwe taken over in about 1220, with the king establishing himself on the top of the mountain and up to 5 000 subjects in the plain around him. They grew sorghum and millet and cotton, as excavations of storage huts reveal, herded cattle, goats and sheep, and kept dogs. Although now dry, a tributary of the Limpopo ran through the valley, providing water for the community.

Sophisticated society
It was a sophisticated society. They produced beautiful clay pots, decorated around the rim, of different shapes and sizes. Other items have been excavated: wooden spoons, whistles, funnels, and spindle whorls with which to spin the cotton they grew.

They had access to gold, now believed to have been panned from the Shashe River, which runs through gold mining areas further north in Zimbabwe, and perhaps mined from further south in Gauteng. They mined and worked iron, obtained in the area.

Arab, Chinese and Indian traders, travelling from Sofala in Mozambique, reached this far, bringing with them glass beads and cowrie and mussel shells to exchange for ivory and gold.

There are two significant elements to this society: it was not cattle-centred but rather focused around the king, who was never seen by his subjects living on the plains around the mountain. And, like any modern economy, trade was the basis of its economy.

Mapungubwe disintegrated as a settlement about 1290, believed to be as a result of the Portuguese colonising Mozambique and changing the trade routes.

Dewar says he is planning more storyboards along Main Street, giving details of buildings that have been demolished along the street. The people involved in the formation of companies like Anglo American and Billiton will also be profiled.

Source: City of Johannesburg

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Johannesburg's replica of the gold foil rhinoceros excavated at Mapungubwe, South Africa's lost 'city of gold' (Photo: Lucille Davie, City of Johannesburg)

Mapungubwe's famous gold foil rhinoceros (Photo: University of Pretoria)
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