Visit to the Shashe-Limpopo Confluence Area

12 Jun 2018 - 14:30
A view of the Shashe-Limpopo Confluence Area. Credit: Jo-Anne Duggan
A view of the Shashe-Limpopo Confluence Area. Credit: Jo-Anne Duggan


On Tuesday 13 March 2018, a group of Archive and Public Culture researchers and students, comprising Carolyn Hamilton, Simon Hall, Henry Fagan and  this writer, Himal Ramji, began a journey to the Shashe-Limpopo Confluence Area, located in the northernmost reaches of the Limpopo province.

But before we were to head to Limpopo, we took a day to engage the site at Molokwane, near Rustenburg, which houses the remains of an eighteenth-century Bakwena settlement. For this mission, we were joined by Sikho Siyotula (University of Pretoria/University of Potsdam), Robin-Lea Karating (UWC) and Amanda Esterhuysen (Witwatersrand University), as well as APC and South African history stalwart, John Wright.    

In a sense, Molokwane became a framing device for the rest of the trip, in that it is one of the less publicly (or popularly) known historical sites in southern Africa. For archaeologists, Molokwane is special since there are many visible stone walls, which makes it much easier for researchers to construct a spatial model of the massive settlement.  While more famous (and much older) sites like Mapungubwe are thought to have housed about 4 000 people, Simon Hall has theorised that Molokwane was home to about 11 000 people. 

But for us, Molokwane was especially significant simply because, like many other sites hailing from about 900 CE to about 1800 CE, it pales in the popular gaze compared to the attention received by, for instance, Mapungubwe and the Zulu kingdom. Our next mission was the area in which Mapungubwe is located – the archaeologically rich Shashe-Limpopo Confluence Area.

For the Limpopo leg of our trip, Carolyn and Amanda were unfortunately unable to accompany us. However, we were joined once again by John, Sikho and Robin, as well as one of the foremost members of the southern African (and global) archaeological community, Thomas Huffman. Through Thomas’s and Simon’s knowledge of southern African archaeology, and the SLCA in particular, we were graced with a thoughtful though brief engagement with Zhizo and Leopard’s Kopje histories (those being the two dominant historical cultures in the region, as determined by archaeologists). We visited five key sites: Mapungubwe Hill, K2, Leokwe, the SLCA, and Schroda. Of these, Schroda (occupied by Zhizo people) is the oldest, dating back to 900 CE, while Mapungubwe is the most recent, dating between approximately 1220 and 1290 CE. 

There was something that became increasingly alarming in my mind about Mapungubwe in particular, especially against the framing set up by our visit to Molokwane. It appeared that sites like Mapungubwe have been afforded so much public and popular prestige at the exclusion of entire sites from public and popular offerings of southern African history from before colonial times. Certain sites become overdetermined and, in turn, these sites become determinant of meanings made at or for other sites. In the case of the SLCA, generally it becomes Mapungubwe that earns the greatest public and popular attention, with sites like Schroda and K2 performing a functional role in the build-up towards the thirteenth-century gold-bearing site. 

The evidence for this is wide. The big green signs on the side of the road do not read “Shashe-Limpopo Confluence Area”, but instead simply read: “Mapungubwe”. Similarly, Mapungubwe Hill is one of very few sites (bar Leokwe camp, which is geared specifically towards tourists) that has a reasonably well-kept dirt road. Other (often older) sites, like K2 and Schroda, have dirt roads, but they are overgrown, and the sites appear to be rarely visited by tourists. Schroda – the oldest of the Zhizo sites at the SLCA – is an especially desolate space, with no information boards or demarcations. K2, on the other hand, is unkempt, apart from a small building which houses several information boards. 

There is much to take from the sites at the SLCA, as well as deeper into the South African interior. However, one is left with the feeling that only fragments of these histories make their way into public and popular spheres. While archaeologists might hold a vast knowledge of the region’s histories, the general public inevitably engages only the most politically powerful histories. For the SLCA, this is Mapungubwe – the gold-bearing, elite-dominated, world-trading state known best for its sacred leadership and spatial divisions between monarchy and peasantry.

But there is far more to the history of southern Africa before colonial times. There is cultural mixture, and nuanced forms of cooperation and conflict, exhibited at the SLCA in the gradual development of Zhizo and, later, Leopard’s Kopje cultures. But there are also areas of contention in the archaeohistorical knowledge that has already been produced for these regions – contestations which never truly emerge in the public and popular, which generally appear, at the sites and beyond, as linear narratives, presented as if they have been agreed upon, as if they are, beyond ‘truth’, facts in themselves. What we are left with is a ‘precolonial’ that, presented with all the historical certainty of a defined science, possesses less and less room to breathe.

The coming years will be an interesting time for the production of precolonial histories, within the academy and beyond, particularly in popular reproductions, those of novels, theatre, film, music, and comic books, to name but a few media which hold the potential to popularise the precolonial. As things stand, whether at the sites of the SLCA or beyond, in the popular representations we encounter, what we encounter is a remarkably limited publicised precolonial.