Mapungubwe visitor centre opens

14 September 2012

The award-winning Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre was officially opened at Mapungubwe National Park outside Musina in South Africa’s Limpopo province on Monday.

Mapungubwe National Park, celebrates the site of an ancient trading civilization within a stunning natural setting, forms part of the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape, which was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003.

The complex landscape – Mapungubwe lies the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers in South Africa’s northernmost province – not only inspired the design of the new interpretation centre, it was also the source of the materials for its construction.

The domed buildings were built with local materials by unemployed local workers, and seem to have sprouted from the earth like a cluster of mushrooms, giving the structures a dynamic, authentically local feel.

Designed by Peter Rich Architects, the centre was the winner of the prestigious World Building of the Year award in 2009.

South Africa’s first kingdom

Mapungubwe – “place of the stone of wisdom” – was South Africa’s first kingdom, and developed into the subcontinent’s largest realm, lasting for 400 years before it was abandoned in the 14th century. Its highly sophisticated people traded gold and ivory with China, India and Egypt.

A free-standing structure rising 30 metres above the surrounding grasslands, Mapungubwe Hill, site of the lost city, is topped by impregnable cliffs all around.

Since its discovery in 1932 this Iron Age site has been excavated by the University of Pretoria. However, the findings were kept from public attention until 1993, just prior to South Africa’s first democratic elections, because evidence of a highly advanced indigenous society existing centuries before European colonialism spread across Africa ran contrary to the racist ideology of apartheid.

“The remains in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape are a remarkably complete testimony to the growth and subsequent decline of the Mapungubwe state,” the World Heritage Committee said in its assessment of the site in 2003.

“What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years.”

Minister praises designers, workers

Speaking at Monday’s opening of the interpretation centre, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa noted that Mapungubwe was famous for the iconic statue of a small golden rhino which was found buried with the king at the Mapungubwe hilltop citadel.

“We should all pay tribute to the South African talent that designed the building and the many workers who built this masterpiece,” Molewa said.

She added that more than 200 000 tiles had been manufactured on site using unskilled labour, thus empowering the workers with skills they could use when the project ended.

“About 160 people were employed for 27 months during the construction of the centre,” Molewa said.

Regarding the controversy surrounding the impending coal mining activities at the Vele colliery near Mapungubwe’s entrance, the minister said the conflict between development and conservation had “become very stark in areas like Mapungubwe, which are not only rich in biodiversity and heritage but are also home to a variety of minerals”.

She said the government had worked hard in the last few years “to ensure that as a developmental state we pursue our development in a sustainable manner,” adding that her department had recently hosted a meeting on the subject of World Heritage and Mining, bringing together experts on development and conservation.

SAinfo reporter and SANews.gov.za