The vhaVenda clans of northern South Africa, in present-day Limpopo Province, are among the nation’s most traditional, hewing to rituals and practices passed down from their ancestors. Among these clans, the Ramunangi are acknowledged as the traditional custodians of Phiphidi Waterfall, a small cascade that is central to the clan’s relationship with ancestral spirits. This custodial responsibility, however, is not legally recognized, which has limited the Ramunangi’s ability to protect their sacred site from tourism development. A rock above the waterfall — one of the site’s most holy areas — was recently destroyed as part of a road-building project, and for years, the Ramunangi have been denied full access to the site to perform their rituals and custodial duties. The clan is now turning to legal measures to restore full access to Phiphidi and receive official recognition as its custodians. Tshavhungwe Nemarudi, a custodian elder, said in 2008, “It is no longer possible to respect the sacred site as it should be respected. Members of our clan have become sick. The Earth is sick. We know that this is because we have not been able to conduct our rituals properly in the last years. What we request is simply that our sacred site should be allowed to remain a place of pure, untouched nature.”
The Land and Its People
Phiphidi Waterfall is located in rural Limpopo Province at the foothills of the Soutpansberg (Dzwaini), South Africa’s northernmost mountain range. The region’s isolation from the rest of South Africa has helped preserve the traditional cultures and belief practices of its indigenous inhabitants. Among the many tribal peoples living in Limpopo Province, about 12 percent of the population are members of the Venda linguistic group.
The vhaVenda clans are widely regarded as the aboriginal peoples of the region. They share a cosmology and culture that shape their society today, including initiation rites for their adolescents, rich artistic traditions, and custodial responsibility for sacred lands. Among the vhaVenda clans, the Ramunangi are the acknowledged custodians of Phiphidi Waterfall.
The Ramunangi are a dispersed people, with many members having left the region to work in larger cities; those who remain work in traditional agricultural, ranching or mining industries and are believed to number roughly 1,000. Despite their small numbers, generational memory is strong, and the Ramunangi feel a significant responsibility to continue their centuries-old commitment to the waterfall.
Phiphidi is located within a forested area on the Mutshindudi River and belongs to a cluster of nearby sacred sites that other vhaVenda clans care for, including sacred Lake Fundudzi and the Thathe Vondo sacred forest. At Phiphidi, the river, falls and surrounding forest are all considered sacred, and two specific sites are regarded as most holy: a rock above the waterfall, called LanwaDzongolo, and the pool below, Guvhukuvhu.
A complex collection of laws and rituals, some of which are closely guarded by clan elders, govern clan practice and behavior at Phiphidi; the site has traditionally been off-limits to all but the Ramunangi. Traditional belief holds that the waterfall and pool are inhabited by ancestral water spirits who require offerings of grain and beer, which are made on LanwaDzongolo. These powerful spirits receive prayers from the people for rain, health, agricultural abundance and community peace. Traditionally, these offerings were made throughout the year, with one primary and complicated annual rite that lasted many days.
The waterfall is part of a savannah biome in the Soutpansberg region, a biodiversity hotspot that supports hundreds of plant and animal species, some of which are endemic. Thirty percent of South Africa’s tree species grow in the Soutpansberg area, though it accounts for less than one percent of the country’s surface area. In addition, 60 percent of South Africa’s birdlife, 40 percent of its mammals, and 30 percent of its reptiles call the Soutpansberg home. As traditional custodians of Phiphidi Waterfall, the Ramunangi clan has helped limit ecological damage to the Mutshindudi River and its surrounding landscape.
Development pressures — particularly tourism and infrastructure — that began in recent decades threaten Phiphidi Waterfall and the Ramunangi’s ability to access the site and perform the rituals central to their heritage and belief system. Today’s challenges are, in part, the legacy of a tangled political history that includes tribal allegiance, colonization, apartheid and democratization.
Until the late 1890s, what is now known as Limpopo Province was governed by tribal chiefs. It was the last uncolonized region to fall during the Boer Wars, eventually becoming part of the South African republic in 1898. In 1979, during the apartheid era, the region was proclaimed an independent bantustan — one of 10 “homeland” states where the country’s black ethnic groups (in this case, the vhaVenda) were assigned to live and where they did not have South African citizenship rights. The apartheid government co-opted certain tribal leaders to run the state, while smaller clans like the Ramunangi were effectively disempowered.
In the 1980s, the Venda Bantustan government decided to develop Phiphidi Waterfall as a tourist destination, building roads and installing public restrooms and picnic areas, surrounded by a perimeter fence. This was done with the approval of the local tribal headman, a strong supporter of economic development, who ignored the protests of the Ramunangi. Since then, tourists have been permitted to freely wander the site — even the most sacred areas — leaving litter, trampling vegetation, playing loud music and, the Ramunangi say, disturbing the spirits. Of particular concern to the Ramunangi is that their sacred site is frequently used, in their words, as a “love nest” and the site is desecrated with condoms.
Tourism brochures, while mentioning the sacred nature of the site, do not identify the Ramunangi as the traditional custodians nor provide adequate details to truly encourage cultural sensitivity. The Ramunangi are permitted access to their sacred sites without paying the admission fee, but they have been unable to fully perform their annual September ritual — which traditionally lasted many days and required uninterrupted access to the waterfall, pool and rock ledge — because officials have been unwilling to close the site to tourists for more than a day.
With the end of apartheid in 1994, Phiphidi fell under the jurisdiction of a new provincial government, presenting the hope that the Ramunangi could reestablish the custodial rights that they had once enjoyed. But instead, tourism development continued — as did lack of official recognition of and consultation with the Ramunangi — despite the fact that Phiphidi is legally part of a tribal land trust that recognizes communal ownership of the property.
In recent years, efforts by Ramunangi clan leaders to bring their concerns to their local tribal headman and to the provincial heritage and tourism authorities have been repeatedly rebuffed or ignored. A plan is now reportedly under way for the redevelopment of Phiphidi Waterfall; again, the Ramunangi have not been consulted and their requests to obtain copies of the development plan have gone unanswered.
To make matters worse, in 2007, LanwaDzongolo, the sacred rock above the waterfall, was completely destroyed to quarry materials for a road leading to a new nearby hospital. Construction also damaged the surrounding sacred forest and polluted the river, over which the new road now runs. Once again, the Ramunangi were not consulted in the matter, and received no help from their headman or the provincial government.
The destruction at Phiphidi has been devastating to the Ramunangi, whose elders fear that the well-being of their community and the environment is threatened because of their inability to properly perform their traditional rituals, and thus preserve the protective power of the site.
Driven to seek recourse outside the traditional hierarchy of tribal leadership, Ramunangi leaders in November 2008 drafted a legal claim of rights to the sacred sites at Phiphidi Waterfall. In it, they requested that the national, provincial and local governments officially acknowledge them as the traditional custodians, that the site be closed to the public, that tourism development and quarrying for the road project be stopped entirely, and that the sacred site be repaired and restored.
Instead of immediately filing the claim with the provincial court, they presented it first to government officials, including the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment, and Tourism and the Limpopo Heritage Department. These two entities agreed to acknowledge, albeit unofficially, the Ramunangi as custodians of the site and to consult the clan prior to further development. These agreements are informal, however, and the Ramunangi may still file their claim in court if they are not honored.
The ultimate protection of Phiphidi Waterfall may entail applying for protection under South Africa’s cultural heritage laws, which place strict limitations on development. As yet, protection through these heritage laws has not been sought for any of the other Venda sacred sites.
In 2009, the Ramunangi and other vhaVenda clans participated in ecocultural mapping workshops to develop maps of their sacred sites and surrounding areas. These maps will be used to fortify their territorial rights claims and to determine the degree of future, public access to the sites as preferred by the clans.
What You Can Do
Support the work of the Gaia Foundation and the Mupo Foundation, which are working with the Ramunangi on mapping projects, youth-elder educational exchanges, and the recovery of traditional methods of farming and seed preservation.
If you visit Phiphidi Waterfall, obtain permission from the Ramunangi before visiting and do not litter or damage any of the trails. See “Ethics for Visiting Sacred Places” for more guidance.
Chennells, Roger and Ramunangi tribal leaders. “The Ramunangi Claim of Rights to the Sacred Sites of Phiphidi Waterfall (Lanwadzongolo and Guvhukuvhu).” November 15, 2008.
“National Heritage Resources Act.” South African Heritage Resources Agency.
“South Africa: Campaign to Save Ramunangi Sacred Sites” and “Workshops for Makhadzis in the Wild — Venda, South Africa.” Community Ecological Governance/CEG News, No. 10, August 2009.
“State of the Rivers Report.” South African River Health Programme.
Swanby, Haidee. “South Africa: Traditional Healers Meeting Offers Hope for Venda’s Sacred Sites.” Community Ecological Governance/CEG News, No. 8, December 2007.
“VhaVenda.” Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization.
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Report by: Megan Stacy
Thanks to: Mpatheleni Mapaulule of the Mupo Foundation and human rights lawyer Roger Chennells for reviewing the text prior to publication.
Posted on: November 25, 2009
Updated on: November 25, 2009
Country: South Africa