Royal battle set for court

2010-07-04 12:38

A battle that has been quietly raging between Venda royals and the community’s elders will erupt in court on Tuesday when Dzomo la Mupo (the voice of the earth), the custodians of sacred sites in ­Venda, petition the court to halt construction of a tourist camp above the sacred Phiphidi Falls.

The application will be served on members of the Venda royal family, chiefs, the minister of rural development and various government departments.

The complainants are members of Dzomo la Mupo and the Ramunangi clan, in whose area the falls are situated.

Developers are building eight tourist chalets, a restaurant, bar, lapa and laundry at the head of the falls which, the elders say, is ­degrading the sacred site, fouling the river and angering the spirits.

The construction is being undertaken by an organisation connected to the royal family.

For several years polite pleading and petitioning by the Ramunangi custodians has been ­ignored.

In this deeply traditional society it has taken considerable courage to go up against chiefs and royalty, and the custodians are at pains to point out that they hold no personal animosity ­towards the king or his chiefs.

The decision on the application could have far-reaching political and ecological implications.

Central to the network of sacred sites across the Soutpansberg is a forest from which 24 streams flow, providing water for the area’s ­fertile farms and smallholdings.

The forest, together with Lake Fundudzi and pools, groves and waterfalls are biodiversity hotspots Venda people have ­always conserved.

Without them, they say, rain will not fall and the land will become sick and die.

The issue raises questions about the difference between ­political and custodial rights, and whether tradition can be preserved in the face of development for gain.

The Phiphidi development is being undertaken by the Tshi­vhase Development Foundation Trust (TDFT), of which the BEE billionaire Mashudu Tshivhase is a director.

He is related to one of the most respected Venda kings, Kennedy Tshivhase, who claims to know nothing about the ­petition.

When a road was built through the forest a few 100m above the falls in 2007, the Ramunangi and Dzomo la Mupo petitioned the ­local chief and the government through their lawyer, Roger Chennels, but got no response.

Then things got worse. The sacred falls were fenced off and the custodians were told they had no right to enter a construction area.

Chennels discovered that the environmental impact assessment which sanctioned the development was defective, and the development was therefore illegal.

Dzomo la Mupo then extended their petitioning to government departments and the Commission for the Promotion and ­Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

They all failed to respond.

When no other official response was forthcoming, the Dzomo la Mupo brought an urgent interdict to the Limpopo High Court to stop all development at Phiphidi pending the restoration of their traditional rights.

Respondents include the TDFT, the Tshivhase Traditional Council, Chief Jerry Tshivhase, the ­departments of economic development and environment and tourism, the minister of rural ­development and the Thulamela municipality. 

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