Lessons of the past

2011-03-26 10:41

The Mapungubwe Kingdom has great symbolic resonance.

It was one of the ­earliest states in the region and in its heyday, from the 11th to the 13th century, it was a centre of striking power and ­prosperity.

Its history was long downplayed in official accounts because it ­provided a potent challenge to views that African settlements and kingdoms were recent.

The fortunes of the Mapungubwe were closely connected to forms of globalisation, which helped determine its fate.
Regional patterns of trade and metal production became ­connected to long-distance ­trading networks, especially in gold and ivory.

Mapungubwe, located deep in the interior at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, became a vital part of the world of Indian-Ocean commerce which linked Asia, Arabia and Africa.

Between 900AD and 1 000AD, traders followed the Limpopo ­River to the coast, heading for Chibuene, a trading town on the East Coast near modern Vilanculos, Mozambique.

There they linked to traders who had sailed directly across the ocean making use of the south equatorial currents and southwest monsoon winds.

This journey was only possible as a result of the sophisticated ship-building technology of the Indians and southeast Asians, who built strong, ocean-going ­vessels of teak.

Political consolidation in India also gave rise to the stability that the network relied on.

Further to the north of Chibuene was another thriving centre of trade – the town of Sofala, which was connected to Kilwa, the “middleman” of the Indian Ocean trade network at this time.

Kilwa was home to Arab trading families who directed trade up and down the coast and into the interior, and reaped huge rewards for it.

The northeast monsoon winds that blew south for half of the year and north for the other half ­allowed Arab sailors and merchants to travel from the Persian Gulf to the Swahili coast and back again, stopping at important trading towns with links to the African interior.

The booming demand for ivory and especially gold played a key role in the rise of the state and in sustaining its ruling groups.

The geography of the trade changed between the 10th and early 14th centuries when Muslim, European and Indian states began to issue gold coinage or adopted a gold standard.

This led to an increased demand for gold, which was known to be produced in southern Africa.

In the same period, as demand for gold increased, control over the Indian Ocean trade network shifted to Fustat (ancient Cairo), and the trade network was expanded to southern Africa.

At its height, the network connected the entire East African coast with the Indian Subcontinent and China.
Mapungubwe benefited from these new arrangements, but only for a short period.

This trade was shaped by factors far beyond the control of local rulers.

This reality meant that the state was in a poor position to adapt to changes in the nature of the trade.

Being so far south, Mapungubwe was probably increasingly bypassed, as alternative routes into the interior along the Zambezi River became more popular.

Mapungubwe’s power was undermined by the shift of the focus of trade to the north.

Although the flow of information and exchange of technology is much greater today, few can doubt the risks as well as opportunities that rapidly changing global realities pose for South Africa in the 21st century.

But perhaps the most salutary dimension of the history of ­Mapungubwe for contemporary South Africa is the effect on it of rapid processes of internal social differentiation.

Control over long-distance trade allowed the rulers of the state to develop a lifestyle increasingly distinct from the majority of their subjects.

The glittering ­golden world of the rulers, which was sustained by easy access to imported luxuries, had less and less in common with the drudgery and danger which was the lot of their subjects.

The security of trade-based wealth also led rulers to value their subjects less and therefore to ­demand more from them.

The growing gulf between the rulers and the ruled was also both cause and consequence of spatial segregation, as rulers moved to the top of Mapungubwe Hill to practice their privileged lifestyle.

This deepening social division posed rulers with the problem of how to maintain their legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects while not sacrificing their new-found wealth.

They attempted to harness spiritual power, particularly control over rain making to this end. But it seems that they were less than successful in this endeavour.

This failure, along with shifts in trade and climate, may well have played a decisive role in the kingdom’s decline.

Alienated subjects and the loss of a pivotal role in the gold trade drained the state of political and economic power.

Both of these conditions are plausible, contemporary possibilities.

There is thus not a vast gulf between challenges confronted in the past and the obstacles strewn across the road ahead today.

The Mapungube Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) takes the view that our engagement with historical processes needs to go beyond merely identifying some continuity.

It is committed to a systematic investigation of the changing ­dynamics within pre-colonial ­societies as a means of enriching the discussion of constraints and opportunities in the present.

  Delius is a professor in the history department at the University of the Witwatersrand.

This article is based on the booklet Mapungubwe: A Living Legacy, which was produced by Mistra to inform discussion at its recent launch conference 

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