“The kingdom of Mapungubwe is one of the lost cities of the world. A visit should be seen as a pilgrimage. This is not a place to come and party. It is an area that people visit to rest, to go into the bush or to learn about the important African heritage.’’
In June Tshimangadzo Nemaheni (39) moved from Robben Island to become the new park manager of Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site. Now that he is settled in he talks for the first time about his ambitions.
Better roads, more staff, reasonable tourism revenues, well preserved and accessible heritage sites and the park as a main centre for debates on African culture: Nemaheni’s wish list for the next 5 years is long but he says he is motivated to face the challenge. In his eyes Mapungubwe is not only a national park with impressive rock formations, riverine forest and the finest of African animals and birds. It is also the place where Africans can trace their roots.
“To go into the future, we have to look back in the past’’, says Nemaheni. The Mapungubwe area tells a pre-colonial story of a wealthy and far developed Iron Age civilization, ultimately settled around Mapungubwe hill (around 1200 AD) – where the leaders separated themselves from the commoners for the first time in the history of Southern Africa. We, as the younger generation, can learn about the culture that was practiced, about the art and about how people used to live their lives. By learning from this we can prevent erosion of our own culture.’’
Nemaheni’s new job is a homecoming, both to SANParks and to the Limpopo province. “I am a local person. I was in born and raised in Ha-Makuya in the Venda area. After matric I earned a degree in teaching at the University of Venda and did studies, diploma’s and a master all related to museology and heritage in Pretoria and Johannesburg. In Kruger National Park I was the first ever cultural resource manager and I worked with the local communities. After that I worked for the Cradle of Humankind in Johannesburg and the last three years I have been working on Robben Island as a senior manager for heritage and environmental affairs.’’
So why did you apply for the job in Mapungubwe?
“Firstly it is home. Secondly this park has great potential. It offers a major challenge because it is both a national park and a World Heritage Site. We need to find a balance for that. The emphasis should be more on interpretation and education. For example I would like to start the children’s program ‘World Heritage in Young Hands’. Our park is already receiving the most schoolchildren of all national parks, besides Kruger.’’
What are you going to change?
“We need to do capacity building. Right now we only have the mentality to manage a national park. In the future staff should be inherently heritage practitioners. It should be in the conscience of all people working here: this is a heritage site that is important for the world. Besides this, we are currently understaffed. This has to change.’’
Nemaheni is excited about initiatives that put the park right in the centre of cultural debate. ,,During National Parks Week we have launched an oral history project, a debate on the meaning of Mapungubwe and its place in African context.’’ Future debates should not only draw South-Africans, but also people from Botswana and Zimbabwe. ,,The kingdom of Mapungubwe was not limited by the Limpopo, which is only a colonial border. Many related sites are found across the river.’’ Recently the three countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the proposed transfrontier park that will include Mapungubwe and parts of Botswana (Tuli Block) and Zimbabwe.
What’s in store for the tourists next year?
“There are plans to open an interpretation centre. We are also finalizing site specific management plans for a couple of impressive rock art sites in the park, assisted by the US based Getty Conservation Institute. Unfortunately, I cannot give an opening date for these sites yet.’’ The rocky roads are a major source of complaints among tourists. Nemaheni acknowledges the problem and hopes he can change things for the better in the following years.
Nemaheni feels encouraged by two awards that Mapungubwe received since his appointment. In July the park won SanParks’s Kudu Award for receiving over 60 percent local visitors, mainly previously disadvantaged schoolchildren. Last month the park received a provincial award for being ‘the most exciting and interesting heritage site’ in Limpopo.