Battle to save South Africa's 'sacred sites' from tourist chalets

Phiphidi Waterfall in Venda is part of a sacred site used by the local community to speak to the ancestors
Image caption The Venda nation believe in the mystical powers of ancestral sacred sites

The Phiphidi Waterfalls are a majestic site hidden between thick trees and lush green vegetation in the far north of South Africa, near the border with Zimbabwe.

The falls are surrounded by large trees with roots that reach out over the water like arms raised in worship of the area considered sacred by the local Venda community.

But the area's natural beauty means it is also a prime site to attract holiday-makers - and their money - to the impoverished region.

Yellow front-loader bulldozers have started to excavate the soil, preparing it for builders to lay the foundation for Limpopo's first tourist complex which will include eight chalets, a bar and a restaurant at the head of the waterfall above the mountainous town of Thohoyandou.

News of the destruction of the holy place caused outrage amongst elders of the Ramunangi clan, who are widely accepted as the custodians of the waterfall.

The Ramunangi, a group within the Venda ethnic group, led by Tshavhungwe Nemarude, an 84-year-old woman, recently petitioned the Limpopo High Court to halt construction.

Their request was granted but only until later in August when the case is set to resume.

Ms Nemarude has accused Chief Jerry Tshivhase, from a different Venda clan, of ignoring the rights of the Ramunangi people to "protect the site".

The Ramunangi say they were not consulted before the plans were drawn up and argue that building on sacred land is illegal.

"Surely there are other parts of Venda which can be developed which would actually benefit the local community and not harm it like disturbing the sacred sites will," says Samuel Ramutangwe, a community member.

Moses Netshipale, the lawyer acting for Chief Tshivhase and the construction firm, was unavailable for comment despite numerous attempts to reach him.

Women of power

The sites are particularly important for the one million Venda people, as most still worship their ancestors. Christianity is also practised, but on a much smaller scale.

Image caption Freshly prepared millet beer is offered to the ancestors during ceremonies to appease them

Different clans of the Venda have for centuries been tasked with performing certain rituals on behalf of the entire group. The Ramunangi are responsible for performing rain rituals and it is believed that only they can get the desired results from the gods.

These rituals are only done by women, known as Makhadzi - women of power. Men can be present, but only women speak to the ancestors during ceremonies.

One of the main rituals performed at the Phiphidi waterfall is Thevhula, a rain ritual considered essential to ensuring a good harvest and rains.

The Venda community believe famine, strife and disease will befall them if the sites are destroyed.

Now a desperate race against time has begun, with the Ramunangi joining forces with a local organisation called Dzomo la Mupo (Voice of the Earth), which fights against the desecration of sacred sites.

They are trying to garner support from other community leaders to present a united front against Chief Tshivhase.

"All the several sacred sites in Venda are interlinked. If one site is disturbed, it will affect all the other sites here," says Mphatheleni Makaulule, founder of Dzomo la Mupo.

"The sites are our church and have been since recorded time," she says.

Ms Makaulule recently won a scholarship to study at a number of institutions in the United States, including Harvard University.

She says she is disappointed that her local leaders have no regard for the upset this development would cause - not only to their cultural practices but also the region's biodiversity.

The fertile foothills of the region's Southpansberg mountains are home to hundreds of birds, plants and animal species.

Venda's sacred sites include the degraded Lake Fundudzi, Thate Vonde Forest, Tshiendeulu Mountains and Nevhutanda Forest.

South Africa is legally obliged under the South African Heritage Resources Act and international law to protect biodiversity and community rights to sacred lands, cultural and spiritual practice and prior informed consent.

Tobacco prayer

Many of the plants found here are used by the community members for medicinal purposes.

The Ramunangi say they are not against economic development or tourism growth but that it should not happen on sacred land.

"Had we been consulted before the plans were put in place, we could have advised on suitable places to develop, we would not have been forced to go against the chief this way," says community leader Phanuel Mudau, 52.

Image caption Tension abounds at meetings of the Dzomo la Mupo as they discuss the Phiphidi case

Chiefs and kings are held in great regard by South Africa's traditional communities, especially the Venda. Dzomo la Mupo has been accused of great disrespect by starting a legal battle with a chief.

But the Ramunangi say the courts were their only hope.

"We have been trying for more than a year to meet with our leaders but our appointments with them always got cancelled," said Mr Mudau.

"We resorted to writing to them even but still our concerns fell of deaf ears."

Chief Phineus Nevhutanda, a custodian of the Nevhutanda Forest, said the fight to protect their sites may turn violent but believes the ancestors will shield them if this happens.

Before speaking to me, he sprinkles tobacco on the ground and says a short prayer, to inform the gods that he will be speaking on their behalf, he says.

"The people who are destroying these sites will be punished by the ancestors. It may not happen immediately but it will happen - they will be cursed for generations," the 68 year old says angrily.

'Defiled land'

Since the ruling, no-one has been allowed to enter the Phiphidi site, which was recently fenced off and turned into a park.

Image caption The Phiphidi sacred site has already been turned into a picnic area

A sign at the gate where three guards have been stationed states that visitors must pay 5 rand ($0.7; £0.4) to enter the site - another bone of contention between the Ramunangi and Chief Tshivhase.

Used condoms, beer bottles and cans are strewn throughout the forest leading to the waterfall.

The Ramunangi blame this "defilement" of the site on Chief Tshivhase.

"We believe he opened the site up to the local community for recreational activities, knowing fully well that the site should not be open to the public. He knows Venda tradition - I don't know why he is disrespecting the ways of our people like this," said one Makhadzi.

The Ramunangi are supposed to perform a summer ritual in September to welcome the new season and pray for a good harvest but there are concerns this may not be possible.

If not, they fear ill-fortune looms for the entire Venda people.

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