Meet the 800-year-old golden rhino that challenged South Africa’s apartheid regime

It may be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but even now – nearly 800 years after it was no longer seen in what is now South Africa – Mapungubwe’s Golden Rhino remains iconic. strong image. It represents one of the most powerful animals in the region – the rhinoceros – and one of the region’s most enduring symbols of power – gold.

It is also evidence of a powerful and complex kingdom that existed in Africa hundreds of years before white settlement. The golden rhinoceros was recovered in 1934 from a royal tomb at the site of Mapungubwe in northern South Africa near the Zimbabwe border. Its birth in the 13th century reflected the wealth of the state of Mapungubwe, the earliest known kingdom in southern Africa.

Head of Lydenburg. Iziko Museum of South Africa, Social History Collection, Author provided

Gold in Mapungubwe
Mapungubwe is believed to have emerged as the kingdom’s capital between 1220 and 1290, largely because it controlled the gold trade with the coastal Swahili settlement at Kilwa Kisiwani, nearly 2,000 miles to the east. northeast, in what is now Tanzania
​Long-distance trade in the area previously relied on ivory and animal skins in exchange for glass beads, known from earlier nearby sites such as Bambandyanalo (also known as K2), which existed from ca. 1030 to 1220.

Golden bull statue from Mapungubwe. UP Faculty of Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

However, during the 13th century, gold increasingly became the most important commercial export. It eventually replaced glass beads as a symbol of wealth and power. The golden rhinoceros was buried alongside a member of Mapungubwe’s ruling royal class, further enhancing its symbolic power.

Looking for golden rhino
The Golden Rhinoceros did not emerge from its royal tomb until the 1930s when a group of archaeologists and amateurs from the University of Pretoria excavated a graveyard on Mapungubwe Hill.

Mapungubwe Hill as it is today. JJ van Zyl/GFDL. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Three of the 27 burial sites contained significant amounts of gold. The gold objects included figurines of animals, such as rhinoceroses, crocodiles and fragments of other unidentified animals – including two that were eventually recreated in 2009: a cow and a stray cat.

These figures were found with a golden scepter, a bowl considered by some to be a crown, bracelets, bracelets, beads, nails, and plates. Important information was lost due to the style of excavation (some of it was done by inexperienced amateurs). However, a rich picture of life at Mapungubwe has been developed based on recent excavations at the site and analyzes of the unearthed material.

Golden vase – said to possibly be a crown. UP Faculty of Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

The picture was revealed to be of a socially stratified place with the upper class living on top of a hill with limited access while the majority of the population lived below. Mapungubwe’s economy is based on herding, agriculture, hunting and gathering, as well as long-distance international trade, as demonstrated by finds of Chinese porcelain.

History denied
The power of the golden rhinoceros and other finds from Mapungubwe were again recognized in the 20th century. The ruling class of that era, the white South African government, acknowledged their potential by eliminating them. they are marginalized in South Africa’s official narratives.

The Golden Rhinoceros and other sculptures from Mapungubwe, as well as sculptures from earlier associated sites such as Schroda and Lydenburg, presented a challenge to colonial ideologies and segregation. Racism was supposed to justify European settlement and white rule.

Fertility figurines found at Schroda in southern Africa. Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History, Author provided

This includes the historical construction that South Africa was unpopulated when Europeans began settling there in the 16th century and that black South Africans only arrived around the same time and occupied only a relatively small area of the country, the remainder was ripe for white settlement. and ownership.

In contrast, pre-colonial sculptures demonstrate that black South Africans occupied the area at least 1,000 years before Europeans arrived. Although archaeologists know about the artifacts – they have been reported in the press and some have been displayed (albeit with limited access) – their history and significance are clear. Their existence is not included in official history.

The Golden Rhino is finally getting its reputation
The power of the golden rhino was once again recognized by South Africa’s first post-apartheid government, the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC appropriated the golden rhinos for the new South Africa and saw it as evidence of the Renaissance in southern Africa before the arrival of Europeans. In 1999, the golden rhino was designated a National Treasure. In 2002, the ANC established the Order of Mapungubwe, the highest honor in South Africa, which has four grades: platinum, gold, silver and bronze. Nelson Mandela was the first to receive the highest of these awards, platinum. In the center of the award is an image of a golden rhino.

Golden Scepter from Mapungubwe. UP Faculty of Arts, University of Pretoria, Author provided

In 2016, the golden rhinoceros left South Africa for the first time to be displayed in the British Museum’s ‘South Africa: the art of a nation’ exhibition, with its communication abilities enhanced and enhanced again. In the exhibition, it is placed on a world stage where it once again speaks to new audiences about the importance of Mapungubwe, its pre-colonial past, the crimes of colonialism and apartheid race – as well as the ambitions of a contemporary South Africa.

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