Thirteen years ago in Rwanda more than a million Tutsis were killed in one hundred days of genocide while the whole world watched. Ten years later commentators were quick to blame diplomats like erstwhile United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan for having stood by and watched as a whole ethnic group and its sympathisers were butchered. It was not only Annan who was blamed but the United States of America as well. They argued that the Clinton Administration knew that the Interahamwe were using radio to fuel the flames and incite massacres but did nothing to seal off radio signal to disorganise the propaganda machine. It's always easy to point fingers after a disaster. Where will the fingers be pointed if the same tragedy happened in the Mpumalanga?
Four years ago then deputy President Jacob Zuma was a guest of honour during the KaMuhlava Royal ceremony held on KaMuhlava Day, September 27th at KaMuhlava next to Nkowankowa in Limpopo Province. KaMuhlava Day is a progressive day since it celebrates an important maShangaan dynasty founded 104 years ago by Chief Muhlava.
Observing the festivities with lots of interest were the maPulana tribe, who thirteen years into a new order are still waiting for honour to be bestowed upon them. The maPulana, who according to Ms Angie Malope, a researcher at the University of Limpopo's Anthropology Department, number a staggering million people believe that there is a national conspiracy to exterminate them from the face of Africa. They claim that developed countries like South Africa would not resort to a systematic machete solution to wipe out a tribe, but intellectual oppression, whereby the language and culture of more than a million people are not part of the education curriculum in any part of the country or in any form.
MaPulana historian Mr Moses Chilwane attributes the absence of a well-defined maPulana chieftainship to the breaking of ranks that took place after the tribe crossed the Crocodile River from Swaziland and settled at their ancestral land of Shakwaneng, which he claims covered an area nearly the size of Mpumalanga. "From Waterval-Boven to Hendrina in the east and Mashishing in the west. They had two kings, Mashego and Chilwane, the rest were subjects and chiefs. They fought many battles and conquered many tribes, including the Bakone, mainly to replenish cattle or capture girls for themselves. At this stage they already modeled themselves as Batau ba Bohlabatsatsi after they killed a lion at great human cost", Chilwane relates.
When they moved up north and settled between Pilgrim's Rest and Manyeleti they named the place Mapulaneng. Today, maPulana are nowhere to be found as an organised tribe. Wits University' s Anthropology Department's Professor David Copeland put the blame squarely at cultural optimists' flirtation with treating maPulana as an offshoot of BaPedi. "They are not Pedi but rather closer to the Bakgaga," he cautioned.
His sentiments were echoed by Malope, "They are scattered now, they can however be traced to Pilgrim's Rest, Graskop, Hlabekisa, Mphato, Leroro Township, Matibidi, Bushbuckridge and Acornhoek. Their language is not a dialect of Sepedi". She emphasised the need for the existing maPulana chiefs to write a memorandum demanding recognition and representation in existing traditional bodies as stipulated in Chapter 12 of the Constitution. She also voiced the need for sePulana to be written and adopted by the Provincial Language Boards of both Mpumalanga and Limpopo as one of their official languages.
History is, in hegemonic societies mostly written by the conquerors. In the eventual collapse of the maPulana empire there was no conquered or conqueror, thus nobody captured the sad tale of bravery and treachery in ink. Maybe the fact that there was no clear victor between Malele, Mashego, Mogane, Mashile and Chilwane, who are two kings and two chiefs contributed to nobody finding any enterprise in a book. Probably if one king or chief won the showdown maPulana history would have been well documented instead of existing in aging brains of living libraries.
Nobody ever valued their history a heritage worth passing to future generations so they can position themselves within the maPulana tribe and hierarchy.
The story of maPulana and their subsequent almost extinct pedigree justifies a serious indictment on claims by South Africa's political leadership that it is committed to the protection of minority rights and preservation of South Africa's cultural heritage. It raises a question of whether the present predicament of sePulana, a language spoken by so many people not being afforded official recognition, even in the provinces where they evolved is another form of ethnic cleansing, conducted from behind the correctness of the country's constitution?
There is allegedly a conspiracy to deal a final blow to the dwindling maPulana popularity with an allegation that their tribal land Mapulaneng will in the near future be renamed Mhala or Mopani. Mapulaneng Hospital is also reported to be facing the same fate. With such attempts of ethnic cleansing proportions being presumably perpetrated, it calls for a presidential intervention. Only President Thabo Mbeki can offer assurance that maPulana, their culture, language and heritage will be protected and not allowed to fade away.
When names like Soshangane and Hoxane stay intact while sePulana names like Mphato and Hlabekisa are swooped for either Xitsonga or Sepedi ones, what maPulana see is amaShangaan and BaPedi tribes trying to re-write a distorted version of their history. A version that is meant to push tribal boundaries of BaPedi and amaShangaan kingdoms. The maPulana watch in awe as the descendants of Chief Nxumalo, who according to Chilwane, "was granted passage on his way to KaMuhlava where he failed to secure the chieftainship and was later given land in Manyeleti by the maPulana to live with his people", try to annihilate them by renaming institutions that celebrate maPulana history.
Unlike with vhaVenda's Mphephu tribe, the maPulana struggle is not about a battle for chieftainship but recognition and equal protection of their heritage in a country that is celebrated for having the best constitution in the world. A constitution that is hailed for protecting the rights of the Khoi San clan but which, either by design or ignorance is failing to win the respect of maPulana who feel it is intentionally used to marginalise them.
The historical inaccuracy about the maPulana is even reflected in the Government Communication and Information Services produced South Africa Yearbook 2003/2004. It wrongly stipulates that, "In Limpopo, 5 273 642 million people live on about 123 910 km2 of land. The main languages spoken are Sepedi (52,1%), Xitsonga (22,4%) and Tshivenda (15,9%)". What happened to the million strong maPulana who speak their own language as well?
Based on information contained in the Mpumalanga government website, the one military defeat suffered by ever-conquering King Mswati II was at the hands of maPulana. They afflicted heavy losses on his warriors by hurling rocks at them from the summit of Moholoholo Mountain. Sadly, such acts of bravery are allowed to pass uncelebrated because it makes sense to some authoritarian to assume that such a battle never took place. The area of the battle is not even a protected heritage site.
MaPulana hope that someday South Africa, especially BaPedi and maShangaan, who are allegedly busy changing maPulana heritage names (Hlabekisa to Dinkie 1 and Leroro to Dinkie 2) to suit their present hegemonic relevance will take collective blame for having allowed themselves to be used by invisible forces to exterminate a people. They find solace in the adage, "what goes around comes around" and that if one tribe can be deleted without a bang, nothing will stop the same faceless enemy from dealing the same blow to its next target, whatever tribe shall be.
If there is one thing South Africans collectively inherited, it is selective amnesia since even though they remembered to bestow honour on Saartjie Baartman after many years of humiliation, they however choose to forget a people humiliated by the homeland system and apartheid historians.
According to most maPulana interviewed, every year on Heritage Day, South Africa celebrates its collective ignorance and conspiracy to cleanse its society of minorities by committing intellectual genocide of the maPulana tribe, the same strategy used on the Afrikaners.