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Debunking colonial myths

- By Erna van Wyk

We have much to learn from the Bakoni.

  • For one, they taught us that political centralisation does not necessarily equate economic development.
  • They also debunk colonial perceptions that prior to the arrival of settler farming, African agriculture was rudimentary, subsistence oriented, transient and barely capitalised.

The Bakoni

This is what recent archaeological and historical research in the area known as Bokoni in Mpumalanga has revealed. The Bakoni, the Koni people who first emerged in this area around the 1500s and lived here until around the 1820s, were advanced farming communities that created stone-walled sites – the remnants of which still cover vast areas in Mpumalanga today.

According to Wits researchers, historian Professor Peter Delius and archaeologist Dr Alex Schoeman, it is now clear that the Bakoni practised advanced technological and agricultural innovation and techniques long before Africa was colonised.

Forgotten World

Their new book, Forgotten World – The Stone-walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment, as well as an hour-long documentary, aim to create awareness and to inform on a “forgotten” part of South Africa’s history and heritage that has for too long been ignored by academia, heritage authorities and government.

Delius and Schoeman elaborated on their research project during the National Research Foundation Science for Society Lecture held at Wits University on 11 June 2015.

Unique systems

“This intensive farming system was unique in South Africa and was the largest intensive farming system in southern and eastern Africa. It was based on intensive farming techniques, including massive investment in stone terracing, cattle kraals and which allowed for the cultivation of rich, volcanic soils on the hill sides of the escarpment,” Delius said.

Crop cultivation was combined with closely managed livestock production in which cattle were kept at the heart of the settlements at night and during the day were able to feed on the diverse grasslands.

“It is also connected to systems of long distance trade which span the interior that linked to the east coast and to the vast and ancient Indian Ocean trading system. So this was not an isolated society, an isolated world, it was part of a much bigger regional system,” Delius said.

Delius discusses the narrative that the starting point of South Africa’s history lies with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck. 

Land policies

According to Schoeman the resilience of the Bokoni farming system has relevance for debates about food security and land management in South Africa today.

“These sites are also valuable resources in economic development strategies as the stone-walled sites have the potential to become key tourism sites,” she said.

Calling on protection

While local landowners and communities have undertaken initiatives to protect these valuable sites, the researchers say the “most staggering thing about the Bokoni sites has been their neglect by the heritage agencies which should be at the forefront of protecting and promoting them.”

These sites still have no official recognition as a heritage protected areas.

This is what the researchers hope to change.



Professor Peter Delius

      Dr Alex Schoeman