The ‘Battle of Dongola’ and the Mapungubwe National Park

Picture on Home page : Mapungubwe’s famous gold rhinoceros is kept in the Mapungubwe Museum at the University of Pretoria

The ‘Battle of Dongola’ and the Mapungubwe National Park by Jane Carruthers

South Africans today are generally aware that Mapungubwe – one of the great archaeological treasures of our country – is conserved within a national park. Established in 1995 as Vhembe/Dongola with a change of name in 2004, it is currently also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated in 2003 as one of the first in a new category of ‘Cultural Landscape’. The total area of the park, lying west of Musina and north of the Soutpansberg is relatively large, 30 000 ha, and Mapungubwe hill itself is a high (30 m) isolated sandstone outcrop, some 323 m x 78 m in extent that overlooks the confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers. The importance of Mapungubwe, which was abandoned in the late 1200s after 400 years of settlement, is that it was the largest and most powerful Zhizo ‘kingdom’ – to use a Eurocentric term – in the sub-continent for a very long period. It straddled the trade routes both to the Indian Ocean and into the interior and it is here that evidence of class distinction and political power vested in a ruling elite can first be discerned in our region. With its many associated San and mixed-farming sites, the area bears witness to an altering human landscape of complex social, economic and political structures, as well as the environmental constraints that influence human occupation.

Illtyd Buller Pole Evans FRSSAf

Illtyd Buller Pole Evans FRSSAf

This essay describes the genesis and establishment the Dongola Wild Life Sanctuary, a national park formally established by South African legislation that lasted only from 1947 to 1949. Its existence was due to the persistent efforts of Illtyd Buller Pole Evans (1879-1968), an eminent botanist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa. Dongola is significant because it was the first protected area in South Africa to have been established for the purposes of ecological research rather than merely game preservation or tourist recreation. Its abolition in 1949 is equally significant because it illustrates how directly politics and socio-economic factors may impact upon scientific endeavour.

Educated in Wales and at Cambridge, Pole Evans, a rather combative and outspoken Welshman, had immigrated to South Africa after the Anglo-Boer War and joined the Department of Agriculture. In 1918 he was largely responsible for establishing the Botanical Survey of the Union of South Africa. Active, energetic and committed, he initiated the national herbarium, instigated a number of scientific journals and contributed to many, conducted vegetation surveys, developed new fodder grasses, described plant species and involved himself in the broader issues of soil and vegetation conservation. He strongly supported scientific associations, becoming an office-bearer of a large number of them, and he travelled widely throughout Africa as a consultant on matters of plant mycology and pathology and pasture development. A major activity of the Botanical Survey was to establish botanical reserves in different ecosystems around South Africa. One of these, in what was then the sparsely inhabited northern Transvaal, consisted of a block of nine government-owned farms close to Mapungubwe. Named the Dongola Botanical Reserve after a volcano-shaped mountain on the farm Goeree, under the supervision of Pole Evans and his colleagues and with their attentive conservation management, there was soon a distinct difference between environmental conditions within and outside the reserve, and the deleterious effects of overgrazing on the neighbouring ranching properties were quite clear.

Pole Evans’s vision in the late 1920s and 1930s was to turn Dongola into an area of interesting bushveld vegetation permanently protected for science. He lobbied for this on the basis of the value of a natural pasture research station and the ecological knowledge that research might generate (plant ecology was then coming into its own as a distinct scientific activity). He negotiated the purchase of other nearby farms as they became available, he entertained influential politicians to explain his scheme to them and he set up research projects. The proximity of the archaeological site of Mapungubwe, situated on the farm Greefswald, was an enormous added incentive to interdisciplinary research. The gold hoard, the many artefacts and extensive settlement patterns had been discovered by local settler farmers in the late 1920s and, cognisant of the scientific value of the find, the government purchased the farm. Given his well-known scientific interests, Jan Smuts, then Leader of the Opposition and a great friend of Pole Evans’s, visited Mapungubwe in 1933 and the site was the major reason for the establishment of a South African Archaeological Survey.

When Smuts again became Prime Minister in 1939 Pole Evans’s scheme accelerated, and the Minister of Lands, Andrew Conroy, became a great proponent. Part of the agenda was to collaborate with the Rhodesian government and the chartered company of Bechuanaland to create a transfrontier conservation area that would straddle the Limpopo valley. By the early 1940s plans were well advanced with the intention to proclaim a protected area of 240 000 ha, about 100 km long and 36 km wide at its widest point. The cost of land acquisition and other expenses was estimated to be £25 000.

However, once this was publicly announced, the Dongola scheme became politically divisive and highly contested. A barrage of criticism was unleashed and those opposed to the scheme were far better organized than were Smuts, Conroy and the perhaps politically naive  Pole Evans. The trio seems to have expected public approval for their idealism in creating a large conserved area to advance the country’s ecological research and they were unprepared for the sustained and heated opposition which emanated from parliament, other government departments, organized agriculture, neighbours of Dongola, the press and the public. The scheme was vilified particularly in the Afrikaner press. The opposition National Party was among the most vociferous detractors because, hoping to gain votes in the 1948 election, it strongly defended white property owners against expropriation. The National Parks Board, then administering Kruger, Addo, Bontebok, Kalahari and Mountain Zebra National Parks, and dominated as it was by fervent Afrikaner Nationalists and by the Broederbond, refused even to discuss the matter. But undeterred and undaunted, Conroy announced the scheme in the Government Gazette of October 1944. A Select Committee had to be appointed because private farms were to be expropriated. The ‘Battle of Dongola’, as it was referred to, generated some of the longest and most acrimonious, vicious and personal debates in parliament up to that time and the largest Select Committee Report in South Africa on record.

Mapungubwe Hill, part of the World Heritage Cultural Landscape and one of South Africa’s national parks. Between 1947 and 1949 the hill and the surrounding 120 000 ha was the country’s first scientific national park.

Mapungubwe Hill, part of the World Heritage Cultural Landscape and one of South Africa’s national parks. Between 1947 and 1949 the hill and the surrounding 120 000 ha was the country’s first scientific national park.

The fact that the international community considered this scheme favourably was, in that period of rising South African nationalist isolationism, a strong argument against it. That black Africans might even have been canvassed for their views and given the national park their support was anathema in the perspective of the National Party. Rumours that the new park would be named ‘The Smuts National Park’ certainly made matters worse. But when parliament voted in 1947 it was strictly done on party lines and the national park, the Dongola Wild Life Sanctuary, was written into law. Before long, trustees were appointed, money raised, farms acquired, negotiations for the transfrontier park begun, and Dongola was poised to fulfil the promise which Conroy, Smuts and Pole Evans (now warden) believed that it held.

But this was not to be. While the founding of the Kruger National Park in 1926 had united people of different political persuasions, so divisive was Dongola and so intense the emotions that it aroused, that when the National Party came to power in 1948, funding of Dongola ceased at once and steps were taken to abolish the reserve as a political priority. Revenge upon Smuts, Conroy and Pole Evans was relished by the Nationalists who, in the final debates on Dongola’s abolition in the 1949 sitting of Parliament, accused the three of executing a kind of Jameson Raid on the country by expropriating Dongola, comparing them with Rhodes, Jameson and Willoughby respectively.

Eventually the furore died down, to the extent that few people today are aware of the previous incarnation of the Mapungubwe National Park. In the mid-1960s there was a brief, rather restrained, revival of interest in re-establishing the Dongola Sanctuary by the South African Association for the Advancement of Science which sounded out the Minister of Agriculture, the National Parks Board and the University of Pretoria. By then, although Smuts had died and Pole Evans had left South Africa (for Rhodesia, in 1955) from all three quarters there was a negative response, memories of the previous debacle still being too fresh, although three farms became a ‘reserve’ in 1967.

During the 1970s and 1980s when South Africa was at war with its neighbouring states the army built an electric fence along the Limpopo boundary and Greefswald became a place for ‘rehabilitating’ conscripted homosexual soldiers and drug offenders. Army top brass often went out hunting and poached the large game of the district. They even defaced rock shelters with graffiti. But ironically, the army’s presence brought renewed attention to the site and in the 1980s both K2 and Mapungubwe Hill were declared national monuments. By the 1990s the political ground had shifted once more. With the change of government in 1994 and ideas of an indigenous African heritage that required both recognition and conservation, the long-held dream of Pole Evans has, at last, come into its own. Indeed, the highest South African honour is the Order of Mapungubwe.

Further information:

CARRUTHERS, J. 1992. The Dongola Wild Life Sanctuary: “psychological blunder, economic folly and political monstrosity” or “more valuable than rubies and gold”?. Kleio 24: 82-100.
CARRUTHERS, J., 2006. Mapungubwe: An historical and contemporary analysis of a World Heritage cultural landscape. Koedoe 49(1): 1-14.
HUFFMAN, T. M. 2005. Mapungubwe: Ancient African civilisation on the Limpopo. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
LESLIE, M., & MAGGS, T. (eds), 2000. African Naissance: The Limpopo Valley 1 000 Years Ago. The South African Archaeological Society, Goodwin Series, Vol. 8.
MASON, R. 1962. Prehistory of the Transvaal: A record of human activity. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.
O’CONNOR, T.G. & KIKER, G.A. 2004. Collapse of the Mapungubwe society: Vulnerability of pastoralism to increasing aridity. Climatic change 66 (1/2): 49-66.
SANPARKS official website:
UNESCO World Heritage Sites official website:
UNIVERSITY OF PRETORIA Mapungubwe Collection website: