1099 Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape – 2003

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Mapungubwe is set hard against the northern border of South , joining Zimbabwe and Botswana. It is an open, expansive savannah landscape at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Mapungubwe developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century. What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years.

Brief synthesis

The demonstrates the rise and fall of the first indigenous kingdom in Southern between 900 and 1,300 AD. The core area covers nearly 30,000 ha and is supported by a suggested buffer zone of around 100,000 ha. Within the collectively known Zhizo sites are the remains of three capitals – Schroda; Leopard's Kopje; and the final one located around Mapungubwe hill – and their satellite settlements and lands around the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe rivers whose fertility supported a large population within the kingdom.

Mapungubwe's position at the crossing of the north/south and east/west routes in southern Africa also enabled it to control trade, through the East African ports to India and China, and throughout southern Africa. From its hinterland it harvested gold and ivory – commodities in scarce supply elsewhere – and this brought it great wealth as displayed through imports such as Chinese porcelain and Persian glass beads.

This international trade also created a society that was closely linked to ideological adjustments, and changes in architecture and settlement planning. Until its demise at the end of the 13th century AD, Mapungubwe was the most important inland settlement in the African subcontinent and the cultural landscape contains a wealth of information in archaeological sites that records its development. The evidence reveals how trade increased and developed in a pattern influenced by an elite class with a sacred leadership where the king was secluded from the commoners located in the surrounding settlements.

Mapungubwe's demise was brought about by climatic change. During its final two millennia, periods of warmer and wetter conditions suitable for agriculture in the Limpopo/Shashe valley were interspersed with cooler and drier pulses. When rainfall decreased after 1300 AD, the land could no longer sustain a high population using traditional farming methods, and the inhabitants were obliged to disperse. Mapungubwe's position as a power base shifted north to Great Zimbabwe and, later, Khami.

The remains of this famous kingdom, when viewed against the present day fauna and flora, and the geo-morphological formations of the Limpopo/Shashe confluence, create an impressive cultural landscape of universal significance.

Criterion (ii):

The contains evidence for an important interchange of human values that led to far-reaching cultural and social changes in Southern Africa between AD 900 and 1300.

Criterion (iii):

The remains in the are a remarkably complete testimony to the growth and subsequent decline of the Mapungubwe State which at its height was the largest kingdom in the African subcontinent.

Criterion (iv):

The establishment of Mapungubwe as a powerful state trading through the East African ports with Arabia and India was a significant stage in the history of the African sub-continent. 

Criterion (v):

The remains in the Mapungubwe cultural landscape graphically illustrate the impact of climate change and record the growth and then decline of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe as a clear record of a culture that became vulnerable to irreversible change.


All remains of the main settlements are in the nominated property, as are all major phases of the Mapungubwe kingdoms' development and decline. The property contains substantial areas of virtually untouched cultural landscape of very high quality but, pending their decommissioning, these are separated by some areas of modern citrus plantations and circular irrigated agricultural fields in private ownership.

The considerable agricultural enterprise of the final phase at Mapungubwe has vanished. Although much of the core landscape has returned to its unimproved state with wild grazing game animals, the recent opening up of the property to big game, especially elephants needs to be considered, and is being monitored.

The Messina area is a rich mining area and the diamond mining operations at Riedel (small scale) and Venetia (major operation) could have a potential impact on the property. There is also a possibility that deposits of other valuable minerals may yet be found. With mining rights being recently returned to the State, better future control was anticipated but the granting of a mining licence for coal 5 km from the boundary of the property, in a highly sensitive area adjacent to the Limpopo river and in the proposed buffer zone that was submitted at the time of the inscription, is a considerable threat.

The integrity of the site has been affected by the standard of the excavations in the 1930s which it could be argued led to valuable evidence being lost – and thus the completeness of the site, in both physical and intellectual terms has been compromised.


The nominated property and buffer zone have largely not been subjected to any destructive form of human intervention since the remains were abandoned, and the current agricultural activities have not had a major impact on the cultural landscape in terms of its ability to convey its value. However there is a need to ensure that old excavations are not eroded by climatic forces or by uncontrolled visitors.

Protection and management requirements

The Mapungubwe site and the buffer zone are legally protected through the National Heritage Resources Act (No 25 of 1999), the World Heritage Convention Act (No 43 of 1999) and the National Environmental Management Act (No 73 of 1989).

The property is also recognized as a protected area in terms of the National Environmental Management Protected Areas, 2003 (Act 57 of 2003). This legislation implies that mining or prospecting will be completely prohibited from taking placing within the property and the buffer zone. Furthermore, any development with a potential impact on the property will be subjected to an environmental impact assessment. 

SANParks is the management authority for the property and provides overall management involving coordinating government and local community efforts to conserve the site. SANParks is currently updating the Integrated Management Plan. Regular consultative meetings with stakeholders and local communities take place on the site through the park forum and by other means of engagement.

A Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding is also being drawn up with the objective of establishing the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA). This very extensive area of 5,040 km² will, when established, constitute an effective buffer zone. It is intended that each participating country will concentrate on one facet of protection: cultural heritage in South Africa; wildlife in Botswana; and living cultures in Zimbabwe.

To help guarantee long-term protection for the property there is a need to complete the Integrated Management Plan and to submit the buffer zone for approval by the World Heritage Committee.

There is also a need to ensure that any consideration of mining licenses is in line with the recommendations of the Technical Workshop on World Heritage and Mining adopted at the 24th session of the World Heritage Committee, to ensure that mining does not constitute a threat to the property, its buffer zone or its wider setting.

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