The vhaVenda clans of northern South Africa, in present-day Limpopo Province, are among the nation’s most traditional, hewing to rituals and practices passed down from their ancestors. Among these clans, the Ramunangi are acknowledged as the traditional custodians of Phiphidi Waterfall, a small cascade that is central to the clan’s relationship with ancestral spirits. This custodial responsibility, however, is not legally recognized, which has limited the Ramunangi’s ability to protect their sacred site from tourism development. A rock above the waterfall — one of the site’s most holy areas — was recently destroyed as part of a road-building project, and for years, the Ramunangi have been denied full access to the site to perform their rituals and custodial duties. The clan is now turning to legal measures to restore full access to Phiphidi and receive official recognition as its custodians. Tshavhungwe Nemarudi, a custodian elder, said in 2008, “It is no longer possible to respect the sacred site as it should be respected. Members of our clan have become sick. The Earth is sick. We know that this is because we have not been able to conduct our rituals properly in the last years. What we request is simply that our sacred site should be allowed to remain a place of pure, untouched nature.”
The Land and Its People
Phiphidi Waterfall is located in rural Limpopo Province at the foothills of the Soutpansberg (Dzwaini), South Africa’s northernmost mountain range. The region’s isolation from the rest of South Africa has helped preserve the traditional cultures and belief practices of its indigenous inhabitants. Among the many tribal peoples living in Limpopo Province, about 12 percent of the population are members of the Venda linguistic group.
The vhaVenda clans are widely regarded as the aboriginal peoples of the region. They share a cosmology and culture that shape their society today, including initiation rites for their adolescents, rich artistic traditions, and custodial responsibility for sacred lands. Among the vhaVenda clans, the Ramunangi are the acknowledged custodians of Phiphidi Waterfall.
The Ramunangi are a dispersed people, with many members having left the region to work in larger cities; those who remain work in traditional agricultural, ranching or mining industries and are believed to number roughly 1,000. Despite their small numbers, generational memory is strong, and the Ramunangi feel a significant responsibility to continue their centuries-old commitment to the waterfall.
Phiphidi is located within a forested area on the Mutshindudi River and belongs to a cluster of nearby sacred sites that other vhaVenda clans care for, including sacred Lake Fundudzi and the Thathe Vondo sacred forest. At Phiphidi, the river, falls and surrounding forest are all considered sacred, and two specific sites are regarded as most holy: a rock above the waterfall, called LanwaDzongolo, and the pool below, Guvhukuvhu.
A complex collection of laws and rituals, some of which are closely guarded by clan elders, govern clan practice and behavior at Phiphidi; the site has traditionally been off-limits to all but the Ramunangi. Traditional belief holds that the waterfall and pool are inhabited by ancestral water spirits who require offerings of grain and beer, which are made on LanwaDzongolo. These powerful spirits receive prayers from the people for rain, health, agricultural abundance and community peace. Traditionally, these offerings were made throughout the year, with one primary and complicated annual rite that lasted many days.
The waterfall is part of a savannah biome in the Soutpansberg region, a biodiversity hotspot that supports hundreds of plant and animal species, some of which are endemic. Thirty percent of South Africa’s tree species grow in the Soutpansberg area, though it accounts for less than one percent of the country’s surface area. In addition, 60 percent of South Africa’s birdlife, 40 percent of its mammals, and 30 percent of its reptiles call the Soutpansberg home. As traditional custodians of Phiphidi Waterfall, the Ramunangi clan has helped limit ecological damage to the Mutshindudi River and its surrounding landscape.
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