Locals resist heritage status for S. African lake

African Update – 26/11/11

Source: africasia.com

The Venda people have for generations protected South Africa's Lake Fundudzi, a sacred royal burial ground believed to be the home of an albino python and a mermaid-like creature. Legends of the lake are told in hushed tones by surrounding villagers, who want to shield the secrets of their enchanted water from the prying eyes of outsiders. Now South Africa wants to declare Lake Fundudzi a National Heritage Site, but the move to grant it government protection has been met with uncertainty and suspicion.

The lake is hidden among the foothills of the Soutpansberg mountains, in the northern province of Limpopo, near the Kruger National Park. It's a symbol of mystic African traditional beliefs that connect the past with the present. In the early 20th century, Venda chiefs were cremated and their ashes scattered in the lake. An annual ritual is performed to appease their spirits.

Venda tribes have resisted development proposals aimed at attracting tourism around the lake, while explorers who attempted to tamper with it lost their lives. The South African Heritage Resources Agency said it was aware of the emotions and sensitivity around the custodianship of the lake and was consulting with traditional leaders regarding the heritage process.

"We expect people to raise objections or show support. The consultation process will include a wide range of people," the agency's spokeswoman Portia Varamalamula told AFP. "Nothing will be taken away and the site will enjoy being legally protected from unlawful activities as well as opening doors for tourism developments," she added.

If successful, the lake will join other prominent sites like Nelson Mandela's home in Soweto, the Union Buildings in Pretoria which is the seat of government, and Blood River battlefield where a Zulu army defeated the British. Those places are among South Africa's most-visited historic sites, and the Venda fear a surge of tourism to the lake could destroy what they want to protect.

"I believe having the lake protected by the heritage council will expose it to the world and the country," said Mulalo Nemavhandu, director of Kara Heritage Institute, which researches African traditions. "Very little information has been documented about the lake. What is known about it is mainly through oral history passed down from generation to generation," said Nemavhandu.

So far the lake has been safeguarded by traditional beliefs and hair-raising legends linked to it. One story holds that a white sheep mysteriously appears on the water, and just as suddenly vanishes. Outsiders who have tried to do water sports on the lake have all drowned, villagers say.

Access to the legendary lake is across unkempt and slippery dirt terrain, a stark testimony to the sorry state of development in the area.Tourists seeking off-the-beaten-track adventure stand at a hilltop viewing point, just to look at it down below.

"Making it a heritage site would be a shot in the arm for local cultural tourism," said Nemavhandu. But tourism is what Tshibwana Ramalongo, an elder from Netshiavha clan is opposed to, fearing commercial activity would undermine its historic significance.

"It is a special place where our great kings and royals are buried. Sacred rituals are performed there," he said. "I am not aware of any burial site which has been reduced to a tourist spectacle. They are being disrespectful," said Ramalongo.

"We want to keep it sacred. It is holy."

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