South Africa Highlands


Archaeological evidence indicates that the San lived in the caves and shelters of the Drakensberg for thousands of years before the arrival of the first wave of the Nguni people. It has been suggested that they inhabited the Drakensberg in the summer when game and food were plentiful, migrating to the Natal Midlands in autumn.

In terms of quantity and quality, the Drakensberg is considered one of the richest rock art areas in the world and to date more than 600 sites, with a total of more than 22,000 individual paintings, have been recorded. It has been estimated that the Drakensberg contains some 35 percent of the total number of painted sites in South Africa.

The earliest known Nguni people to arrive in the foothills of the Drakensberg were the Zizi who settled between the Upper Tugela and the Bushman's rivers around 1700. It is, however, likely that groups of Iron Age people were already present in the Drakensberg foothills centuries earlier. Relations between the San and the new immigrants varied from absorption and acculturation to conflict.

The expansion of the Ndwandwe, the Ngwane and the Mthethwa chiefdoms and the rise to power of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka caused widespread destruction. In about 1818 the Ngwane under Matiwane were first attacked by Dingiswayo's Mthetwha and shortly afterwards by the Ndwandwe of Zwide. The Ngwane fled westwards, attacking the Hlubi and the Bele tribes. On reaching the Drakensberg they displaced the Zizi and settled in the vicinity of Mdedelelo. Peace was short lived, though, for in 1822 the armies of Shaka swept as far south as the Umzimvubu River, destroying crops, razing entire villages and uprooting tribes. Tribes fell upon one another and some fugitives sought refuge in the caves and shelters of the Drakensberg where they clashed with the San. For one such tribe, the Duga clan under Mdavu, the situation was so desperate that they resorted to cannibalism. These events are known as the Difaqane or"forced migrations."

The first whites to see the Drakensberg were probably the survivors of the Portuguese vessel Santo Alberto which was shipwrecked along the Transkei coast on 24 March 1593. To avoid the wide river mouths along the coast they followed an inland route to Delagoa Bay (the present Maputo) and in the beginning of May they saw a range of snow covered mountains to the west, which must have been the Drakensberg.

The first white man to explore the remote valleys of the Drakensberg was Captain Allen Francis Gardiner who travelled through the area in 1835. Gardiner was especially impressed by two peaks, naming them Giant's Cup and Giant's Castle. Both peaks were, however, subsequently renamed.

In October 1836 two French missionaries, Thomas Arbousset and Francis Daumas, reached the summit of the northernmost point of the Maluti Mountains and named it Montaux Sources.

In December of the following year the Voortrekkers crossed the Drakensberg and settled in the area of the Upper Tugela Basin. Farms of 2 428 ha were allocated to Trekkers who had settled in Natal before 1840 and many settled in the area between the Tugela and Bushman's rivers.

Conflict soon arose between the Voortrekkers and the San. The influx of black refugees into Natal, land settlement arrangements and repeated raids by the San caused dissatisfaction among the Voortrekkers after Natal became a British colony in 1843. Large numbers of Voortrekkers crossed back into the Free State and it was only through the intervention of Sir Harry Smith that the remaining Trekkers were persuaded in 1848 not to leave Natal. The size of all farms was fixed at 2 428 ha and protection against the black tribespeople, as well as firm action against the San raiders, was promised. Many of the farms were laid out along the headwaters of the Tugela River and its tributaries which were sparsely populated.

Numerous English names such as Castle End, Castledene, Paiseley, Wilander Downs and Snowdon remind one of the farms established in the foothills of the Drakensberg by the English settlers who began occupying farms here around 1840.

Several locations were established in the foothills of the Drakensberg in 1849 to act as a buffer between the white farmers and the raiding San. The number of raids declined steadily and 20 years later, in July 1869, the last recorded San raid against a white farmer in Natal took place. A number of raids were carried out after this date on the black tribespeople, the last raid specifically attributed to San being in August 1872.

Some San continued their ancient way of life in the mountains of Lesotho. In 1878 a couple who visited the Tugela Valley came across what was thought to be the last group of San seen in the Drakensberg by whites. However, in 1925 a farmer with the name of Anton Lombard discovered a hunting outfit on a high ledge in Elands Cave—a shelter on the southern slope of the Mhlawazini Valley. A few days later the site was visited by another farmer, W. Carter Robinson, who noticed sleeping quarters which were probably not more than six months old. It was presumed that these belonged to a lone San survivor.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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