Stop the destruction of Phiphidi waterfalls, South Africa


The vhaVenda people of Vhembe, Limpopo Province in the very north of South Africa, are locked in a struggle to protect their lands from being decimated by development projects and coal mining, and for the last remaining sacred natural sites to be saved from tourism and road construction.

They live in the beautiful and fertile foothills of the Soutpansberg Mountain range and have retained a vibrant culture, reflected in their many customs, traditions and beliefs. At the core of Venda culture is a system of sacred natural sites, including the famous, but degraded Lake Funduzi, Thate Vonde Forest and Phiphidi falls.

Phiphidi is a place where important rain-making rituals are carried out by elders of the Ramunangi clan.  But scant recognition is given to the spirituality of Phiphidi waterfall nor the traditions that have been the bedrock of Ramunangi culture for centuries.  The waterfall, already a well-known spot for picnics and other activities, evident from the mounds of litter and used condoms, is being turned into a construction site to cater for the belief that there will be an increasing numbers of tourists.

“At first a road was built without any consideration of spiritual places along the river. And a quarry was mined right above an important spiritual site. Now the most sacred place right next to the waterfall is being excavated to build tourist accommodation without any consultation with the rightful custodians and in clear violation of South Africa’s legislative framework. In June, bulldozers began excavating near the Phiphidi waterfall to build tourist lodges without any of the promised consultations, says one of the local elders.

In response, the custodians of the Venda’s sacred natural sites have formed a committee called Dzomo la Mupo (The voice of the Earth). They believe that if the destruction of Phiphidi sacred site is allowed, it will pave the way for the destruction of all seven sacred sites in Venda. One of the chiefs explains,

“Our sacred sites are at the core of our culture, our community. If we protect them and respect them, we have a chance to save the future. All previous generations of elders and leaders, respected our sacred sites. Why is it now being destroyed? What has happened to our leaders? Do they feel no obligation to their ancestors or to their children?.”

The role of sacred sites across the world is recognised internationally by IUCN and UNESCO as places of ecological, cultural and spiritual significance. South Africa has legal obligations under the South African Heritage Resources Act and international law to protect biodiversity and community rights to sacred lands, cultural and spiritual practice and prior informed consent. The South African Constitution also states that all South African citizens have the right to enjoy and practice their culture and spirituality and associate freely without discrimination (e.g. Sections 9, 30 and 31); a right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing and to have the environment protected (Section 24); and a right to information (Section 32).  They also have a right to administrative justice.

“Government bodies have failed to uphold their responsibilities to protect the rights of communities as required by law”, explains Roger Chennels, the legal advisor to the Dzomo la Mupo.“The ongoing and deliberate destruction of Phiphidi waterfalls, one of the last most sacred places in Venda, clearly illustrates that although South Africa has made good progress in terms of instituting progressive legislation, it is still far behind in the democratic implementation of these laws. When it comes to the implementation of rights-based legislation, poor communities are still at the mercy of officials flouting their very clear constitutional rights and traditional authorities that have too much political power to take their subjects’ concerns seriously.”

The Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network are supporting Dzomo la Mupo to stop the bulldozers, arguing for protection of customary rights and responsibilities to sacred lands.   Meanwhile the bulldozers continue to destroy this sacred site of Phiphidi waterfall and forest, to start building tourist huts without local consultation with the community nor legally required environmental impact assessments.

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