Saving the Sacred Phiphidi Waterfall
Venda’s forests, rivers, mountain peaks and waterfalls are places of vital ecological, cultural and spiritual importance. Venda is one of the 19 centres of endemic flora in Southern Africa and home to 594 different species, a higher number than any other comparable area in South Africa.
In May 2010 an extremely destructive force took hold over the community’s sacred sites. In the lead up to South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup, tourist development across the country peaked. The Phiphidi Falls were to be the location for a tourist development project entailing a number of wooden chalets, right beside the waterfall. This is the heart of the sacred site where the custodians, led by women called Makhadzi’s, lead the ritual ceremonies to bring rain, as they have done for centuries.
Bulldozers began to tear through the sacred land surrounding the waterfall and those behind the development showed complete disregard for the rights of the communities for whom this space was sacred. Many sacred trees were cut down as the chalets were erected beside the sacred waterfall. The area, and the vitality of this once buoyant ecosystem was being threatened irreversibly.
In response, the Makhadzhi formed a committee called Dzomo la Mupo (meaning Voices of Earth) to defend and protect their network of sacred sites and, in particular, the Phiphidi falls and surrounding forest. The Makhadzhi recognised that the destruction of one sacred forest would open the door to the destruction of others. It would set a precedent that would be all the more easy to replicate. If this were to happen then their way of life would be destroyed irreversibly.
In 2010 Dzomo la Mupo courageously took the developer to court for violating their traditional and Constitutional cultural and spiritual rights and breaching planning regulations. The Mupo Foundation and The Gaia Foundation together supported Dzomo la Mupo’s application to the South African High Court for an interim court interdict, requiring developers to stop building the tourism complex at Phiphidi sacred waterfall and forest, pending a full hearing. The Judge recognised the custodians’ constitutional rights and agreed that the whole site is sacred “in the same way a church building is regarded by some as a holy place, even though the rituals are done only at the altar”, Judge Mann, South African High Court (7 July 2010).
On 22 February 2011, following breach of the court order, the South African High Court extended the temporary court interdict to the builders to once again halt the illegal development at Phiphidi falls. Contempt of court proceedings and hearing of a permanent court interdict are STILL under way. This is an example of how impotent the legal system can be in the face of powerful interests who can choose to ignore it, while the government does not have the capacity or the will to enforce its legal obligations.
To secure long-term protection of their network of sacred sites, Dzomo la Mupo and local communities came together to begin documenting guiding principles, such as securing sacred sites as ‘No-Go Zones’ for any development, and drawing up local Constitutions and community governance plans for each of the sacred forests. These set the foundation for registering the protection of the network of sacred sites under national and international laws.