It has been said that any reference to tribalism in the twentieth century brings Africa to mind and with ‘a dark and nasty connotation’. However, the Oxford English Dictionary asserts that the word ‘tribalism’ was coined only in 1886 in connection with denigrating Celtic culture as unable to aspire to "civilisation".
Clans (long before the attributing of any national unity) of the Bantu tribal groupings known today as Tsonga, Sotho and Venda have inhabited the Central Lowveld region since the first millennium. Carbon dating of pottery evidence has shown settlements in the Tzaneen foothills of the escarpment dating back to 200BC.
The lingua franca of the present day Central Lowveld is generally Sotho and to a lesser extent Tsonga (Shangaan) in its easterly and southerly regions. This is a generalized description of two languages whose proto-origins date back some 5,000 years to the cradle-lands of the Benue Valley and the grasslands of western Cameroon.
The natural drift south and eastwards of these people took generations; this natural drift has been estimated to have taken place at a speed of 22km per decade in the equatorial forests. It took 600 years to cover 1000km.
However, once in the Savannah regions, the rate of expansion accelerated, bringing the first people to the lakes region of Central Africa around 2,500 years ago. In little more than 3,000 years Bantu-speaking peoples had virtually colonized the entire land mass of sub-Saharan Africa, and bringing with them with their settled farming – an event unmatched in world history.
Of huge importance to the understanding of cultures and ecology in the south eastern Savannahs and indeed central to the overwhelming success of Bantu settlement patterns was the role of iron. Evidence of copper smelting has been found in the Air mountains of Niger dating back 4,000 years leading theorists to postulate that metal smelting technology could have co-evolved in Africa and the Near East concurrently.
In any event, the metal industry in South Africa with its complex geological deposits of tin, copper and iron seems to predate that of the Zimbabwe plateau industries. Significantly, it is also known that the Phalaborwa industry predated Mapungwe’s zenith, which in turn predated Great Zimbabwe - all of which is attributed to indigenious Bantu knowledge aeons before European penetration and exploitation of Africa’s hinterland.
The people making up the majority of the local Tswana and Sotho cultures are not of a common stock. History shows the Sotho to have been an extremely mobile group, roaming extensively across the lands now forming Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the north of South Africa. They combined this tendency to roam with an appetite for subjugating the peoples they found in their path, who then took the Sotho name and perpetuated their itinerant lifestyle.
Hunter-gatherers such as various tribes of the San were subsumed, along with herders such as the Khoi-Khoin, themselves formerly the rulers of large swathes of the south of the continent and composed of a number of distinct tribal heritages. Genetic lineages split rapidly as the groups continually settled, fragmented and dispersed, accounting for the striking physical differences and variation in language between today's Sothos in the region.
One of the major ecological drivers of this constant state of motion has been the harshness of the Lowveld environment, with its previously endemic malaria continually threatening settlers, and periodic cycles in the populations of the tsetse fly carrying a sleeping sickness lethal both to mankind and his attendant cattle.
A near continuous state of Zulu-inspired warring in the Highveld also created a constant stream of refugees into the region. Small chiefdoms were quite happy to increase their populations and political strength by absorbing these refugees.
In the last four hundred years, and reaching its zenith around 1700, the systematisation and commercialisation of slavery by westerners trading from enclaves on the coast such as Delagoa Bay (present day Maputo in Mozambique) imbued the region with terror. These slave traders created a huge demand for people to be exported to the sugar plantations of the new world as forced labour.
This demand was happily met by both local and Arabic slave traders in the interior, whose caravans raided and imprisoned entire communities, trading them in return for European commodities at the coastal markets.
These ecological and commercial imperatives placed increasing pressures on local populations to find sustainable land and resources away from the trading routes and slave-raiding parties, and enforced the requirement to be able to move on swiftly.
The higher-lying lands of the Drakensberg were Tsetse fly free and well-watered and, as such, were more or less continuously occupied. Around them, the more marginal lands of the Lowveld were repeatedly populated and depopulated and served as a cultural mixing pot between different tribes eking out their survival. As tribes moved en masse, incumbent populations were either absorbed or chased away.
The modern "northern Sotho" people consequently represent a wide variety of geographical and cultural origins. As an example, the oral traditions of the local baPhalaborwa tribe say that their forefathers came from Bokhalaka (the present Zimbabwe) under the leadership of a chief called Malatshi, and to this day the tribe has an alternative name, the baMalatshi.
It is uncertain when the migration from Bokhalaka began, but early Portuguese records are said to show that during the 17th century the tribes of the so-called Monomotapa empire were driven southwards by waves of Rozwi invaders from the north. It is likely that this represents a continuation of earlier, similar movements.
The first known local settlement was at Sealene, which is only three kilometres from the present town of Phalaborwa, and about four kilometres from Loolekop, and here they continued the smelting of iron and the manufacture of hoes, axes, spearheads and arrowheads.
The kraal of the chiefs of the tribe was built on the slopes of the koppie Sealene, and this is a place much revered by all baPhalaborwa. Over the centuries 25 chiefs and sub-chiefs were buried on this koppie. The present chief still regularly conducts the traditional ceremonies of appeasement of the ancestral spirits here.
It is still the belief of the baPhalaborwa that a "commoner" (i.e. someone who is not a member of the chief's family) who climbs Sealene will become lame. This koppie and Kgopolwe have been declared national historical monuments by the National Monuments Council, and will be preserved for all time. The koppies were presented to the nation by the Phalaborwa Mining Corporation.
If proof were needed that the Phalaborwa tribesmen were dedicated iron workers, it must surely lie in the fact that they chose to settle in this area. Black-water fever and bilharzia were rife, compounding the miseries of malaria and sleeping sickness, and the annual rainfall, at an average of 450 mm a year, was so low that they grew crops with difficulty.
Yet, despite the deterrents and the hardships they faced, they declared that Phalaborwa was "better than the South" (the literal meaning of the name). That suggests that the smelting and working of iron was their main occupation-and a profitable one. A question to which the archaeologists have not yet found an answer, is the unsolved mystery of who were the first inhabitants of the district to mine the volcanic vent.