A Trip to the Makapan's Caves, 18 September 2016

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A Trip to the Makapan's Caves, 18 September 2016

We were out to the Makapan's Caves near the town of Mokopane today. We were quite a diverse group, including folks (though now all living here) originally from India, Iran and The Netherlands, and also a few locals (me included)! Our guide was Peter Molomo, or 'Peter the Mouth'. He has a very animated style of telling a story, gesticulating, pausing dramatically, and repeating key phrases. He also has a very strong Black-South-African-English accent … I'm sure if there were Brits or Americans in the party, they'd have had some difficulty! I myself had a bit of trouble at times, such as having to figure that what sounded like 'cousin and baffazin' actually meant 'core zone and buffer zone'! We saw three caves, basically in chronological order of the history they contain. The first cave, the Limestone Works, contains fossils of animals and pre-humans dating back to about 3.2-3.6 million years ago; the next, the Cave of Hearths, has remains dating from a few hundred thousand years ago and contains the remains of fires, and stone tools, of humans from old Homo erectus through early Homo sapiens to fully modern human. The final cave, the Historical Cave, contains very recent history – the mid-Nineteenth Century – and that's what I'll tell you about in this article. I'll do another article soon about the limestone works and the fossils of the ancient (actually, geologically quite modern) mammals that roamed the South African landscape back then.


The caves and the town are both named for the same person, Chief Mugombane, of a tribe of the Kekana Ndebele people who lived here in the nineteenth century. The caves were the site of a siege. The Boers on their great Trek reached the region in the mid-nineteenth Century, trading ivory to regions further north, and wanted to acquire some land to secure the trading route. But they went about it with very scaly methods, trying to intimidate the locals. The locals in response fortified themselves and allied against the Boers. The Boers didn't back off but sporadically attacked them. So some of the Ndebele led a raid against the Boers; they killed about 25, including women and children, at the place later called Moorddrift (Murder Drift). They also did something treacherous to Boer leader Hermanus Potgieter. The story Peter told us, was that they invited him and his men to a party; they asked them to leave their weapons outside as a sign of trust. The Boers did so, came in, partied, got drunk on Marula Beer, and then the Ndebele attacked them!

When Peter told us what the Ndebele did to Potgieter – they skinned him alive – Ali from Iran quipped, 'well, at least they didn't kill him'! Of course, Potgieter did not survive the procedure (at least, not for very long), and the Ndebele proceeded to make 'muti' (magical medicine) from his remains, thinking that it will make them as strong and brave as he was.

The Boers didn't react well to the massacre at Moorddrift and the murder of Potgieter and his men. They sent a punitive expedition against the Ndebele, one of the leaders of which was Hermanus Potgieter's son, Piet Potgieter. They had a large contingent of local people who were their allies, and also two cannons! But Mugombane's people had expected retaliation, and were prepared. All of them had fled, with livestock and belongings, to a series of caves they knew well. There they built themselves 'apartments' from rocks and stones and settled in. The Boers arrived and found them ensconced; they could not enter the caves because the Ndebele had firearms they got from the murdered Boers and were shooting at them from inside the dark of the caves, from behind the barricade walls they'd erected. The Boers tried blowing the caves open with dynamite; this didn't work. Next they made fires and tried to 'smoke' the people out; this did not work either.

Into the caves

Piet Potgieter approached the cave entrance to see if he could see anything and was shot dead. His body fell at the entrance and the other Boers were too scared to retrieve it, even though they feared his corpse, too, would be desecrated and made into muti.

It was a deed of heroism that ended this fear. A young Boer boy, fluent in the Nguni language (a dialect of which the Ndebele spoke), smeared himself black with charcoal and was able to deceive the Ndebele in the cave well enough to allow him to reach the corpse; he grabbed it and fled, as the Ndebele, realising the ruse, fired at him. That young boy was Paul Kruger, who later became the president of the South African Republic (or the Transvaal), and the most honoured and fondly remembered of all Boer leaders.

The Boers besieged the Ndebele in the cave; time wore them out, as they suffered from hunger, dehydration and disease due to the unsanitary conditions. Some women and children snuck out to drink water at the river lower down in the valley, and some were even said to have died from drinking too much water too quickly! The surviving Boer leader, M. W. Pretorius, next blocked all the cave exits. Some men then tried to escape, but most were shot. After them came some women and children, whom the Boers captured. Another group of women and children surrendered.

But chief Mugombane himself managed to escape. There are two tales about how he did this. The first tale says that one of his men agreed to make a heroic sacrifice. He dressed up in the chief's clothes, and went to the cave entrance with one of the chief's wives and also his son. The Boers, thinking it was Mugombane, shot him and took the woman and child captive. While they were celebrating, the real Mugombane snuck out: his people chased a herd of cattle out, and he was tied below the belly of an ox.

But another story says that he snuck out using a tunnel, and once out, fled to the region of the present-day Zebediela.

Outside the caves

After the siege had lasted almost a month, the Boers noted that there was very little fire coming from the caves any more; they went in and were able to retrieve weapons and possessions the Ndebele had taken from the murdered Boers. They called off the siege. Pretorius and his men found (so he said) 900 corpses outside the caves, and 3 000 inside. Personally I think he misplaced a decimal point; having seen the caves I find it hard to believe that even 1000 people could fit inside ALONG WITH belongings, livestock and food enough to last them an entire month. But the death toll must indeed have been horrendous, even if just a few hundred. At the entrance of the cave, today, is a photo of a pile of human skulls as they were found in the cave.

Chief Mugombane, with the survivors of his tribe of Kekana Ndebele, settled elsewhere and the Boers settled in the region they had now cleared of opposition. The proclaimed a town and named it 'Pietpotgietersrus' (Piet Potgieter's Rest). Later the name was shortened to Potgietersrus. But after the ANC took over the government in 1994, it was decided to rename the town, to the chief who at least for a while held out against Potgieter and the other Boers: Mugombane – or as he's called in Pedi, now the local language, Mokopane.

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