Some ideas for using the Mapungubwe poster in the classroom

The Mapungubwe poster is an attempt to make history more accessible through the use of comic story. Here are some ideas of how you can use the Mapungubwe poster in your classroom. It is hoped that through the approach of this historical comic story, learners will identify with the young characters. This identification can help to stimulate their imagination, open them up to an inspiring image of Southern Africa's past and change their sense of history.

There are many cross-curricula opportunities in the poster. The activities below are probably best done as a series of activities in a series of history, life skills, media or language lessons.

Exploring the images in the comic story

Before you ask learners to read any of the text on the poster, first ask them to look at the images.

  • What images do you see?

Let them identify things before pointing out what they have missed.

Here are some ideas of images you can discuss:

  • What insect is the young man on the left capturing as a gift for the princess?
  • Can you see any characters using objects that are not African? (Look at the men on the right using Chinese tea cups.)
  • Compare the jewellery worn by the people on the right and the people on the left. What are the differences? (Did anybody spot the snuff spoon in the hair of the young man on the left?)
  • Look at the market scene. What do you think the big baskets on the left were used for? (They were used for storing grain.) What are the objects that the man on the left of the market is carrying? (They are iron ingots.)

Allow learners to ask questions - even if you do not know the answers to these questions.

The author's voice

Unlike many other resources, the creators of the Mapungubwe poster have encouraged criticism of their own construct. If you look between the frames of the comic, here and there, you will see, drawn in light blue, a pencil and a paintbrush engaging in critical discussions of the way the comic story is written and drawn. These cartoon characters represent a writer and an artist asking questions about each other's intellectual and creative ("aesthetic") choices.

  • How many conversations can you see between the blue pencil and the blue paintbrush?
  • If you had to put some questions into the mouths of the pencil and the paintbrush, what would you ask?

Here are some ideas:

  • What do you think the Khoi-San got in exchange for their Ostrich shells and animal skins?
  • How far west, into the desert, did the Mapungubwe trade reach?
  • I hope this guy has brought more than a cricket to impress the princess.
  • Do you think some of the traders from the Middle East and Asia married hot local women?
  • I wonder if Mapungubwe traded with guys in Jozi?

Marabaraba game - a cultural continuity

Look at the photograph of the marabaraba game. To create this game indentations have been chiselled out of a horizontal rock "table." The game is a bit like drafts and is played with marula pips that represent cattle. In Shangaan the game is known as marabaraba, and in Venda it is known as mafuvha. It is played throughout Africa to this day. So it could be said that marabaraba is a link to the past, a "cultural continuity" or part of our heritage.

  • How many other practices that started far in the past continue to this day? Can you think of some? Would you call them "your heritage"?
  • What makes something your heritage?

The hidden heritage

One of the other objectives of the poster is to question the idea of Africa as backward, incompetent and divided. It presents southern African heritage and something that can be used to inspire us into the future. During apartheid, you would not have found any information on Mapungubwe in a school History textbook. This was because apartheid propaganda promoted the idea that Bantu-speaking farmers crossed the northern border of South Africa at about the same time that Europeans arrived at the Cape. Iron Age Bantu farmers had actually arrived in southern Africa long before Europeans rounded the Cape. Mapungubwe was evidence of sophisticated trade and complex social organisation long before Europeans arrived.

Click here to see A 72 dpi, A4 version of the poster


What is propaganda?

  • Is propaganda always a lie?
  • Can you think of some of the ways in which a new and different heritage is being created by our leaders right now? (Think of the ideas of "African Renaissance" and "rainbow nation." Are these inventions?)
  • Whose heritage?

Heritage can be understood to contain those things from our past that we value and want to preserve and pass on to our children and the generations still to come. Heritage can include both natural and cultural treasures and sources of inspiration that are irreplaceable. As we learn about Africa's past many of the assumptions we make about Africa are challenged and new possibilities for our own future open up.

We are not certain whether the people at Mapungubwe were Sotho-speaking, Shona-speaking or-Venda speaking. Would it make a difference if we knew for sure?

Perhaps the language they spoke is less important than the fact that we can celebrate their glory as true Africans, and allow the memory of the first southern African kingdom to inspire us towards greater well-being and wealth in southern Africa today. The archaeological site of Mapungubwe was declared a National Heritage Site in December 2001.

The site was declared a World Heritage Site, in July 2003, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Its inclusion on the prestigious list of World Heritage Sites recognises the universal value of the remnants of Mapungubwe's culture, which deserves protection for the benefit of all humanity. As a World Heritage Site it is recognised as belonging to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of where they may come from. To see a list of these sites and find out more about them go to


Images of the golden rhino are popping up everywhere. The story of Mapungubwe has begun to inspire the popular imagination. Government departments (like the Department of Trade and Industry) and big businesses (like Sasol) are all taking advantage of the spectacular images of artefacts found at Mapungubwe.

When government departments and big companies use images from Africa's past to promote their own identity is this just opportunistic corporate branding and advertising, or can it be something more? Is this a desire to resurrect some romantic or exotic idea about the past or is it about imagining the future?

How can we use the image of the golden rhino to affirm southern Africa's potential to, once again, be a great centre for technological innovation and international trade, promoting that which is proudly southern African?

Why did Mapungubwe fall?

Many reasons have been put forward for why Mapungubwe fell:

  • the drying out of the Limpopo river whose floods used to fertilise and water crops;
  • overgrazing by the massive herds of cattle that had to support a population of about 10,000 people;
  • bubonic plague that spread inland from the East coast;
  • loss of control over the trading links with the coast;
  • the rise of the new economic power of Great Zimbabwe;
  • movement of Mapungubwe royalty to the North to join forces with the kingdom that we now know as Great Zimbabwe; or
  • the death of a great leader or the Kingdom's King.

The Mapungubwe kingdom may have risen and fallen, but it is a reminder of what greatness southern Africa can achieve. Perhaps you can ask learners to write a story about how they think Mapungubwe fell.

The Order of Mapungubwe

The Order of Mapungubwe, created in 2002, is awarded to South African citizens who have shown excellence and exceptional achievement. Nelson Mandela was the first recipient of a golden Order of Mapungubwe for his contributions to humanity.

  • Who would you award the Order of Mapungubwe to? Why?

Your feedback, please

The authors of the Mapungubwe Heritage poster would like to hear from you about your experiences of using the poster in the classroom. Please write to us and share what you have done with this resource. We are particularly interested to know how the comic story works: Does the introduction of these young characters and the suggestion of a story stimulate learners' imagination? Does it help to pull together the information they have about Mapungubwe and promote greater historical understanding?

Last updated : 03-Dec-2012

This article was produced for South African History Online on 04-Apr-2011