GAUTENG, SOUTH AFRICA – For years, South Africa’s apartheid government ignored the significance of a “golden rhino” figurine that provides undeniable proof of a sophisticated society existing before white men arrived.
But since the end of racist rule in 1994, the stunning object — just 15 cm (6 inches) long and more than 700 years old — has become a defining symbol of precolonial civilization in South Africa.
Described as southern Africa’s equivalent of Tutankhamun’s mask, the golden foil rhino could be displayed overseas for the first time in the British Museum at an exhibition of South African art late next year.
With more than 6 million visitors passing through the London museum’s doors annually, it would make a dramatic world debut for the rhino, which is currently in a little-known gallery at the University of Pretoria.
The question is whether or not the South African government will sign off on the loan.
“I think because South Africa has this colonial legacy, people are concerned about heritage objects leaving the country,” said Sian Tiley-Nel, manager of the University of Pretoria museums. “But these are just temporary showcases; they will come back.”
After centuries of political, commercial and military exploitation, history in Africa — and who gets to tell it — is a hotly contested subject.
European museums, with their vast collections of colonial artifacts — ranging from Benin bronzes to Ugandan headdresses made of human hair — have a controversial track record in Africa.
In August, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe lashed out at Britain’s National History Museum for failing to turn over the skulls of African freedom fighters. “Surely, keeping decapitated heads as war trophies, in this day and age, in a national history museum, must rank among the highest forms of racist moral decadence, sadism and human insensitivity,” Mugabe said.
To date, the South African government has declined to say whether the golden rhino, will feature as a star exhibit at the London show.
“This matter is still under negotiation and has not been finalized as yet,” South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture said.
In 1932, a group of white men hunting for treasure discovered the rhino in Mapungubwe hill, a rocky outcrop in the northern Limpopo province, where baobab trees tower over herds of elephants.
They had stumbled across the remains of a graveyard for the elites of a lost kingdom that was a trading hub in 1220, exchanging ivory and gold for glass beads and cloth with Egypt, India and China.
It is believed that this state was the first class-based social system in southern Africa, and it is one of the oldest kingdoms in South Africa, according to University of Pretoria. The civilization became rich through international trade with nations as far away as China, Egypt and India, but then went into decline around the 1300s.
A former student at the University of Pretoria turned over some of the cache from the graveyard to the school.
Despite its obvious significance, the golden rhino was ignored by the colonial and apartheid governments, whose regimes were premised on the belief that Africans were primitive.
The rhino and other gold artifacts, including a leopard figurine and necklaces, challenged the colonial version of history that South African civilization started when Dutch colonial administrator Jan van Riebeeck landed in 1652.
“Mapungubwe has come to show that South Africa has a very rich history,” said Tiley-Nel, speaking in the dimly lit gallery where the golden rhino is on display. “The southern part of Africa was not an empty myth land.”
Since Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first democratic president in 1994, Mapungubwe has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Order of Mapungubwe is South Africa’s highest honor; Mandela was the first recipient in 2002.
However, controversy surrounds the figurine, with a long-running custody battle in South Africa highlighting the country’s struggle to recast its history more than 20 years after the fall of apartheid.
A special center was built at Mapungubwe to house the rhino, which weighs just 42.8 grams (1.5 ounces), but it doesn’t meet the professional museum requirements needed to protect the figurine.
As a result, custody of the rhino has remained with the University of Pretoria — a location that angers many.
“We can’t just keep on relying on the old institutions which acquired these artifacts under dubious means,” said Ciraj Rassool, history professor at the University of the Western Cape. “It’s a tragedy there was a failure to create a suitable museum,” he said. “The golden rhino is left in limbo.”
Still, Rassool hopes that before the rhino heads home to Mapungubwe, it first will go on tour to London to be shown to the world.
“It is important that these aspects of South African culture be known about in as many countries as possible,” he said.