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history of mapulana

Mapulana are a tribe found on the north eastern part of Mpumalanga and south eastern Limpopo provinces. They occupy the area now commonly known as Mapulaneng, the present day Bushbuckridge and environs. Their ancestral lands historically, however stretched from Shakwaneng in the Kruger Park, Nelspruit area to Moholoholo, Hoedspruit, including present day Graskop, Sabie and Ohrigstad. History has it that before settling in Shakwaneng on the banks of Lepunama (White River), they had stayed in Phageng near the Mokwena (Crockodile) river. Other accounts are that they have also stayed at Motshiteng in the Barberton area. Mapulana have been displaced by white settlers during the 1800’s and early 1900’s from their tribal lands to make way for cultivation of Forestry plantations and winter fruits. Mapulaneng is near the Kruger Park with some gates of the park being within 40 km of the area.

Mapulana speak SePulane, a language that forms part of the Northern Sotho. SePulane, though very rich and robust it is not written nor is it taught at schools. The name of the tribe apparently comes from their rain making capabilities. Others say that they got the name from the Lepunama (White) River. Like all South African languages there is a smattering of words from other languages in SePulane, mainly Tsonga and Swazi, given their proximity to these tribes, this is quite natural. SePulane has its unique words thus differentiating it from other languages. Linguists classify SePulane as a belonging to the group Southeastern and the subgroup Sotho in the family of Bantu languages which all the indigenous languages of Southern Africa falls. The language is so divergent that others called it Eastern Sotho. Others classify it as a dialect of the Northern Sotho.

I am not going to argue for or against its classification as dialect or as a language. The core words of the language identify it as belonging to subgroup of Sotho languages. Recently other languages are contaminating SePulane. The five languages that are making unwelcome inroads into the language are English, Afrikaans, Sepedi, Setswana and Sesotho. The reasons for this are that children pick up English, Afrikaans and Sepedi at school, whereas the migrant workers come home with Setswana, Sesotho and Afrikaans. The contamination is evidenced in words like poto for English pot, pasopa for Afrikaans pasop (take care), kreya for Afrikaans kry(find). I will later introduce you to some unique SePulane words or phrases.

The totem of Mapulana is a lion. Thus they are also referred to as Batau stemming from their totem ba bina Tau. A totem is an emblem of a tribe. The totem is held in high esteem and it is revered by all within the tribe. The tribal praise poem goes as follows:
Re batau a phaga a Malala a moenyane
Batho ba ba boyang Phageng, ba ba boyang Shakwaneng
Shakwana la kgomo le motho go phalang?
Go phala motho gobane kgomo re lla re djia

We are the people of the lion, of the wild cat of Malala of moenyane
We are people from Phageng, we are people from Shakwaneng
Which is more important, the reeds of a cow and a human?
A human is better since with a cow we cry while we eat the meat.

The tribe commonly refers to itself as Basotho, not to be confused with Basotho in Lesotho, the term Basotho means “those who speak Sotho languages”. There is no recorded historical account of Mapulana ever staying in Lesotho. It is interesting to note that their neighbouring tribes also refer to them as Basotho. Though the tribe is commonly said to be BaPedi, it is in fact incorrect as BaPedi are also a tribe making up what is known Northern Sothos. This perception arises because Sepedi heavily influenced the Northern Sotho that is learned at schools. There are however unverified accounts that they have stayed in Botswana before their trek to the east of South Africa.

Within the core of Mapulana, there are subgroups of Mapulana namely: Bakutswe and Mambayi/Mampaye. It is said that the subgroups are descendant from the same family tree. The distinction between the core Mapulana and the subgroups is not so common any more. The language or dialect of HiPaye (spoken by Mambayi) is becoming extinct in South Africa. I have not heard anybody that can still speak Hipaye since one my great grannies, Kokwane NaMokwena passed away. Bakutse speak what I consider to be a dialect of SePulane influenced by Sekone. The emergence of Bakutswe and Mambayi is recent phenomenon in historical terms. The Bakutse where formed when Mokwena, the Chief of the group, fought with his kinsmen, Marule and Mashego and he had to flee from Mapulaneng and he started calling himself a “Mokutswe” disassociating himself from Mapulana. When reconciliation between them was reached his group was already known as Bakutswe. Of the the other group, Mambayi I was not able to get clear historical accounts of their lineage. There are those who say that they are the offspring of Mapulana and AmaSwazi. This does not make sense as the offspring of either group will choose the language of their dominant parent or the tribe they grow within, they could not have a dialect of their own. In western parts of Mapulaneng, where Mapulana stay with Bakone, some Mapulana call themselves Bakone and vice versa.

Besides the AmaSwazi to the south, Mahlanganu/Tsongas to the east, Mapulana have other neighbours to the west, known as Bapedi baSekhukhune and Bakone, to the North their neighbours are Banareng and Batokwa.

The oral history of Mapulana speaks of gallant wars against other tribes, mostly Swazis and Shangaans. The history has stories of expeditions to capture other tribes (Baronga, Machopi, Darakope) in ancient Mozambique. Their war heroes include Maripe and Sekakole. Another legendary figure is Marangrang, who was a Mopulana by birth but stayed amongst Bakone and later became their leader. Mapulana think of themselves as batho ba botho (kind and humane people) not as warriors.

The area of Mapulaneng has got villages and townships with English names suggesting missionary work in the 1800’s by the English missionaries. Whereas most rural towns in Limpopo and Mpumalanga have Afrikaans names, in place of their traditional names, villages in Mapulaneng have names like Oakley, Arthur’ Seat, Cunningmore, London, Violet-bank, Brooklyn, Greenview, Dingledale etc. There are also places with traditional names like Matibidi, Shatale, Thabokgolo, Marite, Khokhobela, Kapama etc.

THIS WAS WRITTEN BY JOE MATSHIYA