The importance of preserving life is by first knowing where we come from as well as where our roots lie. Thus I decided to visit Maropeng, the official visitor site of the Cradle of Humankind, an establishment that offers a warm and homely reception. Situated on the outskirts of Johannesburg, it is in a tranquil and remote area whose inside paints a different picture.
My journey starts when I am introduced to Maropeng’s General Manager for Marketing, Erica Saunders. With the focus on Heritage Day (also celebrated of late as National Braai Day) festivities, I reveal the basis behind my visit to this landmark, also known as the Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs, declared a World Heritage Site on December 2, 1999.
My journey is a revelation, despite not visiting the Sterkfontein caves – which is open every day, all year round, except on Christmas Day as well as Easter. Forty-five minute tours are conducted through the caves, with the first departing at 9am and last taking off at 4pm.
Maropeng is a hype of activity, with many stories to tell – bearing testimony to the evolution of mankind and our origins. This is evident in its interior design, consisting of portraits of our being and replicas of fossils, taking the mind back on a foray of our existence and how far we have come since the time of our ancestors.
Saunders reveals that Maropeng is a Public Private Partnership, with the Gauteng provincial government owning the land on which Maropeng is an entity. The Gauteng government’s Cradle of Humankind management company comprises of Blue IQ as its investment arm. The entities work together to look at economic deprived areas to unblock potential, develop skills and help create jobs.
Maropeng is a member of the South African Heritage Resources Agency, and works closely with Robben Island, Freedom Park, the Fredefort and the Nelson Mandela Bay metro to promote heritage. Saunders says that to them heritage is a 365-day activity, a sentiment echoed by Danny Goulkan, the National Heritage Council’s Marketing and Communications Manager. Goulkan believes that every year South Africans need to set aside a period to remind themselves of where they come from.
Goulkan stresses the importance of learning to live as a community and working as working as a team. He says the country’s heritage is in the hands of the present generation, and so is its making, saying: “If we want future generations to value our contribution, it would be what they regard as heritage in future. Let’s celebrate.”
“If we want future generations to value our contribution, it would be what they regard as heritage in future”
On my expedition at Maropeng, I am interested to find that the establishment also provides an educational aspect in its tours. They compile pre-packaged material which is then handed to teachers to study and acquaint themselves with before they visit the site with their learners. The study material focuses on the evolution of man and forms part of the school curriculum.
Tourism also forms part of Maropeng’s offering, with the entity working jointly with the provincial government as well as the Department of Education to conduct promotions. Saunders says they also do promotions in public spaces, an example in point being their latest promotion at the Trade show. As part of their promotional tours, the Maropeng marketing team also attended this year’s Teachers Day annual conference held in Vereeniging.
The World Heritage site also conducts promotion campaigns, in the form of competitions, on SABC’s radio stations Metro Fm and SAFm, among others. But Saunders is at pains that with the country having so much beauty like Maropeng, people still do not take time to visit such places and learn more about their heritage and more. She says an interesting statistic is that locals make up about 60% of the site’s overall tourists, as compared to international tourists’ of 40%.
Maropeng experienced an influx of both local and international visitors during last year’s FIFA World Cup. Saunders says although there are other World Heritage Sites in South Africa, like Mapungubwe, there is no competition among these sites, instead they work together. She wishes that more work can be done to build an ethos and create a mindset where people can unite and work as one.
The journey that Maropeng takes you through, is that of the evolution of man and what man has achieved. Saunders wishes that the “breath-taking experience”could be shared by many and that people will see the importance in preserving our heritage instead of spending time “creating atomic bombs.”
Asked on feedback she gets from visitors to the site, she says it is a touching and unavoidable feeling on everyone’s part to realise that we all originate in Africa, South Africa to be specific. She says such a discovery helps people realise that no matter where we come from as human beings, our differences are very small.
International visitors rave about Maropeng as a place that compares to no other in the world in terms of humankind development, a place that is unique globally. It is based on this backdrop that Saunders encourages people to take back the lessons of the likes of the Proudly South African Feel Exhibition offered at this world class facility, and dwell on them to realise we possess the ability and prosperity to do good.
Maropeng’s clever design and décor ensures an experience that goes full circle with every picture and portrait telling a story. The whole evolutionary journey takes place underground, beneath the main building. The building itself is also known as the Tumulus Building, a Greek word for burial. It is perceived to be a place that houses our ancestors.
Inside the building, the journey starts with the Vortex Tunnel which is about the Big-Bang theory, followed by the Diversity Tunnel which takes you through the different phases of evolution and the specific time-lines. It takes you back to where life started. The underground experience also features a boat ride. The idea behind the ride is to tell a story about the four stages of life: water, fire, air and earth. The experience then ends with an exhibition divided into three segments: the past, the present and the future (of earth).
Part of the exhibition entails the discovery of some of the first-ever fossils like Little Foot (found in 1997 at the Sterkfontein Caves by Ron Clarke) and Mrs Ples, also a Sterkfontein find. With regards to the findings and other scientific matters taking place at Maropeng, the site works in hand with the University of the Witwatersrand’s Origins Centre.
It is also underground where replicas of fossils and hominids are stored. A close examination on the last four generations of hominids, before the existence of mankind, provides features that are pretty close to those of humans. “We have to know where we come from, Saunders reminds us… We have to realise in the bigger picture that humankind can play a big role in safeguarding the planet. We have to look after our heritage so that it is preserved for future generations to see.”
As we head towards Heritage Day festivities, Saunders says we need to remember Nelson Mandela’s words that “a nation that turns its back on its heritage will eventually become a nation that turns its back on itself.”
And as the nation hoists glasses into the air in celebration of Heritage Day, let us be reminded to preserve what mankind has built. Let us also think back that the last three generations of hominids that existed before mankind were purely carnivores, how befitting of National Braai Day!
– By Tshepo Tsheole