Life, etc

Makgabeng: Limpopo’s protest art, a century before

By Greg Marinovich 20 August 2013

One hundred years before the first democratic elections saw Nelson Mandela elected as president of a fully democratic nation, a small tribe in a distant corner of South Africa struggled against invaders trying to subjugate them, and seize their lands. GREG MARINOVICH explores this history and finds a whole lot more.

From May of 1894, 1,000 Hananwa men fought to resist the larger forces of several Boer commandos of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek. Rough forts, often just piled low ramparts of stone, were built all along the lower slopes of the massif, besieging the Hananwa. The Boers, led by their commandant-general Piet Joubert, and allied tribes, fought their way gradually up to the plateau that stretches across the top of Blouberg. Here, they built more forts encircling King Leboho’s capital, torched crops and homes and denied the defenders access to water.

By the end of July, the Hananwa were exhausted, starving and reduced to firing soapstone bullets from their antique muzzleloaders against a superior force armed with modern weapons. Chief Leboho was forced to surrender and was taken to Pretoria where he was found guilty in a military court. He was imprisoned until 1900 when the British forces took Pretoria and he was allowed to return home. The captured Hananwa were divided among the Boers as spoils of war and for five years were forced to work for no pay. They were enslaved. The declaration of war against tribes who refused to submit to the Boer republic’s periodic orders that each group contribute a certain number of men, women and children for unpaid labour led to the enslavement of many Africans.

Photo: Blouberg and the Makgabeng Plateau. (Greg Marinovich)

Yet not all the Hananwa were captured; many escaped to the Makgabeng Plateau south of Blouberg. Here, they hid in the myriad caves in the hills and gorges of the broken terrain. It was not the type of landscape the Boer commandos would want to go into searching for enemies. Ambush was far too easy. The thick, sandy soil interspersing the rocky outcrops made the area unsuitable for anything but grazing cattle, and it was those fighters who had herded cattle in the areas as boys who led the refugees to their hiding places. Thus the thorny wilderness where Hananwa initiation schools had been held for hundreds of years became a place of shelter.

In many of these caves and shelters the Hananwa made white and yellow finger paintings to keep the memory of their history alive. These Hananwa paintings are perhaps the first known example of protest art, at least in southern Africa. They tell the tale of a people defeated but unbroken, of defiance and hurt.