The site your mother warned you about
22 March 2018 19:39 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Makgabeng: Limpopo's ancient protest art

  • Greg Marinovich
    Greg Marinovich

    Born in South Africa in 1962, Greg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and is co-author of The Bang Bang Club, a nonfiction book on South Africa’s transition to democracy. He has spent 25 years doing conflict, documentary and news photography around the globe. His photographs have appeared in top international publications such as Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian of London, among others.  
    He is chair of the World Press Master Class nominating committee for Africa, and was a World Press Photo judge in 1994 and 2005. In 2009 he was the recipient of the Nat Nakasa award for courageous journalism. Marinovich was Editor-In-Chief of the Twenty Ten project and responsible for managing over 100 African journalists’ work in all forms of media.
    Currently, Editor-at-Large for IMaverick and Daily Maverick, doing freelance photography and making a film about the former militants in Thokoza township, South Africa, and writing a non-fiction book about an infamous murderer who just happened to be married to Marinovich’s mother.

  • Life, etc

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.

Photo: Platform shelter is reached by a ladder made of poles and a living tree branch, many metres above the gorge floor. Here Hananwa stimela or train paintings decorate one wala. The trains represented a new technology that shadowed that of the European settlers. (Greg Marinovich)

At the top of a steep narrow defile is a site known to archaeologists as The Battle of Blouberg. It features a tableau of about three metres by two metres and is a chaotic, yet powerful, statement of loss. Mounted figures on horseback holding rifles dominate, as do ox-wagons. The mounted men face in several directions, and there are the imprints of many other four-legged beasts, perhaps the looted cattle of the Hananwa.