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Rock Art Department, National Museum, Bloemfontein, P.O. Box 266, Bloemfontein, 9300, South Africa



The Northern Sotho rock paintings in the Makgabeng Plateau, Limpopo Province are divided into two phases. The earlier paintings contain images pertaining to male and female initiation while the more recent paintings represent images relating to the Boer-Hananwa War of 1894. These two types of paintings seemed to have no conceptual link until a recurring spread-eagled motif was found to appear in both phases of the art. This motif is the only tangible connection between these two types of Northern Sotho rock art. The motif in question is the Northern Sotho initiation symbol koma. In the earlier initiation rock art, koma operates as a communicative symbol that is representative of the transformed male identity during the performance of the initiation ritual. I now consider the role of koma in the more recent phase of Northern Sotho rock art. I examine how the Boer-Hananwa War affected the inscribing of a new perception of koma, and how it has contributed to the establishment and maintenance of a changed masculine identity.

(Keywords: rock art, Hananwa, Maleboho War, African masculinity, boys’ initiation) 


The Makgabeng Plateau in the Limpopo Province contains the largest concentration of Bantu-speakers’[1] rock art in South Africa. This rock art tradition is referred to as the “late white” tradition and conforms to a set of representational principles that also occur in south-central and east Africa (Phillipson 1972, 1976; Masao 1982, 1991; Lingren & Schoffeleers 1978; Juwayeyi & Phiri 1992; Prins & Hall 1994; Smith 2006). The rock art of Bantu-speakers consists of predominantly white finger paintings that lack the fine-line detail present in San rock art. This art was therefore disregarded entirely or described as being “crude” and “childlike” (Fosbrooke 1950; Clark 1959). Further research has demonstrated that this rock art tradition holds an abundance of symbolism that can only be understood within its specific indigenous knowledge system.

In South Africa it is accepted that the late white tradition in the Makgabeng Plateau was authored by the Northern Sotho (Prins & Hall 1994; Eastwood, Smith & van Schalkwyk 2002; van Schalkwyk & Smith 2004; Eastwood & Eastwood 2006). The rock art contains subject matter relating to two distinct events. The older images consist of a number of puberty symbols that are utilised in the performance of initiation ceremonies, while the more recent rock art contains images that articulate the social tensions during the Boer-Hananwa War.

Figure 1. Map showing the Makgabeng Plateau.

The animal images and geometrics are found in rock shelters located in valleys and hidden by dense bush. These shelters are often close to streams or pools of water and surrounded by mountains. Former initiates have recognised these shelters as important locations for boys’ and girls’ puberty ceremonies (Namono & Eastwood 2005; Eastwood & Eastwood 2006; Moodley 2008). The animal imagery, although lacking in great detail, can be determined to be ostrich, elephant, hyaena, giraffe, rhinoceros, kudu, gemsbok and zebra (see Fig. 2). These animals are imbued with special significance and are referred to during the performance of initiation (Eastwood & Eastwood 2006). It is therefore not surprising to find the spread-eagled motif in this phase of the art because it plays an important part in puberty rights and rainmaking in all Bantu-speakers’ rock art (Prins & Hall 1994; Smith 2006). This motif is also referred to as a zoomorph or saurian motif, but is most commonly described as ‘spread-eagled’ because of its close resemblance to a stretched animal hide when viewed from above.

Figure 2. Northern Sotho rock art relating to boys’ initiation (Photo: National Museum, Bloemfontein).

Figure 3. Northern Sotho rock art relating to the Boer-Hananwa war (Photo: Rock Art Research Institute, University of Witwatersrand).

The more recent rock art is dated to the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century when the remote rock shelters of the Makgabeng Plateau played host to a number of Hananwa refugees during the Boer-Hananwa War of 1894. In these isolated rock shelters the refugees painted images relating to this brutal war (Eastwood, van Schalkwyk & Smith 2002). Johnny van Schalkwyk and Benjamin Smith have described this rock art as “protest art” because it was a coping mechanism employed by the locals to deal with the trauma of the mass influx of newcomers into the Blouberg area (2004). All the images depicted in this phase of the rock art display the common elements of invasion (Smith pers. comm.). Trains, wagons, horses, white people, battles, muzzle-loaders, spears and axes are all symbols of power and subversion that recount the narrative of a tumultuous period of invasion.

In this paper I discuss why the spread-eagle motif, that has previously only been associated with puberty symbolism, is somehow present among the protest imagery. I will demonstrate how this motif is endowed with powerful symbolism that forms a link between concepts of invasion and puberty rites. I will also explore how the symbolic dimensions of the image are perceived of over the changing social situations brought on by the Boer-Hananwa War.


All initiated men in the Makgabeng Plateau refer to the painted spread-eagled motif as koma (Moodley 2008; Moodley 2010). They say that koma is a secret that is only spoken about during the boys’ initiation ceremony. In Northern Sotho rock art koma is a finger-painted image referred to as ‘spread-eagled’ because of its close resemblance to a stretched animal hide when viewed from above. Following an animal classification, the main characteristics of this motif include a head, a body, four protruding arms/legs, and a tail (Fig. 4). The spread-eagled motif, despite being found amongst diagnostic Northern Sotho initiation images, does not constitute an immediately decipherable subject (Moodley 2008; Moodley 2010). Determining what it represents therefore requires an understanding within its own local indigenous knowledge system. The Makgabeng Plateau has long been a melting pot of different Bantu-speaking cultures practicing rituals and beliefs that are often inter-connected. They refer to themselves as specific identities such as ‘Koni’, ‘Birwa’ or ‘Hananwa’ but acknowledge that many of their traditions, including rock art, are shared. It is only within this complex context that the subject represented by the spread-eagled motif can be revealed (Moodley 2008).

Figure 4. Differing representations of koma. 

Northern Sotho male initiation is a sacred institution that is strictly bounded by secrecy (Roberts & Winter 1915). The sacred rites of the institution are concealed from women and uninitiated boys. Initiated men never reveal the secrets for fear that their ancestors will punish them. The conceptualisation of koma as a great secret creates an air of mystery. The koma are secret rites but koma is also considered to have an embodied presence, a bearing or form that is neither material nor spiritual, but nonetheless exists (Moodley 2008). A deeper understanding of the initiation ritual reveals interesting iconography that is employed as didactic tools. Amongst certain Northern Sotho cultures the physical manifestation of the crocodile features prominently in actual initiation rituals (Winter 1913; Roberts 1915; Pitjie 1950; Krige, 1974). Apart from the similarity between the physical attributes of the koma motif and the crocodile, the participation of the crocodile iconography in boys’ initiation rituals suggests a link between the two (Moodley 2008).

In its representation as the crocodile, the koma is the bond of unity amongst initiated men. Drawing on the symbolism of the crocodile, important traditions and values characterised by the koma are reinforced (Moodley 2008; Moodley 2010). As a phallic symbol, the crocodile represents the concerns of manhood, thereby embodying a means by which the initiates recognise and acknowledge the rites of passage into manhood (Doornan 1934; Aschwanden 1976; Prins & Hall 1994). The painted image of the crocodile operates on a level that surpasses that of other initiation icons. The koma is a communicative symbol that is only recognised by the initiated men whose social identity has been transformed in this ritual context. Operating as a symbolic declaration of unity the painted koma is not only a means by which to recognise and acknowledge the rites of passage into manhood, but also serves as validation or reassurance regarding their understanding of what it means to be a man (Moodley 2008; Moodley 2010).

The rock paintings of koma belong to both phases of Northern Sotho rock art, but I am particularly interested in the later examples dating to during and after the Boer-Hananwa War of 1894. The outbreak of war with Boer soldiers pushed the Hananwa to seek refuge in the nearby secluded hills of the Makgabeng Plateau. This area was previously uninhabited because sacred initiation rituals were performed in these rock shelters. The walls of these shelters are adorned with sacred initiation symbols that are recognised only by the initiated. However, during the war, new images were added to the walls. These new finger-painted images expressed the tensions of war, but the artists also chose to paint the koma alongside them.

The Hananwa are part of the Northern Sotho cultural groups who recognise the spread-eagled motif as koma. To the Hananwa the painted image of the koma  embodies the various cultural elements in a conception and expression of an identity that is recognised by all initiated men (Moodley 2008). In association with protest imagery I question whether this perception has changed. I consider how the presence of the koma in both phases of the art can suggest a metaphoric link between war and initiation.

Metaphors of war in Northern Sotho boys’ initiation

As a soldier, fighting in battles mean the endurance of pain and suffering, famine, isolation and aggression. In many cultures the rite of passage into manhood is achieved only through participation in battle, making the transition from civilian to soldier a deliberate process that reconfigures their identities (Moodley 2010). The initiation ritual teaches concepts of masculinity that motivate men to fight. In the case of Northern Sotho boys’ initiation, this is achieved by employing traditional military training such as stick fighting. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, all Pedi, Koni and Hananwa initiates who attended the same initiation school were placed into military regiments that fought together in battle (Harries 1929; Krige 1937; Pitjie 1950; Delius 1984). Each military regiment was the foundation for the creation of a specific form of warrior masculinity that was taught by employing ritual.

As a military regiment, these initiates were isolated from the rest of the community, and as a brotherhood they were subjected to many physical hardships and mental trials in order to prove their courage and endurance. Male initiation among the Northern Sotho was a sacred institution that was strictly bounded by secrecy. So guarded were these rites that the initiate had to leave his family for the duration of the ceremony. They were taken to a secluded place, usually in hilly areas near densely covered rock shelters in order to keep hidden the inner workings of the ceremony. In the case of the Hananwa and Pedi, an initiation lodge or mphato was erected specifically for the duration of the ceremony (Winter 1913; Roberts & Winter 1915; Roberts 1916). This enclosure was surrounded by an impenetrable fence that served to keep out all women and uninitiated men.

Seclusion served to both engender the initiates and create a new sense of belonging (van Gennep 1908; Turner 1969; Marshall 2002). By removing the boys from their homes they were isolated from all previous sources of social support, status and self-esteem. Pedi and Hananwa initiates had their heads shaven and wore traditional loin cloths (Roberts 1915; Pitjie 1950). The need to wear a uniform dress created a sense of unity among the initiates while simultaneously relieving them of the influences of the feminine domain (Moodley 2008). The emphasis of male bonding during training was an important aspect for combat effectiveness. The bonding of initiates during prolonged periods of danger fosters mutual loyalty and devotion (van Gennep 1908).

The direct sensory experience of pain had a central role in the ritual process of initiation (Morinis 1985). For the Koni, Pedi, Hananwa and Sekukhuni  initiates the rules of manhood are learned through their endurance of pain (Moodley 2010). Pedi initiates endured ceremonial washing called Go tsakatsa which requires that the initiates be roughly scrubbed with a brush made from a tree branch (Roberts & Winters 1915). Also, during the lexala ritual, Koni initiates received slices of porridge, while the initiation master beat them with a moretlwa (medicated switch made from tree branches) (Pitjie 1950). Similarly, the Pedi dikxating ritual involved the thrashing of initiates. Hananwa informants have mentioned that at the conclusion of the initiation ceremony they are shown a clay model of koma while being beaten with a rod (Moodley 2008). These rituals were performed for the purpose of strengthening the boys’ fortitude to pain.

The infliction of pain occupied an important place in the initiation ritual because specific cultural beliefs were actualised during these beatings (Moodley 2010). Ritualised beatings were aimed at intimidation and further emphasised the chief as the absolute political authority. The endurance of pain as an isolated brotherhood created an everlasting bond among the initiates (Moodley 2010). It is their shared emotional response that united them and encouraged group loyalty.

Assertive behaviour in preparation for battle is another important aspect of war that is ritualised by employing ordeals of pain. Stick fighting can be seen as training for armed battles. Controlled violent performance in initiation prepares the initiate for success in battles. The Pedi believed that fighting and leadership were an important part of manhood. They say “Pôô xo bewa ya kxomo; ya motho e a ipeya” (A bull is selected among cows; a leader among men selects himself) (Pitjie 1950: 105). Bravery was measured by a boy’s ability to defeat his colleagues in stick fighting. All initiates were required to prove their ability as a fighter. In this way they acquired the skills necessary to become brave warriors while also learning to resist adversity. Among the Pedi the overall winner of the stick fight was given the title nkxwete, the leader of the group. He led the fighters in the march home, singing and dancing the tribal war song (moxobô).

War, like initiation, is a journey of transition from one social identity to another. During basic training in the modern military, recruits are stripped of their civilian identity while their value system is transformed. Initiates are trained to behave in accordance with traditional military rules and are indoctrinated to serve and protect the chief. They are no longer individuals and are taught that loyalty to the group and leader matters above all. Risking his life for the protection of his people transforms a boy into a soldier. War has a ritual-like element that involves tribal rules and governances while initiation serves to impose these rules on the young men. Ritualisation is bound by rigid rules, traditions and taboos. This is particularly important in the changing social circumstances brought about by war.

Soldiers of the koma

Initiation can be considered a metaphoric representation of war. The ritual of initiation was essential to prepare men for battle. When Hananwa men were called to arms they understood the task ahead. This was the culmination of their training and the ultimate rite of manhood. The Hananwa were no strangers to warfare. Their existence as a cultural group and their political dominance in the Blouberg was dependant on this (Makhura 1993). Since their move to the Blouberg the Hananwa became major political players, eventually attaining a position of dominance under Kgoši Matsiokwane. They were also subjected to succession disputes and embarked on offensive and defensive wars due to the widespread political upheaval caused by the Mfecane/Difaqane (Makhura 1993, 1997). Despite being strengthened by these local political turmoils the Hananwa, in 1894, had to fight a war against a completely foreign enemy, the Boer government.

The Hananwa’s early wars were fought both internally (among other Northern Sotho groups) and externally (Nguni warriors). Regardless of the division, the Hananwa always fought against other initiated men. Concepts of male initiation among Bantu-speaking cultures share many symbolic similarities (Moodley 2008). As a result, these wars were fought by men who had a common understanding of the rules of the initiation ritual and its part in governing their actions during hostile engagement. When facing an army with a foreign world-view the Hananwa could have easily adopted an attitude of “total war” that could have broken their sacred rules of initiation.

The rock art of the Hananwa consists of a number of horrific images that represent the brutality of the Boer-Hananwa war. Both Hananwa and Boer soldiers are depicted brandishing weapons and engaging in combat (see Fig. 3). The Boer soldiers are almost always depicted with their hands on their hips, a posture that is usually associated with the aggressive stance of white settlers (van Schalkwyk & Smith 2004). The Hananwa artists chose to depict the Boer soldiers in this manner in order to further emphasise the belligerence of their enemy. The war imagery confirms the disparity of the opposing forces and represents the Boer soldiers as the aggressors (van Schalkwyk & Smith 2004). The differences in fire power and the display of dead Hananwa soldiers seen in the paintings suggests that the Hananwa were fighting a war that required the use of defensive aggression. Aggression is a natural human response when confronted with the urgency to defend family, territory or personal identity (Moseley 2002). This aggression, when uncurbed, can lead to war that ignores all humanitarian considerations. The koma was traditionally a sacred symbol of initiated men and was never exposed to women or the uninitiated. However, its prevalence in relation to the painted battle scenes suggests that they chose to publicly emphasise their allegiance to the symbolism evoked in the ritual performance of initiation. The painting of the koma emphasised the significance of honour and valour that was learnt during initiation (Moodley 2008). I argue here that the Hananwa articulated their understanding of the rules of initiation in a way that allowed their aggression to be controlled by the symbolism of koma. As proudly initiated men, they fought a war on their moral terms despite the brutality inflicted upon them.

The koma is rarely depicted directly within the panels pertaining to battle scenes because it serves more as an overbearing symbol. In most cases the koma is painted in such a manner so as to appear to stand apart from these battle scenes, but nonetheless it seems to  be intrinsically involved with the overall panel. This is indicated by the use of the same thick white pigment that is utilised to create the war imagery. However, Fig. 4 shows three koma integrated within a panel containing war imagery. On one side of the panel we see a baboon in association with soldiers on horseback and Boer troops (some with their hands on their hips) and others engaging in battle. Within this panel and located on the top right side are two easily distinguishable  komas and a single stylised koma. The association of the koma and the baboon is extremely significant since the baboon is the siboko (animal totem) of the Hananwa and Kgoši  Maleboho was revered as “The Great Baboon” (van Schalkwyk 1997). In the many representations of “The Great Baboon” it is evident that the Hananwa chose to emphasise their allegiance to their chief.

Figure 4. The koma painted in the same panel as the baboon. (Redrawing: Rock Art Research Institute, University of Witwatersrand)

The direct involvement of the koma and the baboon in this panel suggests a strong relationship between these two images. I have stated earlier that the painted image of the koma represents the crocodile and embodies the various issues relating to manhood. Amongst all Northern Sotho groups it is the Hananwa who have the closest association with the crocodile because it features significantly in initiation ceremonies, rainmaking rituals and oral art (van Schalkwyk 1997; Joubert 2004). The association between crocodiles and the majesty of chiefs is well documented amongst the Venda and Shona (van Warmelo 1932, 1974; Nettleton 1984; Huffman 1996) but it is also common amongst the Northern Sotho groups found only within the northern-most parts of South Africa (Huffman 1996). However, while the Venda and Shona royal houses incorporated the crocodile as royal insignias, the Hananwa considered the crocodile as the amulet (sethungwa) that protects the initiate against evil during the initiation ritual (van Schalkwyk 1991). Also, the crocodile is said to be the siboko of the initiation school that is presided over by the chief (Franz 1939). The presence of the siboko of the chief (baboon) and the siboko of the initiation school (crocodile) in the same painted panel reinforces the Hananwa soldiers’ unyielding support and reverence of their chief. This is a powerful message that the Hananwa deliberately chose to paint as a re-affirmation of their belief in the power of Kgoši  Maleboho.

The Hanawa’s decision to paint images relating to the atrocities of war was an act that can be considered the mark of ownership or of recapturing their space (Merill & Hack 2013). All these images are an expression of their belief in protecting their people, chief and land from foreign invaders. But it is the presence of the koma that demonstrates the incorporation of traditional symbols that emphasises their part as the soldiers of the koma.

Conclusion: A Threatened Masculinity

To the Hananwa soldiers, painting the koma was an act of promoting their belief in the sacred lessons of manhood, thereby protecting their traditional masculinity. Before initiation, Hananwa boys are influenced by many interpretations of maleness through participation in society. They are presented with a set of cultural ideals that define specific roles, values and expectations for and of men. During boyhood, ideas and practices that define manhood are continuously redefined due to current cultural perceptions and close association with the female domain. The construction of male identity is in a constant state of negotiation between these competing ideas of masculinity (Mager 1998). Through ritual participation, male identity is clearly articulated, as the act of initiation serves to stabilise the gendering process. Male initiation is essentially the ritual of ‘making a man’.

The ideal for pre-colonial Hananwa masculinity was essentially a hegemonic masculinity in that women were given very little political and social power. This form of masculinity was clearly distinguishable from subordinate masculinities as it was considered to embody the most honourable values of being a man. All other masculinities existed in comparison to it but only initiation served to bestow this form of dominant masculinity. As a result the koma motif embodied the various cultural elements in an expression of this dominant masculinity.

The earlier phase of the rock art consists of dominant masculine images. The animal imagery is represented by giraffe, elephant, hyena, zebra, ostrich, rhinoceros and crocodile (see Fig. 2). Although many aspects of Northern Sotho boys’ initiation still remains a secret, we do know that these animals featured prominently in initiation ceremonies (Eastwood & Eastwood 2006). The animals are imbued with powerfully masculine symbolism, so much so that women and uninitiated men are prohibited from seeing the images. In its representation as a crocodile, the koma was the ultimate symbol of an ideal or dominant masculinity.

Given that masculinities are dynamic, socially-dependent and self-dependant, the changing political situation in South Africa during the advent of the nineteenth century meant that this idea of dominant African masculinity was being renegotiated (Morrell 1998). The encroachment of white settlers threatened the existing definitions of masculinity among the Hananwa. They were gradually introduced to western culture in the form of trading, missionary influence and migrant labour (Makhura 1997). Labour migrations intensified during the 1880s and served as a good financial incentive for the Hananwa (Kriel 2004). Hananwa men served as migrant labourers on farms and had contact with white miners during their employment in the Kimberley and Witwatersrand mines (Makhura 1997). It is also highly likely that the Hananwa miners joined forces with white miners during the first major strike against Kimberley diamond mining magnates in 1884 (Beittel 1995). The sharing of common spaces would have given the Hananwa a glimpse into the white settler world-view but may have also heightened their awareness of their vast cultural differences. They were able to attain western merchandise, specifically guns and ammunition, causing the traditional Hananwa lifestyle to be significantly changed.

During the nineteenth century Christianity was an important challenge to African hegemonic masculinity (Morrell 1998). The growing influence of the Lutheran and Wesleyan missionary stations in the Blouberg area meant that the Hananwa were introduced to a religion that was in direct conflict with their traditional customs and beliefs. The impact of missionaries was immense because they lived amongst the Hananwa and were determined to spread Christianity. The missionary Reverend Christopher Sonntag referred to the Hananwa chieftainship as “heathen” and “Satan’s strongest bulwark” (Sonntag 1983: 29). It is therefore apparent that the missionaries were adamant about eradicating traditional values.

To the Hananwa, the white settlers in the Makgabeng and those encountered during migrant labour, shared the same mindset. These settlers considered darker-skinned people to be inferior and wanted them to be subservient (Makhura 1997). Hananwa masculinity was now understood in relation to colonialism, making racial difference a fundamental factor.

The koma can be seen as a symbol of an indigenous knowledge system that was being threatened by colonialism. In their attempt to impose their rules of governing on the Hananwa, the Boer was seen as an enemy preparing to decimate the existing social formations that had their origins in an ancient knowledge system. The rock art relating to the Boer-Hananwa War demonstrates a new perception of the koma, while struggling to articulate a changing definition of Hananwa masculinity. The depiction of Boer soldiers adopting the hands-on-the-hip posture is a powerful symbol of the colonial threat to their traditional masculinity.  The introduction of modern masculine symbols such as trains, guns and men on horseback replaces the traditional animal imagery that dominated Northern Sotho rock art.

The socially constructed nature of masculinity means that every generation creates its own version, while initiation symbols bestow the continuity of core values (Moodley 2010). The ritual act of boys’ initiation creates and preserves a collective masculine identity. The image of the koma affirms the sacredness of the customary practice of initiation and demonstrates the initiated man’s commitment to the values of the ritual. Seeing this image painted on the rocks honoured the Hananwa soldiers by intensifying awareness of the sacred aspect of their struggle because they were fighting to preserve their way of life and spiritual beliefs.


I thank Benjamin Smith and the late Edward Eastwood for inspiring me to do research in the Makgabeng Plateau. I also thank the Rock Art Research Institute at University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) for use of images; and Jens Kriek, Myra Gohodzi and Jonas Tlouamma for assistance during fieldwork. I am grateful for the useful comments from the reviewers, Benjamin Smith (University of Western Australia, Perth) and Lize Kriel (University of Pretoria). Special thanks to Jens Kriek for his continued support and encouragement.


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[1] The term Bantu-speakers or Bantu-speaking is a linguistic classification. I use these terms without any derogatory connotations.

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