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Stamp Programme 2013

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Symbols of South African cultures

Text by Louise van Niekerk
Technical Specifications:

Stamp issue date: 20 September 2013
Photographs: Hein Botha
Perforation size: 38 x 28.88mm
Stamp sheet size: 210 x 77.76mm
Gauge: 13 3/4 x 13 1/4
Paper: Yellow Green Phosphor coated Litho stamp paper, 102grms
Gum: PVA gum
Quantity printed: 50,000 sheets of 10 stamps
Colour: CMYK
Printing process: Offset Lithography
Printed by: Joh. Enschedé Stamps B.V., The Netherlands

South Africa has a rich and diverse cultural history that goes back thousands of years. Throughout the years, the different cultural groups have communicated their traditions, beliefs and social customs in a variety of forms such as religious objects, utensils, artefacts, clothing and accessories. Many of these have remained intact to tell their stories to this day. On 20 September, the South African Post Office will issue a set of 10 stamps featuring some of these fascinating historical symbols.

Every object created by one of South Africa’s cultural groups conveys a message that tells us something about the culture they represent. All of these objects are decorated with certain patterns and colours, which have a specific meaning and are unique to South Africa.

Every object created by one of South Africa’s cultural groups conveys a message that tells us something about the culture they represent. All of these objects are decorated with certain patterns and colours, which have a specific meaning and are unique to South Africa.

According to Dr Johnny van Schalkwyk, anthropologist at Ditsong: National Museum of Cultural History in Pretoria, those symbols or patterns work together with the object to tell their own story. “If you should take those away from the object, it will not have the same meaning,” says Dr Van Schalkwyk, who assisted in choosing the objects depicted on the stamps and provided information about them. They were photographed by Hein Botha.

The Blombos ochre: Earliest symbolic design in South Africa, Henshilwood, Witwatersrand & Bergen Universities.
The oldest symbol in South Africa – nearly 75 000 years old – was found in the Blombos Cave on the southern Cape coast. Unearthed by Professor Chris Henshilwood in 2000, this cross-hatched engraving represents evidence of the earliest symbolic behaviour of human beings.

Rhino engraving: Symbol of rain and abundance, Ditsong : National Museum of Cultural History, Pretoria.
Rhino engravings occur frequently at rock art sites in South Africa and significantly at Wildebeestkuil near Kimberley. For early hunter-gatherers, the rhino was associated with rain-making by symbolically harnessing it and ‘leading” it in the sky to the place where rain was required.

Starburst engraving: Symbol associated with woman-hood, McGregor Museum, Kimberley.
A wealth of rock engravings was made on glacially smoothed rocks in the bed of the Gumaap, now called the Riet River, at Driekopseiland, in Later Stone Age times. They have been subject to research by various visitors including archaeologists and rock art specialists.

Blombos Nassarius kraussianus shell beads: Oldest symbolic ornaments in South Africa, Henshilwood, Witwatersrand & Bergen Universities.
These intentionally bored estuarine shell beads are 75 000 years old and represent the earliest and oldest evidence yet to be found for ornamentation in southern Africa. Worn around the human body, they communicated a message about the wearer to viewers – perhaps about age or status.

Amasumpa: Headrest with patterns of wealth, Ditsong : National Museum of Cultural History, Pretoria.
Applied, carved or cast patterns of rows of raised geometric bosses called amasumpa (from the word for warts in isiZulu) were used to decorate personal and domestic objects in the Zulu Kingdom at least since the early 19th century. This pattern is believed to have symbolised wealth.

Nwana: Symbol of fertility, McGregor Museum, Kimberley.
A common form of traditional figure representation in South Africa is the child figure. Used mainly by young women as they reached puberty or before marriage, the figures confirmed the young woman’s preparation for her role in marriage.

Ngwenya: Crocodile in his pool, a symbol of royalty, Groote Schuur, Cape Town, collected for Cecil Rhodes.
Sacred objects (dzingoma) of the Venda people include the crocodile motif (ngwenya) signifying the power of the chief in his court, like the crocodile in the centre of his pool. Divining bowls (ndilo) were made up until the end of the 19th century for traditional healers in the courts of Venda kings and were used in cases involving death by witchcraft.

Ukhamba: Ceremonial beer container, a symbol of unity, McGregor Museum, Kimberley.
A low-fired beer pot, burnished or decorated with engraved patterns or applied bosses symbolises the communal act of sharing traditional beer made from sorghum. Beer forms an essential part of offerings and sacrifices to the ancestral spirits.

Litshobamhlope: Ritual whisk in white, symbol of divine illumination, Ditsong : National Museum of Cultural History, Pretoria. Ritual specialists called amagqirhas in the Eastern Cape bedecked themselves in white beadwork, the colour of divine illumination that identifies their special status to the community. White also identifies others in rituals associated with important stages of life.

Phalaphala: Horn, an ancient symbol of communication, Ditsong : National Museum of Cultural History, Pretoria.
The horn, or phalaphala, is a music instrument that was used only on special occasions, such as when the chief announced a pitso or tribal meeting, when danger threatened the community or during rituals such as rainmaking ceremonies.

Commemorative covers:
The two commemorative covers depict a ceremonial beer container (ukhamba) from the Ditsong : National Museum of Cultural History in Pretoria  and a dancing mace of the Ndeble respectively, from the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. The dancing mace is a ritual symbol of a mother’s power. It has been adapted into a symbol of mid-20th century rural communication - the telephone pole (e’telefon).

Information provided by:

Carol Kaufmann, Curator, Iziko Museum and Consultant specialist - African art, beadwork and South African visual culture.
Dr Johnny van Schalkwyk, Anthropologist, Ditsong: National Museum of Cultural History, Pretoria.

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