The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

by David M. M. Riep
Colorado State University, Fort Collins

Morena E Moholo Lekunutu Cavendish Mota, Paramount Chief of Batlôkwa ba Mota pictured with the sebôkô of the Batlôkwa culture, the leopard or wild cat. Free State, South Africa, April 2010. Photo by David M. M. Riep.


While scholars have acknowledged the existence of dibôkô for centuries, their socio-religious role lies well beyond animism and can only be fully understood within the guise of Sotho-Tswana socio-religious systems. Generally speaking, dibôkô can be defined as the historical marker of a divergent Sotho-speaking lineage whose symbol was selected by its founder, and to whom all members can putatively trace their ancestry. For example, the Batlôkwa are represented by the wild cat, while the Bakwëna are represented by the crocodile. The practical application of dibôkô within Sotho-Tswana society highlights its importance to both the individual and cultural unit, and its role in socio-religious systems is given emphasis throughout daily life. Furthermore, one’s sebôkô provides a direct link with badimo,who literally sustain life, and must be shown proper respect to ensure success and wellbeing. When turning to the visual arts, one finds visual evidence supporting the idea that the various Sotho-speaking cultures maintain their own group of symbols that express specific group identity and genealogical heritage. Such visual indicators allow observers to identify expressions of both broad political affiliation and specific clan-based (dibôkô) identity.