Visual Symbols of Self: South Sotho Arts and Initiation

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

After leaving the initiation lodge (mophatô) and prior to returning home, South Sotho initiates are met by their male relatives who present them with new blankets (kobo).  Free State, South Africa, January 2010. Photo by David M. M. Riep.

Upon their return to the public sphere, South Sotho male initiates continue to rely on the visual arts to indicate a change in their social status. This is shown not only through the use of ochre, but also through the gift of a new blanket. While it was originally a Western invention, the "Basotho" blanket has taken on a life of its own, becoming the visual symbol of South Sotho culture and identity. While a number of European manufacturers were designing and producing blankets for the South Sotho market by the end of the 19th century, Frasers Limited took a leading role, and was the first to design blankets that complied with Sesotho social stratification, developing specific patterns for chiefs, women, and initiates. As such, the "Basotho" blanket maintains a very distinctive look, and includes designs that have remained unchanged for decades. In regards to initiation, each young man typically brings an old blanket with him to the mophatô at the outset of the process. This old blanket is used throughout lebollô, until the young men return to the village. On the final day at the mophatô, the lodge itself is burned, along with the physical belongings of each initiate. By incinerating their old blankets, which were used by the young men throughout their youth, the initiates are essentially ending their childhood, and emerging as newly forged young men. Upon their journey back to the village, the initiates are met by their male relatives who wrap them in new blankets, symbolizing their transition to adulthood.