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June 2011

University of Stellenbosch Museum, South Africa

surrounding the town of Stellenbosch. During my visit to Cape Town last year, I confess to sipping a glass or two of fine Stellenbosch area wine, but I also wanted to see what the town had to offer in African culture. On Ryneveld Street I found the University of Stellenbosch Museum, which holds the university’s irreplaceable collection of African anthropological artefacts.


The museum building itself has an interesting past. From 1907 to 1986 it was the Bloemhof Girls’ School, founded in the late 1800s by an American woman teacher from Mt. Holyoke, Massachusetts. The university bought the building in 1987 and renovated it to house its permanent art, cultural history and anthropology collections.

Entrance to the main building of the University of Stellenbosch Museum, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Africa, has spears, arrows, bows and male and female clothing made from animal skins. The musical instrument shown is from northeastern Namibia, played by girls and young women.


Carved from a soft wood and sealed with beeswax, the resonator has seven wooden staves pegged into one end, with twisted sinew strings attached to the rim. The strings are plucked for sound, and the staves are turned left and right for accurate tuning.

In another case the diversity of Southern African utility ceramics is displayed. This includes, among others, Northern Sotho pottery, which represents a very distinctive ceramic tradition. Common characteristics are an edge around the rim; the polychromatic use of terracotta, ochre and graphite; engraved motifs and the application of a white pigment to accentuate the etched lines.

Boat-shaped Bushman

Northern Sotho food-pot (left) and beaker (right)

male initiation costume. A distinct part of some of the Eastern Cape tribal groups’ initiation rite is called umtshilo, which are public dances at the close of the initiate’s isolation phase. The dances, although no longer performed, consist of symbolic miming, and the costume helps to animate the movements and to mask the dancers. The costume has a long skirt, which winds around the waist, a fringed facial mask and a headdress with one or two long feelers.


he collection from the Bushmen, the hunter-gathers from Southern

The many objects in the anthropology rooms certainly reflect a Southern African bias—including the Southern African peoples such as the Nguni, Sotho, Venda, Shona, Ovambo and Bushmen—but other areas of Africa are represented, especially the Tiv from Nigeria and the Chewa from Zambia. Much of the beaded, colourful clothing on display is from the Nguni tribal groups: beautifully designed Xhosa head cloths and skirts and Thembu girdles, necklaces and anklets for both men and women, made from blue, red and white beads. Zulu clothing shows the use of darker-coloured beads—vibrant greens and azure.

musical instrument

The Venda wooden divination vessel, with carved symbols, also caught my eye. Beeswax and a cowrie shell are used to enclose consecrating ritual substances in the cavity in the bowl’s centre. After water is poured in, and a few dried seeds added, the diviner gives his interpretation according to wh e r e t h e seeds drift in relation to the symbols o n t h e bottom and the rim.

ne of my favourite objects in the anthropology section is a palm-frond

isitors to the Western Cape region of South Africa often find themselves tempted by the picturesque wineries, with their distinctive Cape Dutch architecture,

Venda divination bowl, c. 1930, about 40cm in diameter

by South African artists and furniture and personal possessions from former Prime Minister D.F. Malan, who was chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch from 1941 to 1959.

T Patricia Hilton-Johnson, Friend

he rest of the museum collection is also worth a look: some modern art, work

Male initiates performing umtshilo. (Photo: Alice Mertens, 1972)

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