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‘Sotho-Tswana’ Difala vessels in selected South African museums: challenges in descriptions and catalogues.

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This thesis focuses on specific rare examples of Sotho-Tswana indigenous vessels, known as Difala (‘granary vessels’ made of dung), in selected South African museums, with the aim to, firstly, contextualise the vessels in their historical and cultural background, including the identification of their past usage and their perceived symbolic meanings, and, secondly, analyse the ideological and conceptual dimensions of current museum practices regarding local material culture and, thus, create the basis for formulating a contextually more relevant form of cataloguing indigenous artefacts. Thereto, I have foregrounded information needed to develop an understanding of these ‘granary’ vessels. There is currently great global interest in the decolonisation of museums. I have examined some museum practices currently prevalent in South African local museums and considered the challenges these institutions face in cataloguing African collections. I further explored the dynamic pottery traditions existing for the purpose of comparing the production of Difala vessels with clay pottery making in past and present in the region of my study. Anthropological studies, as part of major academic discourse, have lent support to my arguments. The study makes use of a variety of illustrative materials, seminal literature on material culture, archival records, maps and photographs taken specifically for the purpose of this research. Qualitative methodology was applied to the gathering of data. Postcolonial theory underpins my critique of the museum cataloguing methods and of the colonial records I encountered in my study. The socio-historical and physiographic contexts that generated the production of undocumented Sotho-Tswana vessels were surveyed. The concept of chaîne opératoire has been applied in the framework of the study to consider produced artefacts. Colonial systems have shaped the ways in which people utilise natural resources, including the encouragement to exploit them. This position is problematic in view of climate change and the need for sustainable land use. The enormous gaps in the information available in local heritage institutions did pose challenges in the analysing of particular objects and the compilation of systematic catalogues. I found that, institutionally, South African museums will turn out to be undecolonisable if the artefacts collected in the past and housed in these institutions cannot be decolonised. I propose culturally more relevant models of descriptive cataloguing, that are possibly especially applicable to cover Difala ‘granary’ vessels in all their aspects.


Doctor of Philosophy in Art History. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, 2019.