The hippo is Africa’s most dangerous mammal. When I first learned this it went against everything I’d learned about hippos and seen from the docile animals in captivity. Hippos are dangerous because they are highly territorial and do not want humans in their water territory. As you can see from this video, they move a lot faster than you’d first imagine [click here for video]. It makes sense that South Africans would rename the Casspir, a hippo.
These vehicles were used by the South African police force to maintain their military hold over non-white South Africans during the Apartheid regime. The casspirs were built are mine resistant vehicles and holds a total of 12 people (two crew members and 10 officers in the back) with remote operated gun turrets. As Trevor Noah writes in Born a Crime, the townships were military occupied zones build to control the population.
Now this machine that represents control, oppression, and death has been beaded in traditional Zulu style beads by artist Ralph Ziman. The Zulu culture uses beads to communicate, tell stories, and pass on their cultural heritage [click here to learn more]. This piece called “Afrika Four Seven” is on display in front of the South African National Gallery. This hippo is covered with 50 million glass beads that were all hand-threaded and then affixed to the vehicle. The level of detail is absolutely stunning as you walk around the piece and see that every inch that could be beaded was.
There’s a public art piece in Maboneng that this reminded me of a bit. Its a portrait of one of the early colonizers of South Africa. He’s painted very traditionally, in period clothes/hair, but if you look below the collar you can see that current South Africa is about to consume him. Our guide told us that “he was now being colonized by South Africa.” I think the same thing is happening to the hippo here. The traditional Zulu bead work has consumed this vehicle and reclaimed it for South Africa by black South African culture.