An eclectic blog about beads, beading and beyond

Monday, July 11, 2011

Xhosa beadwork: symbols of defiance and living cultures

Zulu, Ndebele, and Xhosa people’s of South Africa each create jewelry using beads but each has its own distinctive cultural meanings and forms. The Xhosa speaking people of the Eastern Cape (South Africa) are currently the second largest language group in South Africa and their beadwork survives today despite past attempts by some missionaries to stop it and shifting traditions within the Xhosa culture in current times. Traditionally, in Xhosa culture a person’s social status and identity could be read through their beadwork. Social meanings were created through the use of patterns and colour to mark a person’s age, gender, marital status, social role and social rank.

White in Xhosa beadwork is said to be associated with spiritual purity, red with royality, yellow fertility and green new life. Patterns combine colour with motifs such as diamonds, quadrangles, chevrons, circles and parallel lines to create meanings and messages. There are efforts to keep traditional Xhosa beadwork traditions alive in current times with younger Xhosa people contributing to this through using traditional beadwork in weddings and other rituals in (see Loewe, 2011). Thankfully, the colonial era when wearing beadwork was deemed ‘un-Christian’ has passed. Thankfully also past are times when some missionaries bartered with access to literacy to discourage the Xhosa from wearing their beadwork and some Xhosa traded with ivory to buy seed beads from British settlers.

Whilst Xhosa beadwork has a long history with beads made from the seed of the coral tree, shells, bone or ivory, claws and teeth, the use of glass seed beads in Xhosa beadwork is linked to the 1820s when seed beads were imported into South Africa by the British from Venice in large quantities as a desirable trade item. So desirable were the seed beads that one source records the Xhosa bringing 434 pounds of ivory to a trade fair in the hope of trading it for seed beads (Crabtree and Stallebrass, 2002) and one cow was equivalent to one pound of seed beads.

Whilst contemporary Xhosa beadwork is most often created using size 8/0 beads historically a wider range of seed bead sizes were used. Methods of Xhosa beadwork include a form of bead embroidery where beads are stitched onto animal skins and a form of netting used to create amazing open weave beaded collars. (See photo of beaded Xhosa collar - left and close up above right)

One of the most famous Xhosa beaded collars is that worn by the Xhosa speaking former South African president Nelson Mandela at his trial in the early 1960s. In a statement of defiance and pride for his royal Xhosa ancestry he wore traditional Xhosa dress suitable for his royal lineage that included a collar of Xhosa beads which you can see in the photo (right). His Xhosa clan name is Madiba and when in South Africa recently I was told that local people refer to Mandela as Madiba as a sign of respect and affection.

You can also link here to a more recent photo (1994) of Mandela in Xhosa beads ( There are many other notable Xhosa people but one of the best known musicians is Miram Makeeba who has recorded a well-known Xhosa wedding song called "Qongqongthwane", under the name "Click Song #1"

Loewe and Moon (2011) argue that whilst Xhosa beading is still alive those who do the beading earn very little (between Rand 1000 – Rand 3000 per month) (NB: There are approximately 7 Rand to 1 US or AUS dollar) and most of those earnings are from local people rather than tourists. The fact that beadwork has survived the effects of colonisation and their rarity due to sanctions during apartheid and that they acted as a point of defiance during apartheid is a mark of the great determination and courage of the Xhosa people in South Africa and of the power of beadwork to carry meaning in our lives.


1 comment:

AsteropeBC said...

Very interesting - I've learned something new today!

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