Comments about current changes in dress, part 2

The journey of these cloths from manufacture to internment is unique in Africa. Redefining our perceptions of ritual items and their purpose.

The word “weaving” in South Africa can generally be associated with the indigenous production of grass baskets, beer strainers and mats, rather than the manufacture of fabric.  Although examples of cotton fabric woven on single heddle ground looms occurred amongst the Venda people in the Limpopo area and along the border of Mozambique in the late 1800s, this craft was possibly introduced due to Arab trade down the East coast, rather than being an entrenched tradition. Cotton weaving industries generally develop amongst people with sedentary agrarian lifestyles, not those primarily focused on animal husbandry, so predictably by the 1930s, the understanding of weaving technology in the Eastern region of South Africa slowly dissipated.

Indigenous people however were adept at styling and working leather into short garments ideally suited for the heat and also cloaks of different dimensions. Stitched, occasionally beaded or with shaved patterns incorporating animal hair, some of these extraordinary examples of craftsmanship were recorded in the photographs taken by Alfred Duggan-Cronin from 1928 – 1950s. These photographs are debatable due to current interpretation, however they are one of the earliest comprehensive documents of material culture that exist.

The significance of bovine leather and the ideologies associated with cattle culture are deeply rooted in all aspect of Nguni life.  Their cattle, a hybrid between the Bos Indus and Bos Taurus breed, are arguably the most beautiful of all varieties, with countless poetic phrases in the Zulu language given to differentiating the subtle colour, tonal variations and patterns on their skins[1]. Cattle were associated with ancestor rites where belief systems determine their intermediary status between ancestors and man. They were immortalized in oral history through proverbs, myths and songs and are still used today in bride price negotiations.

Within the frame work of this context, cattle were classed as domesticated beasts, belonging to the socialized arena of the homestead with their leather being the chosen material for garments worn by laymen. In contrast, leather from wild animals skins indicative of the bush, or untamed regions, were initially worn by shamans or traditional healers, who harvested these skins for the potency, power and the magic that these skins afforded them.  However, certain skins had other connotations: leopard skin symbolized prestige and cunning and was worn by chiefs and dignitaries for the power and majesty that this conveyed to the viewer.

By the late 1940s, traditional healers sought a more sanitary version of these wild skins – something that was equally effective but washable, didn’t attract pests, or vermin or contravened the draconian fauna and flora anti-poaching laws gaining momentum with the conservation of game, at this time.

The conversion from the real skin to a representative fabric image, was a managed process, of production and marketing developed through the discourse of healers with entrepreneurs in the Minty and Patel trading stores in Eastern Mpumalanga, Swaziland and the border of Mozambique in the early part of the 20th century. Lengths of printed cloth, similar to the Kenyan Kangas, were developed to fulfil the needs of traditional healers, especially those with Swazi ancestors. These red, black and white cloths, indicative of the colours most significant to healers, portray an indigenous animal within a central cartouche, situated on a plain field, with borders of geometric patterns. Today this fabric is synonymous with healers practice and found all over South Africa.

When worn wrapped around the waist, these cloths, denote the traditional healers’ occupation, as a form of a sartorial marketing tool. The animals symbolized are pertinent to the wearers practice and the type and motif on the cloth is requested according to Simmons, F. 2010 , by ancestral spirits through the following methods:  

“… demand for particular red, black and white cloths are made, according to healers, verbally during trance or visually through dreams and visions.  

Some may question the fact that tigers also have a place on these cloths. But this is not unusual as an inclusive aspect of the healing tradition accommodates foreign ancestors and their animals. The fifty rand note depicting a lion, in urban vernacular is referred to as a “tiger”. We also have breeding programs for tigers in this country.

In effect by wearing these cloths, traditional healers promote the concept that they can harness the forces of the wild, are empowered by the specific animal’s characteristics and that furthermore, the cloth is a nexus point of communication with the ancestors. The significance of these ritual cloths is compounded when one realises that they are in fact interred with other garments at the time of the healer’s death.  This is similar to the practices of the Merina and Betsileo people of Madagascar as related by John Gillow. 2003: 214.  “They bury not only the shrouds, but also all the traditional cloths belonging to the deceased, so that it is almost impossible to find examples of old cloths on the island”.

Briefly, one might describe these culturally evocative cloths as markers signifying the deep commitment of healers to their spiritual life.  They are layered with meaning and comparatively akin to reflecting the richness of connotations attributed to cloth from Ghana.


The journey of these cloths from point of manufacture to internment is unique in Africa, as they are born as commercial printed items, a commodity used for trade, and undergo ritualization through acquisition and conceptual reinvestment. This is an inverse process of the route usually taken by hand woven cloth or tribal sculpture[2] from humble beginnings to collectors’ shelves.

But since 2012, these cloths and the images on them were appropriated and subverted in a totally different way by Chinese immigrants reprinting and styling them into fashion items such as Jackets, mini-skirts and Kaftans for the urban mass market. These forms of dress show a lot of flesh, the antithesis of the original discreet use of these cloths. How this tributary into the fashion world will impact on ritual life, only time will tell.

Perhaps the refashioning of things is a natural process, part of the liquid human imagination. The recalibrated appeal of these cloths, has found a new market of trendy urbanites, thereby extending our preconceptions of how this fabric is used. Most likely, it is an up- beat reinvention of the tired leopard print and zebra stripe clothing so beloved and worn by fashionistas and tourists to this country. Or,   seen from another perspective, conservationists could ponder at the insensitivity of the choice of this fabric, with these images, in a country of rampant poaching. Are these garments high-brow fashion statements or a lack of mindfulness at this time?


Nguni cattle have been used as content by several contemporary artists working in a variety of media.  These include: Madoda Fani, Clive Sithole,  Joaquim Schonveld, Nikki Swanepoel, Leigh Voight amongst others.


Duggan-Cronin. A. 1928 – 54.The Bantu tribes of South Africa.

Duggan-Cronin Gallery. Egerton rd. Kimberley. South Africa.

Gillow. J. 2003. African Textiles: colour, and creativity across a continent.

[1] These genetic configurations prompted King Shaka to isolate and breed cattle specifically for identifying his regiments by the patterns on their hide shields in the 1800s.

[2] Another example of this process from West Africa is the way the Mammi Wata cult drew the iconography, and physical manifestation of the sculptural form, from a commercially produced Indian print. (See post on Mammy wata).