A peek at the current changes in dress of the Zulu people of Southern Africa. part 1
After the year 2000, Chinese flocked into post- apartheid South Africa to create a new life. Most came to Johannesburg, the city of Gold. Other immigrants arrived from parts of Africa, Pakistan, Somalia, even Afghanistan. This influx was met with a mixed response by locals. A Johannesburg taxi driver had this to say “When the borders became porous after 2000, there was too much celebrating and toy-toying and not enough concentrating on the priorities that matter”. Other more vociferous complaints, verging on Xenophobia are well documented.
However, relocating to Johannesburg, is not for the faint hearted, as immigrants will testify. This gritty city is the global village to many with the same aim, seeking to capitalize on creative opportunities in an environment with high unemployment. But, there were a few gaps in the market. Concurrent to this influx, the South African textile industry was in a depleted and limping condition, and this area was targeted by Chinese laymen as the most likely avenue to generate income.
Malls were erected sponsored by the Chinese government. The prolific sweat shops of Shanghai soon provided the impetus to tantalize and conquer the S.A market with shiny lingerie, nylon wigs and fashion titbits generating a brisk trade. Another opportunity followed from this initial start-up, devolving from an unlikely source and attesting to the persistent genius of these entrepreneurs:
A large population of indigenous migrant labour from the rural areas of South Africa, especially Kwa-Zulu Natal, also live in Johannesburg, adapting to life in two worlds: an older rural and a new urban experience. Boundaries between the two shift constantly, negotiated by means of smartphones and changing etiquette. Within this context, urbanites still celebrate births, weddings and funerals as occasions steeped in traditional heritage. These events demand the appropriate dress, and the right thing can be tricky to obtain in the urban area.
Here, Chinese clothing manufactures captured a niche market, by devising their own version of Zulu traditional wear, in a range of colours, for men and women, stitched in Beijing and selling well in Johannesburg. Nigerian tailors, living in Johannesburg followed suit. The results are equivalent of takeaway in heritage clothing. Advantages are that these new outfits clearly fulfil a need and work for urbanized folk who are not fussy about aesthetics and want something convenient and affordable.
above: A Zulu costume, made by Nigerians, skirt inspired originally from beaded apparel found in the Bergville area, Drakensburg.
But what does the concept traditional Zulu clothing mean now? How is this different from last century when garment designs and colours of bead work were dictated by tribal elders. They were also based on changeable variables such as: history, clan, religious, political affiliations or personal innovation, many now fallen away, and does change in the form of foreign intervention matter?
In a recent newspaper, depicting Zulu traditional dance celebrations, a photograph caption states that 1200 men wearing attire of hides and Chinese manufactured spotted capes designed by conservationists to reduce demand for the real thing were evident at the celebration. The journalist fails to reflect on how this “new” clothing hinges on cultural appropriation or who in fact benefits commercially from making the revised Zulu attire. The irony for wildlife lovers, is that the Chinese make costumes from fake skin under the guise of conservation, while in South Africa, the devastation of lions and rhinos results from catering to their very whims.
For some, notions of cultural nostalgia are considered irrelevant in the digital era. Others suggest that if one wants a heritage item, a cell phone pic suffices. In Leo Gura’s , 2016 “A rant about culture”, He argues that among other things, culture limits your consciousness. This polemic reasoning, may work for some, but will it work for local conditions celebrating eleven diverse cultures and languages?
Beautiful examples of Zulu material culture exist in Cape Town, at W.A.M gallery in Johannesburg, and Phansi Museum in Durban. These items display imagination, creativity and skill, echoing holistic notions of home. One example is the symbolic Zulu isidwaba (married womens leather skirt) that harks of stability and nurture.
Recent knock-offs use short concertina pleated skirts in a range of garish colours. Strings of large plastic beads replace the indigenous small bead work pieces where humour, fun and style shone through.
In a sense cultural appropriation without sensitivity to the history or traditions of others, highlights the inevitable process of change to urbanization. Fashion curator, Margo Snoyman notes that the Chinese have catered to a mass market, disseminating the “new aesthetic” traditional clothing back into the rural areas and questions how this will impact on future generations. This easy acquisition method, may render the current process of an indigenous transmission of ideas and historic beading techniques passed down the generations, as being too cumbersome.
The complexity of the question regarding aesthetics, roots and heritage vs the lure of an easy substitute is highlighted by people like Sindile Dokolo who attempts to repatriate lost heritage to Africa and thereby raise an awareness of the indigenous skill, beauty and creative expression that abounds on this continent.
Some might propose that the new Chinese costume could inspire local contemporary fashion designers, as beauty often evolves from cross cultural expression. But on further reflection those who have risen to prominence like Laduma of maXhosa, have come from an entrenched understanding of historic iconography and culture, not from current pastiche-like trends.
A disadvantage of the china city bought stuff is shoddy workmanship and inferior quality. Besides describing some garments, this appellation also applies to beads. After a little usage, some imported beads with opalescent skins slough them off, revealing a drab face underneath. As beads are a commodity South African women are really familiar with and have excelled at working with for centuries, inferior quality led to adopting the phrase “fong-kong” for things substandard. Perhaps this popular term, now widely used, is part of the natural checks and balances or resistance to what some may perceive as cultural hijacking.
Leo Gura’s “A rant about culture”, 7/11/2016
The Star. 30/01/2017: (page 4). Photograph called “Conserving tradition”. Johannesburg, South Africa
Roses taxi driver, Johannesburg, interviewed on 14/11/2016, Johannesburg, South Africa
Snoyman, M. Fashion curator, interviewed on 25/12/2016, Johannesburg, South Africa