Women’s Beadwork in South Africa: Trade Not Aid

16 Jul

Noyiso of MonkeyBiz with a beaded model she made of a Heinz bottle

by Yuwii Aguele

Having attempted to make an income as a domestic worker and a farm labourer, 40 year old Noloyiso Maphakathi’s life was changed for the better when she was asked to join Monkey Biz. Like many other non-profit organisations in South Africa, MonkeyBiz provides employment and empowers disadvantaged women through the mediums of beading and wirework.

The art of beadwork roughly originated in the 1850s amongst the Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele tribes in South Africa. Primarily used as a way to denote marital status and wealth, beading has now become more of a passion, art and a means of preserving South Africa’s heritage. In some ways, it has contributed to the cultural image of the country as South Africa’s beadwork is internationally acknowledged.

Monkeybiz provides 450 women with materials such as vibrantly coloured glass beads enabling each beadwork artist to create her own one-off pieces, ranging from fascinating jewellery to extravagant dolls. Some women are provided with beading classes, some form clubs which they share techniques and ideas while others simply learnt the art of beading from mothers and grandmothers.

Organisations such as be Thembanathi (www.thembanathi.orl) enforce the concept of ‘trade not aid’. Careful not to make the women dependant on the organisation, Thembanathi ensures that the women are trained and helped on the road to becoming entrepreneurs in their own right enabling them to financially support themselves and their families. Certain organisations work on a basis of payments while others organisations only collect a commission off the profit of their women’s work for the advertising, exporting and selling. These organisations have contributed to the reduction of unemployment in South Africa and have made their women the less dependent on the government for money and more like the breadwinners of their families.

Fashion-wise, beaded dresses (an example is a beautiful gown designed and made by Zodwa Mahlangu) are well-received in the global market as buyers love the bright colours, unusual patterns and are intrigued by the technique and intricate use the beads itself.

Aside from helping the development in the lives of underprivileged South African women in the rural areas, some non-profit organisations manage to still join the continuing fight against HIV/Aids which is most commonly found in South Africa. Beaded Hope financially supports Bophelong Orphanage which is home to several children living with HIV/Aids.

The joy the women get from having their art appreciated both internationally and locally, makes beading not only a passion and a way to make an income but also a way which gains the women a new kind of respect amongst the community as true local artists, providing beads of hope for South Africa’s future.

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