Arab and Phoenician traders first dazzled Africa with their glass beads. Then came the colonists in the form of Portugal, France, Germany and Britain – and the beads they brought were welcomed, especially by the Xhosa people. Today, Xhosa beadwork carries special significance – and is a crucial part of Xhosa culture.

Did you know?

Special Xhosa beadwork is reserved for both the bride and the groom at traditional weddings.

The first time that the world really got to see the power and significance of Xhosa beadwork was in 1962, when anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela stood up at the Old Synagogue in Pretoria for sentencing in a trial he was involved in.

Mandela – who was to become South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994 – would normally have appeared in a dapper business suit. On that day he wore the beads of his royal lineage – the Thembu royal family.

Phoenician and Arab traders had been filtering glass beads throughout Africa for centuries, but it was in the early 1800s that the newly arrived British settlers introduced the beads to the Xhosa as barter goods.

There is also the incredibly romantic (But unsubstantiated) notion that ruby-red Indian beads from ancient Arab trading dhows washed up on the Wild Coast beaches of the Eastern Cape and were pounced on by locals.

As with the wildly popular shweshwe fabric, the imported glass beads were soon embraced into the Xhosa culture with gusto. They went on to form part of the visual messaging system that communicated the various stages of a Xhosa woman’s life.

Favouring white glass beads, Xhosa patterns adorn headdresses, necks and waists.

But they are not limited to the women. You’ll find intricate bead patterns on male and female Xhosa pipes – it is said the beadwork keeps the pipe cool.

South Africa has a number of beading projects, and most of them do effective work in combating poverty in rural and urban areas.

Monkeybiz Bead Project, based in the Bo-Kaap area of Cape Town, is such a co-operative. The Monkeybiz crafters – many of them Xhosa beadworkers – come from the townships in the area.

They work from their homes and their products are marketed globally by the Monkeybiz initiative.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Monkeybiz Bead Project
Tel: +27 (0)21 426 0145
Email: monkeybiz@monkeybiz.co.za

Pondo People (Port St Johns)
Tel: +27 (0)47 564 1274

How to get here

You can buy your Xhosa beads online from the website of the Monkeybiz Bead Project in Cape Town, or you can go on a road trip to a Wild Coast town like Port St Johns and stop off at Pondo People for a 'bead-buying spree' (see details below).

Around the area

Hiking trips around the Wild Coast; sampling the after-dark options of Port St Johns; going north to the Mkambati Nature Reserve.

Tours to do

There are many Wild Coast tours operating out of Port St Johns. Check the local website.

What will it cost

Xhosa beadwork is relatively inexpensive and well worth it. It is mostly very good quality.

Where to stay

Check the Port St Johns information website for accommodation options. There is everything from backpacking options to guest houses to family resorts.

Best buys

Beaded necklaces, bags, Xhosa pipes, dresses and belts.