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AArab 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.
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 his treason trial.
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 discovered by locals.
As with the wildly popular shweshwe fabric, the imported glass beads were soon embraced by the Xhosa people 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, 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.
Another place to find Xhosa beadwork is along the Port St Johns Open Africa Route. Enquire about directions to Pondo People, a beaded clothing boutique and craft gallery just after the Pondoland bridge.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)21 426 0145
Pondo People (Port St Johns Open Africa Route)
Tel: +27 (0)47 564 1274
How to get here
You can buy your Xhosa beads online from Monkeybiz 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).
Things to do
Hiking trips around the Wild Coast; sampling the after-dark options of Port St Johns; going north to the Mkambati Nature Reserve.
Where to stay
Check the Port St Johns website for accommodation options. There is everything from backpacking options to guest houses and family resorts.
What to pack
The weather is generally warm to mild but pack for all seasons. Hiking boots are recommended for trekking.
Beaded necklaces, bags, Xhosa pipes, dresses and belts.