Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Inventing “African Traditions” in South Africa


Many South Africans like to talk about their traditions, and their cultures, as specific to their particular ethno-linguistic group (for example Zulu, Xhosa, or Pedi). Yet many also feel them to be general enough (if they are black South Africans of indigenous African origin) to be considered “African”.1 Many traditions are invoked, in the face of supposedly “western” modernity, as restoring or upholding a sense of a pre-colonial, pre-modern African identity and heritage. Traditionalists claim that their customs are ‘age-old’, and thus authentic. However, such claims are hard to substantiate when subjected to scrutiny under the light of recorded facts, indigenous oral history included. That confronting documented history might shift, in uncomfortable directions, people’s inculcated sense of ownership of the materials and designs that constitute traditional forms, does not, however, excuse ignoring history. One of the South African creative traditions with such a history is beadwork.

In almost every ethnological museum in South Africa, and in the colonial heartlands of the United Kingdom and Europe, there are collections of South African beadwork. Their constituent pieces were made by women who spoke different languages, and the museum staff therefore identified them as “Zulu”, “Xhosa”, “Ndebele”, “Tsonga-Shangane”, “Swazi” or “Sotho”. Sometimes these broad ethno-linguistic divisions are further broken down – for example in the “Xhosa” category, “Mpondo”, “Mpondomise”, “Thembu”, “Gcaleka”, and “Mfengu” (among others) are distinguished from one another – to reflect some of the historico-political nuances hidden by broad ethno-linguistic classification. Similar collections are now housed in some South African art museums, emphasising the aesthetic praxis that beadworking represents rather than its broadly “cultural” use as an identity marker. Together, items in museum collections – mostly invisible, buried in storerooms, but also splashed as images across coffee-table books and online – constitute physical evidence of the beadwork traditions of the region. Their general contemporary invisibility also hides the history of beadwork, the ways in which its traditions were invented, and the vast range of forms involved.2

In African societies in the past materials of many kinds could be strung together to be worn around the body. Such practices of adornment may possibly have started as early as 50000 years ago, when the inhabitants of Blombos Cave in the Cape bored holes through shells, decorated them with ochre and strung them together. Over time, and across the world, humans fashioned beads from stone, clay, bone, shell and other organic materials. Everywhere humans made beads they employed them strung together in modes varying in complexity, primarily to adorn their bodies. Early examples of complex forms attest to this, and include the collars made for members of the nobility in Ancient Egypt.3

People in subSaharan Africa did not make use of the kind of faience (glazed baked clay) used for bead production in Ancient Egypt, and gemstone beads were in limited supply. Small quantities of gold beads found in archaeological excavations at Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Thulamela are undoubtedly of local manufacture. At these sites, large numbers of imported glass beads were also found, indicating that the inhabitants acquired glass beads from at least 800CE onwards. It is almost impossible to establish what kinds of body adornment the peoples of these zimbabwe-style civilizations made with the glass beads, but the likelihood is that they were generally reserved for members of the upper classes. This was certainly the case with the blue and green tubular glass beads, called ‘beads of water’ (vhulungu vha madi) worn in bunched strings by members of Venda, Lobedu and some North-Sotho royal families.4 Similarly, only members of the favoured groups by the ruler’s decree in Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom (ca 1800 CE) were allowed to have bead adornments.5 The production of numerous complex forms of beadwork, employing different stitches and techniques (including looms, but not in South Africa) was possible on an expansive scale only with large quantities of glass beads which were consistent in size and colour. By the time Shaka imposed his sumptuary laws against the general use of beads, glass seed beads were already more widely available.


Artist Unrecorded, Zulu.  (Belt). Thread, glass seed beads, string. 13 x 71 cm. Late 19th C. Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum). Artist Unrecorded, Zulu.  (Belt). Thread, glass seed beads, string. 13 x 71 cm. Late 19th C. Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum).


Travelling from Europe to Africa, bead traders took three routes: one across the Sahara using pack animal transport, the second down the East coast on small Arab vessels, and the third, from the 14th century onwards, down the African West coast and round to the East coast on larger European boats. Not only was it much easier to transport large numbers of glass beads on the latter, but once cargoes were landed in Southern African ports they were transported, from the early 1800s, by ox-wagons into the interior.6 Not only traders, but also missionaries, increased distribution of glass beads. The increasing numbers of black Africans pressed into wage-labour from the 1850s onwards, particularly in Natal, formed a ready market for these items, especially in those spaces where sumptuary laws were not in force. It is thus to the beginning of the 19th century that one has to look to find the start of the traditions of beadwork that South Africans like to think of as age-old heritage forms. These are, today, mostly kept in museums, and the modern versions are worn only on special occasions.

Exactly what triggered the ‘bead rush’7 that continued throughout the two centuries between 1800 and 1980 (with still-lingering echoes) is difficult to establish. What is certain, however, is that glass seed beads, along with imported cotton thread and needles, enabled black South African women to make extraordinary new forms of beadwork to adorn their bodies and those of their family members.

Much of the beadwork photography used to illustrate the publications on beadwork traditions display the item/s against neutral backgrounds, emphasising their art-ness, their sheer technical and aesthetic qualities. Displaying them like this enables the identification of formal styles, colours and designs, techniques and execution. But it also denies their essential link to the bodies of the persons who wore them. In the past, South African beadwork was never made as something abstracted from bodies. Beadwork items were worn in varied ways, marking and masking, emphasising different aspects of the bodies they adorned. Both in the way they were worn, and in the patterns they used, beadwork items were important visual markers of the social roles and positions of its wearers, creating communal identities and politico-religious units. It is partly in these distinguishing roles that beadwork’s claim to being “traditional” lies.

All imaging of black South Africans wearing beadwork has, until very recently, been produced by white colonial agents, visitors, or settlers. Among the earliest published visual images of beadwork made and worn by black people in Southern Africa are engravings in Ludwig Alberti’s (1968) account of his travels as an official among isiXhosa-speakers in 1807, originally published in German in 1810.8 They were followed by the images in Gardiner’s (1836) account of his missionary sojourn in Natal and, notably, by George Ffrench Angas’s images from his travels in 1849.9 These sources offer evidence of uses to which South African women put imported glass beads at the start of the new tradition of beadwork. While Angas’s published images are based on drawings and subject to inevitable distortions via the colonial lens, many details there are corroborated by collected items of beadwork, the hard evidence, so to speak. The latter, material forms and designs, can only be securely dated from the 1850s onwards, when colonial officials, missionaries, adventurers and traders began to collect them. It is also possible to match pieces with items in photographs taken of indigenous peoples from the 1860s onwards and thus to trace histories that go beyond speculation.

The early collections of beadwork from particular geographic locations show diversity in colour, pattern and technique. This minimises the possibility that beadwork was clearly linked to ethnic identity from its beginnings. Through the 19th century, beadworkers seem to have experimented with patterns and colours without the need to conform to particular local trends. It is thus very difficult to establish whether some pieces were made by and for isiZulu or isiXhosa-speakers, for example. The mid-19th century beadwork pieces are documented largely from the coastal peoples, whose contacts with European traders, and access to beads, pre-dated that of other, inland groups. Sometimes it is clear that mid-to-late 19th century studio photographs which present young persons dressed in multiple layers of beadwork, have been labelled so as to identify the person and beadwork as being ethnically identifiable. But close comparison of these with images said to represent persons of another ethnic affiliation, often unravels these classificatory attempts. The same type/patterns of beadwork appear on people said to represent different ethnicities, or the same persons wearing different beadwork, are then said to be of a different ethnic origin. Analyses of such images demonstrates the uncertainty of the ground on which beadwork traditions are mapped.10


Artist Unrecorded, Zulu.  (Belt). Thread, glass seed beads, string. 13 x 71 cm. Late 19th C. Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum).

Artist Unrecorded, Zulu.  (Belt). Thread, glass seed beads, string. 13 x 71 cm. Late 19th C. Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum).


Clearly identifiable ethnic patterns in beadwork emerge only in the early 20th century, parallel to the increasingly strict and generalising ethnic divisions of people under the colonial regime. Clear lines that start to be drawn, in the years leading up to and following the Land Act of 1913, separate Zulu from Xhosa, Tswana from Sotho, Ndebele from Ntwane, with Venda and Tsonga-Shangaan out on a limb. At the same time they incorporate under the term “Zulu” people who do not feel they belong there, or under the term ‘Xhosa”, Mpondo and Mpondomise people who, throughout the 19th century, had been named as separate from other isiXhosa-speakers. This flattening of difference enabled the formation of larger, clearly separated politico-ethnic identities that were to be visually marked through particular forms of beadwork.

Some forms of beadwork are made only by particular ethnic groups, but others are shared across many. Ndebele women’s front aprons, for example, are made only by and for Ndebele women, in patterns distinct to different life-stages, and are immediately recognisable by the shape of the aprons as much as by the colours, designs and techniques of the beadwork that adorns them.11 The Ndebele bead artists developed their beadwork designs and techniques over the 20th century, with colour preferences shifting dramatically from the predominantly white fields with minimal colour motifs, to the deep green, purple and blue designs that came to dominate Ndebele beadwork from the 1950s onwards.

On the other hand, lace-like collars which are most closely associated with isiXhosa-speakers, are amongst the earliest forms collected in Natal, as is the case with one in the British Museum which was displayed on the International Exhibition in London in 1862. Similar collars using a net-stitch or looping lace technique have also been made by isiXhosa-speakers since at least the 1890s, but in predominantly blue, pink and white beads, sometimes with additions of black. These collars are sufficiently distinctive to have an ethno-linguistic identity, and yet they are not unique. siNdebele and seSotho-speakers make their own versions. Furthermore, it is likely that the idea for such beadwork collars derived from European sources, themselves influenced by Ancient Egyptian collar designs recovered from archaeological sites during the 19th century.12  In “Xhosa” collars, it was the consistency of colour choice and design elements that enabled sufficient continuity to give such beadworks a position of “tradition”.

Because bodies are the anchor to which all beadwork traditions in southern Africa are firmly attached, many of the techniques used are linked to forms which will fit the body.  Yet there are also distinct differences in approach among different Southern African societies. Among isiXhosa-speakers, where imported cloth started to replace skin clothing from the early 1800s onwards, beadwork was largely limited to beadwork fabric forms that could be worn on the exposed parts of the body, or over cloth garments.13 siNdebele-speakers and isiZulu-speakers developed techniques which included older forms of body enhancement. For example, in the form called umbhijo, isiZulu-speaking artists wound strings of beads round cylindrical grass ropes already used in a variety of traditional ways. Early examples of the technique are visible in Angas’ (1849) images of isiZulu-speaking men in the vicinity of Natal.14 Here the ropes are joined together to form the upper part of back aprons covering the buttocks, a technique also seen in the belts of girdles from late-19th century collections. Beadwork artists in a large number of different seSotho-speaking polities made body and neck rings using the same technique and replacing earlier grass forms.15 At times it is almost impossible to distinguish poorly documented 19th century examples as belonging to a particular ethnic group.

It is important to understand that the development of beadwork traditions in South Africa were part of a global cultural phenomenon in the 19th century. Beadwork flourished in Europe, spurred on in England for example, by the mid-19th century relaxing of a sumptuary tax on glass that enabled the importation of large quantities of beads from Italy and Bohemia. Afrikaner women in South Africa were also expert beaders, producing caps, slippers, and bags among forms of beaded jewellery that parallel some black African forms. 


Artist Unrecorded, Xhosa. (Collar). Thread, glass seed beads, 14.4 x 40 cm. Mid-20th C. Image courtesy of Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum).Artist Unrecorded, Xhosa. (Collar). Thread, glass seed beads, 14.4 x 40 cm. Mid-20th C. Image courtesy of Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum).


Black African recipients of beads, like their colonised counterparts in many other parts of the world, seized this new material and exploited its potential to create new and essentially modern traditions. Through the use of beads to replace or complement older forms they could both modernise their own and resist European cultural impositions. Gerald Vizenor, a native north American scholar and writer, terms this process “survivance”, a combination of survival and resistance.16

Yet the traditions thus created were, and still are, also subject to consistent and calculated change, something which a comparison of early beadwork and its photographs against contemporary equivalents make quite clear. Understanding fluidity – the kinds of global flows that Appiah (1996) suggests define modernity – and the impossibility of fixed and essential identities will enable South Africans to see beadwork as neither just ethnic accoutrements for ceremonial occasions, nor as hallowed and fixed traditional forms.17 The traditions of which they are part are malleable; they have histories and they have present iterations. Whether they ‘belong’ to anyone exclusively is open to debate. The works that they encompass are rich with possibility for the future, but are also objects which should inspire some degree of wonder, of the kind that Alfred Gell (1992) asks us to consider as the “enchantment” surrounding processes of making in which we as viewers are not expert.18


Anitra Nettleton is currently employed at the University of Johannesburg to teach African art. She is also Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. She was Chair and Director of the Mellon-Funded Centre for Creative Arts of Africa at the Wits Art Museum (2012-2015). Instrumental in founding the Standard Bank collection of African Art (1979) at Wits Art Galleries, she has curated many exhibitions. She has published books, articles in international and local journals, and chapters in books.



  1. The research for this paper was conducted as part of a project funded by a research grant from the National Research Foundation (NRF).
  2. The literature on South African beadwork is growing. Some of the most important sources are Bedford, Emma (ed) Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape. Cape Town: South African National Gallery.  Powell, Ivor(1995) Ndebele: A people and their Art. Cape Town: Struik.,, a  Davison, Patricia. 1993. “Adornment as art: An ethnological perspective” in Bedford, Emma (ed) Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape. Cape Town: South African National Gallery. 23-32  deals with aspects of transfiguration of  beadwork to art.
  3. See for example the Broad Collar of WAH dating to the early 19th century BCE, which has an uncanny similarity to many “Xhosa” examples. A succinct history of bead manufacture and making of beadwork is offered by Saitowitz (1993) in the context of the Ezakwantu exhibition held at SANG in 1993-94.
  4. Stayt, Hugh. 1932. The Bavenda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Klopper, Sandra. 1992. The Art of the Zulu-Speakers in Northern Natal-Zululand. An investigation of the history of beadwork, carving and dress from Shaka to Inkatha. Unpublished PhD thesis. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand.
  6. Saitowitz, Sharma. 1993. “Towards a history of glass beads. ” in Bedford, Emma (ed) Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape. Cape Town: South African National Gallery. 35-45; Nettleton, Anitra. 2015. “19th Century Beaded Histories: Tracing the inventions of tradition through the photographic image. ” In Nettleton, Anitra (ed) Beadwork, Art and the Body: Dilo tše Dintshi/Abundance. Johannesburg: Wits Art Museum and Wits University Press. 9-27.
  7. Kaufman, Carol. 1993. “The Bead Rush: Development of the nineteenth-century bead trade from Cape Town to King William’s Town“ in in Bedford, Emma (ed) Ezakwantu: Beadwork from the Eastern Cape. Cape Town: South African National Gallery. 47-55.
  8. Alberti, Ludwig. 1986. Ludwig Alberti’s Account of the Tribal Life & Customs of the Xhosa in 1807. Cape Town: Balkema
  9. Gardiner, Capt. A.F. 1836. Narrative of a journey to the Zoolu Country. London: Crofts.
  10. Critical analysis of such images is part of an ongoing project that I have been working on for some time. See N Nettleton, Anitra. 2014a. “Scars, Beads, Bodies: Pointure and punctum in nineteenth-century ‘Zulu’ beadwork and its photographic imaging.” Image & Text. 23 pp 161-185. Nettleton, Anitra. 2014b. “Women, beadwork and bodies: the making and marking of migrant liminality.” African Studies . 73:3:341-364. Nettleton, Anitra (ed). 2015. Beadwork, Art and the Body: Dilo tše Dintshi/Abundance. Johannesburg: Wits Art Museum and Wits University Press. 9-27.
  11. Powell, Ivor. 1995.  Ndebele: A people and their art. Cape Town: Struik; Smuts, Helene and Mahlangu, Petrus. 2015. “Looking deeply on the way my mother does her beadwork: Conversations with three foremost Ndebele beadwork artists.”  In Nettleton, Anitra (ed) Beadwork, Art and the Body: Dilo tše Dintshi/Abundance. Johannesburg: Wits Art Museum and Wits University Press.  127-143.
  12. Juliette Leeb-du Toit is researching the origins of these bead forms in greater depth.
  13. Nettleton, Anitra. 2013. “Jubilee Dandies: Collecting Beadwork in Tsolo, Eastern Cape : 1897-1932” African Arts. 46:1:36-49*
  14. Angas, George Ffrench. 1849. The Kaffirs Illustrated. London: Hogarth
  15. Riep, David. 2015. “Histories of South Sotho beadwork.” In Nettleton, Anitra (ed) Beadwork, Art and the Body: Dilo tše Dintshi/Abundance. Johannesburg: Wits Art Museum and Wits University Press.  50-73
  16. Vizenor, Gerald. 2008. Aesthetics of Survivance: Literary Theory and Practice. In  Vizenor, Gerald (ed). Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, edited essays, University of Nebraska Press, 2008. 1- 24.
  17. Appiah, Anthony. 1996. Modernity at Large; Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  18. Gell, Alfred. 1992. “The technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology”. In Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton (eds) Anthropology, art and aesthetics. Oxford: Clarendon, 40-63.


FEATURED IMAGE: Artist Unrecorded, Xhosa. (Collar). Thread, glass seed beads, 14.4 x 40 cm. Mid-20th C. Image courtesy of Standard Bank African Art Collection (Wits Art Museum).

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