Beadwork from Southern Africa

Iziko Museums of South Africa

Beadwork, a craft practiced by women among the indigenous people of southern Africa, grew and flourished through contact with people from outside of Africa. Vast quantities of glass beads were imported from Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries and were used to make items unique to the region. This collection of beadwork from southern Africa shows how the nature of indigenous knowledge can change when people come into contact with new ideas.

Claws, Horns and Animals' Teeth

Before glass beads became available, natural objects such as seeds, shells, pieces of root, grass, bone, ivory, claws, horns and the teeth of animals were used, as well as beads made of metal or fired clay.

San women made ostrich egg-shell beads that they strung as necklaces or girdles, sewed into narrow fabrics for head-ornaments, or sewed on to clothing and bags.

Glass Beads

Glass beads were introduced on the east coast of Africa by Arab and (from the 16th to 18th centuries) Portuguese traders, and reached southern Africa in small quantities through internal trade. After European settlement at the Cape, imported glass beads became more plentiful, though still expensive. When traders started to operate among the various local groups, prices came down and the craft of beadwork developed rapidly.

Many Beads, Many Uses

Glass beads were used to make ornaments and to decorate clothing and other objects of value, such as snuff-boxes. The beadwork was done by women using needle and thread, and particular colours and styles were favoured by certain groups or in certain areas. Simple ornaments were worn by children as protective charms, but much more elaborate pieces were made by women to give to men they liked, and a young man's popularity could be gauged by the amount of beadwork he wore on festive occasions.

Beadwork for the Married

Beadwork ornaments were worn mainly by young men and women of marriageable age. In some areas, however, married women wore increasing quantities of beadwork to show their rising status as their families matured. Styles and colours of beadwork varied among different groups, and over time patterns in the colours used came to be a means of expressing social and cultural identity.

Khoesan Hunter-gatherers and Herders
For most of the 20th-century, Khoesan hunter-gatherers (popularly called ‘Bushmen’ or ‘San’) lived only in the semi-arid Kalahari region in Botswana and the neighbouring parts of South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. There were three major language groupings, Ju, Khoe and Southern, each including several groups with their own names for themselves but sharing many common features in kinship, ritual, cosmology, and material culture.

Disc Beads

Women wore a wide range of ornaments. Bits of root or reed, horns and seeds were used, as well as plaited grass or animal hair and bands of leather. Most commonly, they used the disc beads that they made themselves of ostrich egg-shell. These they strung as necklaces or girdles, sewed into narrow fabrics for head-ornaments, or sewed on to clothing, especially onto aprons. White and coloured glass beads, empty cartridge cases and many other modern objects were also used later, as well as metal bangles obtained by trade.

Khoesan Pastoralists

Khoesan pastoralists (‘Khoikhoi’ or ‘Khoekhoe’) were spread over much of the western and southern portions of southern Africa, where their descendants still make up the majority of the population. The basic cultural patterns of the various Khoekhoe groups indicate that their forebears were originally hunter-gatherers who later adopted a pastoral way of life. Major groupings included the Cape Khoekhoe in the south and Nama in Namaqualand and southern Namibia.

Rattling Ornaments

Ornaments were worn by both men and women. These included leg-rings of strips of dried raw-hide, which sometimes reached from the ankle to the knee, and which rattled, especially during a dance, while shells, teeth, pieces of dry root, berries, small horns and beads made of discs of ostrich egg-shell were worn round the neck or waist or attached to the hair. Copper bangles, earrings and hair ornaments, and ivory bangles were widely used.

Nama women in Namaqualand also made beads of a mixture of charcoal and gum and threaded them for necklaces.

Kalahari and Namaqualand

The beadwork ornaments shown here were used by people from different groups in the Kalahari and Namaqualand, and were collected at various times during the 20th century.

Southern Nguni
Several groupings of Xhosa-speaking people live in the Eastern Cape, and were historically herders and subsistence farmers. The main chiefdoms include the Thembu, Xhosa, Mpondomise, Mpondo and Bomvana, while others moved in from KwaZulu-Natal during the nineteenth century, including the Xesibe, Bhaca, Hlubi, and the remnants of many other groups who came to be known as Mfengu, from imfengu - homeless wanderer.

Worn by young men.


After four centuries of living in close proximity in the same type of environment, with similar external contacts, differences in material culture were not as marked by the twentieth century as they may well have been originally. The exception was in clothing, where in the twentieth century there was still a distinct difference in style and colour between those living west and east of the Umzimvubu River.

Worn by young men (amakrwala), when they begin to attend dances.

Arabs and the Portuguese

Beads were introduced on the east coast of Africa by Arab and Portuguese traders and reached Xhosa-speaking groups through trade. After the European settlement was established at the Cape, imported glass beads became more plentiful though still expensive - in 1780 one pound of beads cost a cow. After traders started to operate near, and later among, the various groups, the price came down and the craft of beadwork developed rapidly.

The More, the Better

Beads were used both to make ornaments and to decorate clothing and other objects of value. Young women made ornaments as presents for men, and a young man's popularity could be gauged by the amount of beadwork he wore on festive occasions. Styles and colours of beadwork did, however, differ among the different groups, and have always been subject to fashion.

Xhosa beadwork worn by old men and women around 1958.

Northern Nguni
Northern Nguni agriculturalists were for many centuries settled in what is now the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa. It was probably from there that some centuries ago some of them moved northwest into the present Mpumalanga Province, where they became known as Ndebele. At about the end of the eighteenth century others moved gradually north of the Pongola River and later founded the present Swazi kingdom. Early in the nineteenth century the rise and expansion of the Zulu kingdom in KwaZulu-Natal resulted in many groups moving away, some under outstanding leaders who founded kingdoms of varying duration elsewhere in southern Africa.

Beaded Bands

Four beaded bands, sewn together at intervals, form the collar and the beaded section with a geometric design would hang in front. Fastened by beads fitted through beaded loops.

Zulu and Ndebele

Zulu and Ndebele beaded ornaments are perhaps the most visually striking beadwork produced in southern Africa. Traditionally, beadwork was worn by women and men to indicate status and the passing of rites of passage, but it was also used as a convention for communication between courting couples. Complex meanings could be conveyed by the coding and juxtaposition of motifs and colours in bead fabrics or panels. Among both Zulu and Ndebele people beadwork was a visible means to indicate group values and identities.

Tsonga-speaking agriculturalists live in adjoining areas of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, but do not form a homogenous grouping. Tsonga beadwork reflects a diversity of patterns characteristic of the various Tsonga chiefdoms.

Worn by women for special occasions.

Tsonga Beadwork

The Tsonga beadwork shown here is from northern South Africa and shows significant influences from the well-established beadwork traditions of nearby Sotho and Ndebele people. Men wear some beadwork for festive events, but most beadwork is worn by women.

Asymmetric patterning is a characteristic feature of Tsonga beadwork, as can be seen in some of the examples shown here.

South Sotho
Since at least the 16th century, the northern and central parts of present-day South Africa, between the Orange and the Limpopo rivers, and the neighbouring parts of Lesotho and Botswana, have been occupied by clusters of people speaking dialects of the Sotho language. In addition to language, they had a number of characteristic social features in common, the most striking of which is that they lived together in villages or towns instead of individual homesteads as among the pastoral agriculturalists of the coastal areas.

Drakensberg Landscape

During the twentieth century most South Sotho people lived in the mountainous country of Lesotho and the adjacent parts of South Africa. The majority lived in the lowland area in the west, which is the most suitable for agriculture, but scattered villages and cattle-posts high up on mountain ridges were characteristic of the Drakensberg landscape.

Initiation Ceremonies

South Sotho beadwork is associated with initiation ceremonies, and is used to decorate the costumes worn by initiates. Beadwork ornaments are worn mostly by married women, who also add beaded decorations to their cloaks to signify their status.

Lobedu agriculturists were the people of Modjadji, the Rain Queen. Over 300 years ago they settled in the low-lying foothills of the Drakensberg range, after moving southwards from north of the Limpopo River. According to oral history, the leaders of the group had the knowledge of rain-making. In the early nineteenth century, after many unsettled years, Modjadji, the first woman chief, restored peace, brought prosperity to her people and became the most famous rain-maker in the country. Many people from neighbouring areas became subjects of Modjadji and praised her as "The Transformer of Clouds".

Beads Acquired by Trade

Women made beads acquired by trade into a variety of ornaments, including armbands and waist ornaments that were worn for dances and celebrations, although many of these types of ornaments are no longer used. Young brides wore a many-stranded necklace when she first came to her husband’s home, a type of adornment that was also worn by recently-initiated young men and women.

Eileen Jensen Krige

The beadwork shown here was presented in the 1960s by Eileen Jensen Krige. The collection was made by Eileen Krige and her husband Jack Krige, during extensive fieldwork among the Lobedu between 1936 and 1938.

The Iziko Museums of South Africa’s Social History Collection comprise unique, precious, very rare and culturally significant collection(s) of artefacts. These include furniture, art, textiles, ceramics, anthropological items, historical objects, maritime archaeology and paper collections. They are historically and culturally significant in terms of representing South Africa’s cultural diversity as well as with regard to their value, aesthetics and rareness. They range from artefacts from the early Stone Age, slavery and the colonial period to the struggle against apartheid and the achievement of democracy. In addition, some of these collections, from antiquities to the present, are from around the globe, linking South Africa with other countries.

The Iziko Social History Centre

The Iziko Social History Centre is situated in Church Square, Cape Town. It is housed in the magnificent former National Mutual Life Association of Australasia building, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Francis Masey in 1905.

The Iziko Anthropology Collection

The collection focuses mainly on African material culture, with special emphasis on southern Africa. With over 15 000 accessions, the collection illustrates indigenous African technologies, as well as ways of life and processes of cultural change among hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and farmers (and their descendants) in southern Africa during the colonial and post-colonial periods.

A small but representative sample of artefacts from similar types of societies elsewhere in Africa and the rest of the world is held for comparative purposes.

Basketry, ceramics, clothing and ornaments are especially well-represented, and there are objects of ethnographic and historical value associated with significant historical personalities. Material contributed by early South African anthropologists, notably Winifred Hoernlé, Dorothea Bleek, Isaac Schapera and Eileen Krige are important complements to their published work.

Other sections of the collection, such as clothing, toys and political material document selected aspects of contemporary urban society.

Due to the nature of these anthropological collections in Iziko, the names of the makers of these artefacts were often not recorded.

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Created by Gerald Klinghardt, Lindsay Callaghan and Sarah Schäfer.

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