South African Beadwork Traditions, Past and Present

©J E Middlebrook
Studio photograph of a married woman taken by J.E. Middlebrook, in the Colony of Natal, south of the Zulu Kingdom, probably in the 1880s.
It is commonly assumed that African beadwork traditions emerged through trans-continental trade relations that led to the importation of glass beads to West Africa as early as the 4th century AD.

In fact, the use of indigenous materials such as marine shells, stone, seeds and ostrich eggshell long predates these trade relations, attesting to the importance of adornment practices that have underpinned social and political relations, and have in many cases played a critical role in ritual practices, since prehistoric times.

During the Iron Age, some African communities also began manufacturing iron and copper beads. There is evidence that these iron technologies first emerged in East Africa as early as 500 BCE.

Beads Made from Different Materials

Stone Age sites in east and southern Africa contain large quantities of ostrich shell beads that were manufactured in one of two ways: either by drilling a hole in an irregular fragment of shell, which was then rounded off to the required circular shape,...more

Beadwork for Married Women

Ndebele women used various types of aprons at different stages of their lives, including puberty and marriage....more

Beadwork From the Colony of Natal

According to the artist, George Angas, the two young men depicted here, who were from Umlazi on the outskirts of Durban, were dressed for a ‘marriage-dance’....more

Beadwork Worn by Young Initiates

Aprons like these, worn by young Tswana female initiates, were recorded by European explorers as early as the 1870s....more

Complexity and Diversity in Beadwork Styles

When Muller and Snelleman travelled through southern Africa in the late 19th century, they collected and recorded examples of beadwork styles from different communities, including a South Sotho beaded garment with triangular patterns stacked one on top of...more

The Changing Currency of Beads

In the Eastern Cape, the wages white settlers initially paid to African workers consisted of beads, buttons and brass wire....more

The Zulu Kingdom and Control of Trade

In the 1820s, the first Zulu king Shaka established control over trade networks in south-east Africa, thereby ensuring his role in the distribution of glass beads and other imported goods entering the region through Delagoa Bay in present-day Mozambique....more