Traditional Crafts in South Africa

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Traditional Crafts



The most recognizable forms of traditional South African crafts are beading, basket weaving and pottery. Often, specific traditional crafts flourish in a particular area of the country, with the skills handed down through families for generations.


Zulu basketBasket Weaving

For centuries, the Zulu have been famous for the sturdy and beautiful baskets they weave from grasses and palm leaf. People living in Free State and Limpopo have also developed their own tradition of basket weaving.

The primary role of traditional basketry is functional. Baskets were made for storing food such as grain and vegetables, as well as liquids, for example beer. The basket sizes vary from small pot wire basketcovers to woven grain storage baskets that can be big enough to hold an adult human.

Baskets are usually made using the coiling technique, in which thin bundles of sedge grass stalks are bound together in coils which are then sewn together.

In several ethnic groups, baskets used to be manufactured by men. At the end of the 19th century this skill was transferred to women, probably because men left villages to seek work in towns. Some researchers think that this gender change could be one of the factors for the transition from simple, almost stark elegance of earlier baskets to more decorated ones produced later on. Artisans in urban areas today also use colourful recycled telephone wire instead of grass to produce baskets with intricate swirling patterns.


Zulu beer potPottery

Like basket weaving, traditional pottery primarily had a functional purpose. The pots were used for cooking, serving food and drinks, as well as for storing water and grain.

South African artisans usually use the coiling method to make pots. The technique involves rolling clay to form a long roll. Different shapes are then built by placing one coil on top of another. After the coils are smoothed out and decorations applied, the pots are fired. Zulu potters use aloe leaves and reduce exposure to oxygen to blacken the pots during the firing process and rub them with fat to achieve a shiny effect.

Decoration-wise, there are two distinct traditional styles: incised and raised. Some pots are characterised by quiet minimalism; others display complex patterns and strong colours. In either case, the best pottery samples shine with perfect proportions and exquisite craftsmanship.

In the past, pottery was exclusively associated with women in Southern African societies. Today, traditional craft skills are honed and integrated with contemporary pottery and ceramic making techniques, often leading to a unique combination of African and European artistic sensibilities.



beaded spoonIn South Africa, beads were once the insignia of tribal royalty and have played an important role in the traditional societies of the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Venda and Ndebele. Today, they have found a huge range of applications, from the coverings for matchboxes to hand crafted beaded key rings.

The Zulu people are noted for the beautiful beaded jewellery and garments, while Ndebele are praised for their charming beaded dolls. Although the cultural or magical meaning of beaded artefacts is still alive in some areas of the country (for example, the Zulu “love letters” and  Ndebele “fertility” dolls), today they are primarily made to satisfy the tourist demand.


Other Crafts

The fine paintings by the Northern Cape community of San people that are a direct extension of the ancient rock art; the wooden figurines carved so as to follow the inherent curves and forks of tree branches made in the Venda region; the vivid geometric patterns taken over from the exterior of the houses of the Ndebele people and applied to a variety of objects… These are only some of the art and craft forms that have been practiced in South Africa for centuries, for both functional and decorative purposes.

Traditional skills are kept alive today thanks to demand from the consumers, with the production and sale of arts and crafts providing a viable source of income for artisans, especially in rural areas of the country. In addition to the standard materials such as beads, grass, clay, leather and fabric, craftsmen today use a variety of recycled materials to create intricate items, from miniature cars made of wire and planes fashioned out of colourful strips of recycled aluminium cans to boxes made with bottle tops.


South African crafts

South African crafts

South African pots

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