The Art Of Swaziland


Beautiful rolling green hills, tropical palm trees, frequent cattle in the road, laughing children waving with both hands – these are my fond and eclectic memories of Swaziland says Nomad Africa Rebecca Bam. She explores the ancient arts of Swaziland to reveal more.

The roads had potholes, the buildings were somewhat derelict, but the inhabitants were some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I have ever come across. The weekend at The Royal Swazi Spa was, needless to say, heaps of hedonistic fun.But back to Swaziland itself. It is a country rich in culture and steeped in fascinating history.

According to tradition, the original followers of the present Dlamini royal house of the Swazi nation migrated south before the 16th century to what is now called Mozambique. As result of a series of skirmishes with locals, the Ngwane (as they then called themselves), settled in northern Zululand in around 1750. But pursued by a growing Zulu strength, the Ngwane had to move north in the 1810s and 1820s. Under King Sobhuza I, they established themselves in the heartland of modern Swaziland, conquering and incorporating many long-established, independent chiefdoms, whose descendants also make up much of the modern Swazi nation.

The art and craft outlets and traditional markets of Swaziland are undoubtedly one of the Kingdom’s greatest attractions. Whether wanting a souvenir of an African holiday, a key decorative feature for a living room or office, or maybe a special present for a love one back home, hours can be spent at Swaziland’s handcraft industry. This industry broadly falls into the two of categories of formal and informal. It is a major tourist attraction and many organisations are actively involved in promoting both the craft and tourism industries.

One of these is the Swaziland Trading House (STH), an initiative by the Ministry of Enterprise and Employment (jointly funded by the Swaziland Government and the WK Kellogg Foundation) for enterprise development and employment creation through the development of cultural industries.Cultural industries such as handcrafts have been identified among the key industries with export potential and mainly benefit rural women and the youth. However, this has been undermined by serious challenges, including a lack of appreciation of the potential their craft have to change their economic status and livelihoods.

One of the aims of the STH is to provide marketing infrastructure by setting up retail outlets in strategic markets and hence moving the craft producer up the value chain. The rationale is to prioritise handcraft centres on the ability of export-ready craft to generate sustainable job opportunities in rural areas specifically as a means of addressing unemployment, poverty and the effects of HIV and AIDS. Through a process phase-wise growth, the services of the Swaziland Trading House will diversify to other areas with similar potential such as value-added agricultural products, leather products, cotton garments, furnishings and made-ups, wooden products, services and imports.The informal crafts group mainly comprises of rural Swazis who produce traditional items, which include baskets, carvings and clay pots. Several thousand people, mostly women, rely on handcraft activities to earn incomes.

Many of them are self-employed and although they possess little business acumen or back-up systems, they receive assistance from various organisations. This includes the provision of raw materials, training to upgrade and perfect standards, identifying and penetrating suitable markets and promoting the goods.Craft items are sold to export markets, available in local shops and are also widely sold at markets and along the roadsides. These vendors and their stalls are popular tourist attractions. The Swazis also produce lovely carvings in soapstone and wood, which depict various animals and people.Swaziland’s formal handcraft industry is well established and operates within professionally structured business parameters with proper infrastructure and administration.

“The art and craft outlets and traditional markets of Swaziland are undoubtedly one of the Kingdom’s greatest attractions.”

Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland: Teresa was a very helpful and friendly vendor who sold me several items

Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland: One can buy giraffes in many sizes at the craft market.

Hand-blown glass elephants at Ngwenya Glass Factory.

This sector produces a wide diversity of goods, including hand-woven and knitted fabrics, tapestries, screen printed items, jewellery, ornamental candles and glassware.Craft oriented operations comprise a key sector of the economy, producing a diversity of goods for local and export markets while providing employment and generating incomes. Says Nokwazi Mabila, Product Development Executive at STH: “I guess all crafts started many generations ago when our ancestors carved, weaved or moulded whatever utensil they needed. As such, all craft in that time was purely for utilitarian purposes. These skills were passed from one generation to the next through a family apprenticeship system. Materials used must’ve been natural inputs readily available within those communities.” “Its development however is another story. Trade and intermarriages between communities have played a major role in the exchange of skills and designs. This involved not only its function, but also size and finishes became a priority. I would venture to say that our forefathers at this point had alternatives. So not only function, but form became important.” She goes on to say that the invention of money also meant skills were traded and the client’s wants and needs took priority over historical function.“Today we use these once utilitarian objects as decoration and objects of art. Interestingly enough, in my day-to-day dealings, I’m still confronted by the same question: what takes priority?

Our traditions or market demands?” She says that three skills still dominate the crafts industry in Swaziland today: weaving, pottery and carving.In weaving two grasses are normally used; lutindzi (a seasonal mountain grass) and baskets dominate this trade. “Women also weave the most beautiful baskets from sisal fibre,” she adds. Mats in all sizes and baskets for every use are produced. One type of basket work is so closely woven it will store liquids; the basket itself absorbing some of the fluid and keeping the contents cool by evaporation.

Also manufactured are wooden sculptures, painstaking soapstone carvings, glassware, mohair, tapestries, imaginative pottery and silk-screened batiks and clothing present an array of colours, textures and designs.Nokwazi says the most buyers are from South Africa regionally and from Germany internationally. Swazi craft is available not only in Swaziland but also South Africa, which is the largest importer of Swazi craft in the region. “We usually ship our merchandise through DHL or inter-freight internationally.”Women dominate the industry with most men carving only (women also carve). “Of note is that most of these crafters are old. There is little skills transfer to the younger generation so it would almost look like a dying skill and this is something we are trying to rectify through training programmes.”

Despite this, Swazi crafts are hardly promoted in schools and the only influence that students get is from their mothers and grandparents who still actively work with craft. She is confident though that the industry can one day function independently in its own right.“Personally, I would like to the see the day when the craft sector is no longer a by-product of cultural activity or a value add to tourism attractions, but an economic sector that has a complete production and supply value chain.” She says that unlike in other industries, in the handicraft industry , the crafter – who is at the bottom of the chain – makes the least. “Sometimes by the time that piece reaches the final consumer at a sale price of R500, the crafter will have only made R50 so it would appear that the middle man benefits the most.”

She says she’s not sure how other projects are funded but at inception, STH was jointly funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. “We’ve been partly funded by agencies such as the Commonwealth Secretariat, Technoserve and the United Nations.In terms of proliferation, artists and craftsmen are found in every corner of the country. The road through Ezulwini has, however, become the centre of the Swazi craft industry with numerous outlets and small markets on either side of the road. The Manzini Market and emerging outlets on the road to Siteki and Lavumisa are some of the other venues to choose from.There is much room for expansion in the handcraft sector, particularly for the players in the informal category.

As mentioned, these are mainly self-employed women who often possess little business knowledge and are hampered by a lack of contacts. They have to rely on passing trade and tourists who buy from roadside stalls and small shops. Further, due to lack of training, their goods may not meet international market requirements and, in any case, they cannot individually produce sufficient quantities to interest bulk buyers.In addition to the STH, there are other organisations, such as Tintsaba Craft in northern Swaziland, which have taken the initiative by employing rural women who work at home producing items such as traditional baskets.They are supplied with materials, thus eliminating the need to invest their much-needed cash and also receive the training that ensures their produced goods meet international standards.

Collectively, these women can craft sufficient quantities to meet the needs of international buyers, with whom their mentors deal. Hopefully, in time, the industry will take its rightful place in the economy with any trace of exploitation eradicated.


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