A Means to Tin Ends
An awesome foursome walks into the showroom. Its members fill the space with their vibrant personalities and distinct characters. In fact, they seem to embody the various crafts that they have invented. Jane is the matriarch, like their handmade blankets, she has patched together the group’s different members, enveloping them in the security of her age and wisdom.
Rose is the practical business mind. She is reflected in the crocheted tin end bags and money purses that speak of both creativity and financial functionality. Nosimpiwe is the group’s bubbly spokesperson who, like her products’ ethnic ‘shwe shwe’ fabric trimming adds colour and vibrancy with a distinct blend of modern and traditional flavour. Nomalizo, a gentle, creative spirit is as charming as the dolls she creates.
From Rags to ‘Riches’ from Trash to Treasure
These four women make up Masiphuhlisane, a women’s empowerment group through craft. Their ideology is reflected in their Xhosa name which roughly translated means development through gathering different resources together. Such is the spirit of a contemporary South African culture that sees potential in what others might reject as impoverishment. Old broken clothing and rags are ideal for blanket pieces. Unravelling woollen jerseys become dolls’ hair, broken pantyhose; their faces and discarded beverage tins are treasures that make up funky tin end bags. Since working with African Home, the latter product has now expanded to a range that includes vases lined with recycled plastic bottles and bottle bags finished with hints of ethnic textiles.
This spirit of re-newel is what drives these ladies. They have had to re-new their own spirits, transcending the struggles of a heritage of discrimination and disadvantage. As Xhosa women from the Eastern Cape, they have lived through the height of Apartheid. They bore the injustices, enduring socio-economic hardships, raising children in the face of political upheaval and have still immerged as positive, motivated individuals with colourful dreams.
At mature ages when many people desire retirement, Jane May and Rose Siyangoa charge full steam ahead. Jane is 61 and Rose 53. They both grew up in the Ciskei, an area that was previously considered a rural ‘homeland’ during Apartheid. The plight of many rural dwellers was to seek work in urban areas of the Eastern Cape and beyond since conditions made survival unsustainable. When Jane separated from her husband and had no support to enforce maintenance from him, her situation was desperate. She had to raise three children, pay school and hospital bills and was caught up in the bitter Apartheid cycle: No reference (pass) meant no jobs but without a job one could not obtain a reference. She was forced to move constantly, from Elsie’s River to Crossroads and eventually to Khayelitsha where she still resides.
Rose worked as a domestic worker for seventeen years. Luckily, she established a stable consistent relationship with her employers but her heart ached for more. She knew she had great potential and business know how and longed to realize much more than her work allowed. However, during Apartheid years the thought of taking such risks was unthinkable. She was bound by the prohibitive laws of the land. Eventually, her burning dreams propelled her forward into the climate of ‘The New South Africa’.
She enrolled in a business course and partnered with Jane on their road to self actualization.
Nosimpiwe, 39 and Nomalizo, 43 are cousins. With the change of government in 1994, more and more white families moved out of the Eastern Cape forcing many previously disadvantaged black people to follow them in search of jobs. Such was the case with Nosimpiwe who after completing school, could not afford to study further. She explains the hardships of moving to the Western Cape:
‘At first it was not good. You are all on your own. You use the train but you don’t know where you are going and it’s difficult to make friends. Some people think you are there to take their place. If you ask for work they say there is no job here because they think you come to take their job.’
However, Nosimpiwe’s warm personality and talent for networking helped her gather support around her and also helped her take advantage of a community handcraft sewing training course. Moreover, networking united her with Rose and further integrated Nomalizo into the group.
Nomalizo had been working as a domestic worker, first in Sea Point and later in Athlone. She was unhappy with her job, scraping together R50-R70 a day and knew that she had to shift something in her life. Her circumstances were far from her initial dreams of becoming a teacher. After school she had pursued such training but misfortune struck. In her final year, she became sick. She managed to pass all but one exam but could not go further. Now, in Cape Town, she knew that her education and skills should be put to greater use. With a hunger to apply her enquiring mind, she feasted on Nosimpiwe’s training, learning sewing and beadwork with the ideal that ‘everything we see, we like to do. It was a risk to stop work and even though at times things are quiet, we keep our dreams alive.’
Time to drink a cup of tea
‘My age tells me to sit down and drink a cup of tea’ says Rose. This is her dream; to work from home and have a shop of her own so that Masiphuhlisane can become a more established organization. She can imagine a workspace and a showroom where they can work and still have leisure time to drink tea together. The ladies would prefer to have tour guides bring customers to their world so that people can see the context behind the project. They would like to establish relationships with regular customers, building their project as they build their name. Currently they sell their crafts in the market or on the street and complain that people do not take them seriously in this manner. They would also like the local market to celebrate their crafts. They believe it is not only tourists who should support them and that instead of spending thousands of Rands on goods in shopping malls, locals should rather be proud of their products made in South Africa.