Imvubu Newsletter

The Significance of Beadwork

© Cindi, F. 2006 Imvubu 18:1, 5.

Although Portuguese traders introduced glass beads to the Southern African sub-continent during the sixteenth century, it was not until the 1930s that beadwork reached its apogee as a distinctive cultural form among Bantu-speakers. Beads are used for personal ornamentation as well as the decoration of garments and objects.

Before the introduction of glass beads, the Xhosa made ornaments from natural materials. Probably the most direct precursor of glass beads in former times were undoubtedly ‘beads’ San women made from ostrich egg shell. Pieces of shell were carefully chipped, ground to size, bored and polished before being strung on sinew. As ostrich eggshell beads took a long time to make, they were scarce and highly valued. They were in high demand as items of trade or barter among the Xhosa, who obtained them from the San in exchange for hemp (Cannabis sativa).

Beadwork is related to the organisation of Xhosa social life, which is conceptualised as a series of distinct stages, invariably linked to ritual performance, through which every person passes during the trajectory of life from birth to death. Passage from one stage to the next is signalled by changes in behaviour, dress and ornamentation including beadwork. Stages in the life cycle are important in that they give a sense of stability to the fluidity of the social structure since responsibilities, obligations, privileges and statuses are linked to each stage. Beadwork communicates both the wearer’s social status and wealth, as in the case of a homestead head or healer. Specific colours and sizes of beads are also closely correlated with the identity of certain Nguni groups formerly considered as politically distinct, such as the Zulu, Xhosa, Mfengu, Mpondo, Mpondomise, Thembu, Bhaca, Xesibe and Bomvana.

Beadwork worn by traditional healers is distinctive and immediately identifies the wearer as a healer. Novice healers wear single strings of white beads round their heads, wrists, elbows and ankles, while fully- fledged healers wear much more elaborate beadwork with a wider range of colours. For example, blue beads indicate that the healer was immersed in the river or sea, while the predominance of white beads draws attention to the healer’s ritual purity and power (amandla), which are significant in healing and the performance of the associated traditional rituals (amasiko). Mary Gqada, a traditional healer from Cape Town, claims that the power of beadwork is more than symbolic. According to her, beads are intrinsic to healing and ritual performance because they reputedly imbue the personal power of the healer. They are also subject to the deleterious effects of ritual impurity (umlaza), which causes them to lose their power.

Glass beads, although originally introduced as a trade commodity from Europe, have become such an integral part of Nguni culture that their use is accepted as being traditional. Even the poorest family has some articles of beadwork, which they wear with pride and honour. Although formerly the Nguni made ornaments for their own use, today these increasingly have commercial value and are made by craft workers for sale to the public.


Broster, J. A. ( 1981 ) Amagqirha: Religion, Magic, and Medicine in the Transkei. Goodwood: Via Afrika.

Costello, D. ( 1990 ) Not Only For Its Beauty: Beadwork and its Significance among the Xhosa – speaking peoples. University of South Africa.