South Africa


The Block

Appliquéd by Jodi Marie Horne, a Giant Protea blooms in the lower portion of the South Africa block. The batik fabric is enhanced with stem stitches and surface embroidery to create the textured look of South Africa’s national flower. The Giant or King Protea, the largest of the genus, grows abundantly around Cape Town, and its flower-head has been known to span one foot.

The block is divided into sections by strips of interlaced triangles. The pattern, worked in strong, vibrant colours, is typical of the bracelets and necklaces worn by South Africans. Within each rectangle created by the bands, is a small-scale sample of the fine beadwork for which the country is so well known. Beads, which were initially traded as currency, are both aesthetic and symbolic.

Variations in colour, pattern and beadwork reflect ethnic identity as well as the wearer’s age group, marital status and other specifics. As an important part of South African clothing, beads are used on necklaces, armbands, aprons, belts, rings and anklets. Specific patterns and colours are also used to convey messages of love. In the upper section of the block, pieced bands reflect Nelson Mandela’s vision of South Africa as a ‘rainbow’ nation following the end of apartheid.

King Protea 01
King Protea flower
Zulu dancers
2008-02-09 Xhosa women
Xhosa women
Table Mountain-010
Table Mountain and Cape Town
Ndebele women in front of a painted house
Vignoble de la Delvera Farm à Stellenbosch
Vineyard in the Western Cape province

Cultural Profile

The Republic of South Africa is divided into nine provinces which occupy the southern part of the African continent. Its diverse and dramatic landscape includes Table Mountain, a defining Cape Town sight that serves as a beacon for navigators rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in 1886 was the beginning of South Africa becoming the most industrialized nation on the continent. The area has deeper mines than any other country in the world (the Western Deep Levels Mine is almost four kilometres deep) and those in Johannesburg, which is known as the ‘golden city’, produce half the planet’s gold. The country is also home to a large manufacturing industry and is a major wine producer.

South Africa’s population is multi-racial and multi-ethnic. The majority of the people are Blacks, followed by Whites, Asians and Coloured (mixed ancestry). The diversity of the country’s people extends to their languages; there are eleven official ones: Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zula, Afrikaans, and English. Depending on the area, Afrikaans and English often serve as lingua franca.

Traditional gender roles are valued in South Africa. Family line is important and various cultural ceremonies, such as rites of passage, exist for both genders. Ceremonial clothing, which varies according to such things as age and marital status, plays an important part in traditional customs. Sangomas, the traditional healers who use both medicinal plants and spirits, are also part of traditions that are still strong in the country.

South African art dates back to the Stone Age. Parts of a necklace made of seashells, some 75,000 years old, have been found in a South African cave, while more than 3,000 sites containing San and Khoikhoi murals depicting people and animals have also been preserved. Today, various groups continue their traditional arts and crafts of beading, pottery, weaving, leather work, and metal work. Women of the Ndebele tribe are well-known for painting bold and brightly coloured patterns on their homes, while the Venda people are known for their striped textiles whose bright colours have symbolic meanings.  One of the most emblematic fabrics of South Africa is seshweshwe fabric, a locally made cotton calico printed with geometric designs in traditionally indigo, chocolate and red tones. The seshweshwe is worn by many in South Africa, regardless of their ethnic origin. Even as traditional arts and crafts are well alive in the country, invention and initiative are at the center of the South Africa psyche. Many artists use unusual materials and techniques, drawing on the country’s multicultural tapestry, to create innovative artwork.

The country’s music and dance are lively and colourful. Original forms of expression are often created through the blending of traditional dances and music with classical or modern elements. Like many other cultures, South Africa has a rich, centuries-old oral tradition, in which songs and stories of family values, or changes in social conditions, are passed down from generation to generation.

The largest number of people coming to Canada from any sub-Saharan country has been from South Africa. Today, there are over 35,000 people of South African ancestry living in Canada. Many came as independent immigrants looking for political stability and economic opportunities. Over half settled in Ontario, while others made their homes primarily in British Columbia, Alberta and Québec. Initial South African organizations were directed at specific races, however through the establishment of such institutions as the Canadian Council of South Africans and the Canadian Friends of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the South African presence as a collective group is now emerging here. South Africans have brought the spirit of their homeland to Canada through contributions to education, medicine, literature, art and music.

Sponsor: South African High Commission | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons