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Bead there, done that

Niren Tolsi

Local craft production -- piggybacking on a national agenda obsessed with tourism and identified as a potential poverty alleviation sector -- has increased in recent years. As has consumption. From the pavements of Durban to Stockholm markets, Niren Tolsi traces the various lives (and prices) of a piece of beaded jewellery.

Local craft production—piggybacking on a national agenda obsessed with tourism and identified as a potential poverty alleviation sector—has increased in recent years. As has consumption.

“When most crafters have finished working on a product, they need a place to sell it. They also need to know how to sell their products to people and how to market themselves,” says Eunice Mothetho-Rooi from Craft Council South Africa, highlighting a major deficiency that exists in the South African craft sector: a shortage of marketing and business skills among crafters.

Until recently, government intervention has focused on training, which has led to a worrying deficiency of skills in the business and marketing aspects of the industry, leaving crafters open to exploitation.

The departments of trade and industry and arts and culture are working on a new strategy geared at enhancing export opportunities to curb the exploitation of ordinary crafters, but while it is being drafted the discrepancies, even between prices in markets in the same city, remain huge.

Victoria Street bead market, Durban

Every Friday morning, in an unused concrete lot at the bottom of Victoria Street, women from all over KwaZulu-Natal congregate to sell the beaded items they have spent the week making. On a hot day it is a squalid, buzzing space where the smell of urine dominates; there are no ablution facilities.

The crafters sell everything from beaded bracelets, traditional hats and Zulu love letters to more novel items, such as beaded ties. This is the bottom end of the craft food chain, with stall owners from Durban’s open-air markets, beachfront hawkers, craft sourcers from Johannesburg’s markets and curio shops, and people with an eye to export coming to source stock.

For many of these women, the day begins long before sunrise and includes a return journey of about five hours: “I woke up at one o’clock and left Ndwedwe at two. I need to get here at about four, four-thirty for the people from Jo’burg, who are my main customers,” says Elizabeth Mngadi (46).

She says business is down because “there are too many people selling here now” and that, while on a good day she can make as much as R400, she sometimes comes away with not more than R30. With the recent hikes in the petrol price, her return taxi fare to Ndwedwe has, this year, increased to R36.

Her wares are the bigger beaded necklaces, which she sells for R60, and smaller items that start at R20. A necklace and bracelet combination made from smaller beads sells for R60 at this market (R50 for the necklace and R10 for the bracelet).

Essenwood Market, Musgrave, Durban

The chattering classes converging on the leafy Essenwood Market in upmarket Musgrave on a Saturday morning wouldn’t be caught dead at the Victoria Street market, perhaps because they fear they will be found dead. The surrounds are genteel, there are cappuccinos to be supped and much posing to get out of the way by the ladies who lunch.

Traditional Zulu beaded jewellery, mainly sourced from the Victoria Street market, can be found at at least two stalls at Essenwood and the price is in keeping with the surrounds.

Stallholder Janet Shaw gets some of her stock from the Victoria Street Market: “Some of the designs I sell are developed by the ladies [at the Victoria Street market] and some I design myself. I usually tweak what the ladies are doing to make them more contemporary in terms of colour.” Shaw says her bracelets range from R35 to R70, while the necklaces she sells range from R100 to R180.

The Street Market in Stockholm, Sweden

According to The Street website, the market is situated in the trendy Sodermalm district in Stockholm and caters for a hip crowd with a taste for fashion, design and music.

Linda Olafson spends part of the year sourcing craft from South Africa and Mozambique and then sells it in Europe over their summer. The Zulu beaded jewellery she redesigns has been selling well over the past two years. The necklaces are priced at R400 and the bracelets go for R150.

“I redesign everything, from the width of the bracelets to the colour combinations,” says Olafson. She also fine-tunes handiwork and the various mechanisms of a piece of jewellery, such as the clasp.

Initially she sourced stock from the Victoria market, but she now sources labour there: “I have three ladies making items for me and I pay them more per piece than they would get selling at the Victoria market. I pay R15 for a bracelet and R60 to R75 for a necklace, and I supply them with beads,” says Olafson. She also supplies two boutiques in Stockholm.

Olafson’s export costs are nominal. Moving stock in her luggage during trips means she only pays an overweight charge and no duties. She hopes to take on some of the workers as partners once she sets up a company and is looking to get funding from the department of trade and industry: “The DTI will help with exposure, paying for overseas trip and stands at international fairs.”


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