The tale of the kilt

Why do Pedi men wear Scottish kilts in their traditional dress? MARIAMcCLOY listens to some tall stories

THE Lesedi Cultural Village in the Magaliesberg offers an expensive and contrived African experience. Visitors can “sing, dance and taste traditional Africa”. This includes them getting to see a group of Pedi, Zulu, Mosotho and Xhosa. They can spend the night with them and also watch some dancing.

The Pedi men are noticeable because their traditional dress consists of Scottish kilts. Before the Pedi start dancing and singing, Baba Dlamini introduces them and explains the kilts …

In 1878 the British colonial leader, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, advanced north towards the Pedi after defeating the Zulus under Cetshwayo. The Pedi leader, Sekhukhune, had just fought against the Afrikaners and beaten them. Shepstone demanded 2 000 head of cattle from the Pedi. Sekhukhune handed over only 200, later raising this to 245, plus some elephant tusks.

Shepstone wasn’t happy about it and when Major General Garnet Woolsey arrived, the soldiers went about conquering the Pedi to take their land. The story goes that the men in the front ranks of the advancing British army were wearing kilts, which fooled the Pedi into thinking they were women – so they did not shoot.

“It was too late when they realised they were not ladies,” says Dlamini, and the Pedi lost the war. Then the Pedi men decided they liked the kilts, which were given to them by the Scottish regiment as part of a reconciliation pact.

Professor Peter Delius of Wits University’s history department has studied the Pedi for over 20 years and has written two books on Pedi history (The Land Belongs to Us and A Lion amongst the Cattle). He has not heard this version of the kilt story, which he describes as a lovely “tall story, but a good one”.

Delius does say that he’s heard the Pedi saw British in kilts and there might have been Scottish regiments around at that time, or at the time of the Boer War (1899 to 1902). He says that at the time of the war against the British the Pedi shot back “like hell, and were doing well until the Pedi stronghold was pinned down by the Swazi army. So the Pedi were clobbered from the rear by them.”

Interesting as the story told to me at Lesedi is, I can’t help wondering what’s going on. If Jews adopted Nazi outfits after World War II, wouldn’t it be questioned? Dr Julian Cobbing of Rhodes University’s history department says that the Pedi were beaten by the British, and then subjected to colonial control.

Sekhukhune was exiled and assassinated and the Pedi were demilitarised and turned into forced labourers. Why would they want to take on the dress of those responsible for this? Cobbing says that if a conquered nation assumes the dress of the conqueror it does represent somewhat of “a prostration of the conquered”.

Dr Deborah James, an anthropology lecturer at Wits, did her thesis on South African dress, dance and ritual. She says kilts do form part of Pedi costume, but she dates this as having started during World War II, not before.

Before the kilts, men wore thetwana – skirts made of animal skin. Some dancers James spoke to said they saw the Transvaal Scottish regiment wearing kilts in the 1950s.

She says it’s likely the kilt is used for dancing because of the way it twirls and flips, and because it looks “smart, beautiful and regimental. The men are expressing a kind of military ethic. It’s a combination of modern military with a harking back to the glorious days of [Sekhukhune’s] Pedi empire.”

But what of the story of the mistaken belief that the Scottish soldiers were women? Who came up with that?

James says this story should be told, as long as it is recognised as a myth. “There are so many myths around. It doesn’t mean they don’t count. They show us what people are thinking. This story could be a comment on gender relations and colonial relations. Myths arise because they say something. They might not be true but they might be pertinent.”

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