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Traditional Clothing and African Women leadership: Moving from the Margin to the Center

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For many Africans, the image that comes to mind about a female leader is that of a woman in a formal suit, carrying a briefcase, laptop and a cell phone or a woman in a corporate suit, sitting behind a desk, surrounded by state of the art technological gadgets. Seldom, do such images incorporate women in traditional African clothing or settings. This is largely because of western stereotypical images and views of how leaders and business people should look like. Traditional attires apparently are disassociated from such areas and considered fitting to be worn only on certain occasions like heritage/cultural day or on occasions showcasing diverse cultures.

Thus, in an effort to fit in and be taken seriously, many African women in leadership positions, particularly those in the business world, shy away from putting on traditional attires for formal occasions or work. They instead put on western formal clothing and whilst there is nothing wrong with such attire, it creates a one dimensional image of African female leaders. It also results in those who do not fit this image being overlooked and at times even branded as bush-women, unsophisticated, ‘uncivilised’ and mis-fits. The realisation of such views about traditional clothing coupled with the fact that traditional ways of life are being lost to westernisation, prompted the management of MANCOSA to partner with the Phansi Museum in Durban to showcase at the Mancosa [GSB] puppets clad in traditional attire. These puppets, known as the Marionette Collection, are predominantly female and they are not only dressed in full traditional ceremonial outfits, but their clothing also indicates their initiation status, marital status, state of pregnancy and rite of passage.

According to the Principal of MANCOSA, Prof Yusuf Karodia, these puppets will hopefully influence ‘viewers to develop the ability to look beyond the literal façade of visual culture and to interpret it in the light of a critical awareness of the fact that our everyday ‘reality’ is certainly shaped by numerous socio-cultural influences and ideological constructs’. He added that they will also hopefully provide viewers with knowledge about the wisdom of traditional cultures and influence stakeholders to challenge social conventions and prejudices. Each of the puppets are beautifully clad in traditional attires from diverse South African cultures such as the Basotho, Zulu, Pedi, Ndebele, Venda, Xhosa, Bhaca and many more. Without even reading the inscription that goes with each puppet, the message from them is loud and clear. It was like they were making the following statements:

  • ‘Look at me, don’t I look good, don’t I look impressive?’
  • ‘I am proud of what I am wearing and of my roots’
  • ‘Do not be ashamed of who or what you are’
  • ‘Wear your traditional clothing with pride’

The following are two puppets in the Marionette Collection. The first one represents a Zulu matron and the other represents the Oyaya people:

CWL 1

CWL 2

As can be seen, the puppets emanate a presence and magnetism that attracts people and makes them reflect on their culture, their origin and the beauty of traditional attires. As an architect and trustee of the Phansi museum, Paul Mikula states that they speak of origin, pride, community, self-belief and many other things. They allow one see the beauty of tradition and its features and brings about the realisation that traditional attire can be very stately and impressive in its own right. Being a leader means to be comfortable with who you are and what you are and it begins with an appreciation of one’s cultural traditions. The wearing of traditional African clothing and an appreciation of traditional things definitely does not make any African female leader less than a leader. Instead, as artist Andries Botha commented the following statement ‘I am an African, I live here and I come from here’.

Dr. Claudine Hingston (CWL)

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