Identity politics in amaXhosa Dress: perspectives on modernity and public culture in the context of post-apartheid South Africa

Mathabathe, Gontse
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This thesis highlights a moment in the continued resurgence of ‘traditional’ abaThembu dress in the urban South African landscape. I use one principal case study, namely: the appearance of Chief of the Mveso Traditional Council and Member of Parliament (MP), Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandlesizwe Dalibhunga Mandela and his wife, Nkosikazi Nodiyala Mbalenhle Mandela at the State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2015. Ensuing from their previous three SONA appearances, they appeared dressed in modernised, ‘traditional’ abaThembu-inspired garments, designed by South African designer, Bongiwe Walaza. Despite the couple’s use of identifiably abaThembu material culture, their outfits draw from and incorporate dress styles from various other cultures. This thesis seeks not to be an ethnographic or, strictly, a historical paper but uses “a shared reality” (Dhar 2018) to unpack the nuances of modernised ‘traditional’ South African dress and fashion. Located in the current globalised era, I utilise critical theory and cultural discourse (Barbera & Payne 2010: 8) of dress and identity politics. I also employ a plethora of ‘unconventional’ resources found online, to indicate a hybrid use of material culture. The study aims to unpack how ‘traditional’ abaThembu dress practices have surpassed what, Magubane (1998) called “vanishing culture[s]” to becoming a recognisable cultural signifier, in the contemporary. It unravels the nuances of how ‘traditional’ dress practices – amongst the abaThembu people – have evolved to inform re-imagined notions of self-writing and identity-making.
A thesis re-submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History to the Faculty of Humanities, School of Social Science, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2019
Mathabathe, Gontse (2019) Identity politics in amaXhosa Dress :perspectives on modernity and public culture in the context of post-apartheid South Africa, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, <>