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Our colourful statements of identity

Muzaffer and Mustafa Sesli
CAPETIMES / 24 September 2014 at 09:29am

Mustafa Sesli

TODAY we, the South African nation, will again celebrate Heritage Day. It will also be the first Heritage Day celebrated since the passing of Madiba.
What better way to cherish our proud combination of ethnic groups and cultural heritage, than to again reflect on his words during the 1996 Heritage Day presidential address: “When our first democratically-elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation.” – Nelson Mandela, 1996.
This year is of specific significance to us as we celebrate 20 years of democracy and the positive changes that have come with being a free country.
As we move towards the brighter future of a nation truly united, it is essential that we continue to celebrate the key elements which make each of us uniquely South African.
One of the sometimes colourful elements is the inclusion of blankets in traditional celebrations to commemorate life’s milestones.
Many South African cultures use blankets to not only represent their specific tribes, but also to commemorate a significant phase or event in life.
Blankets form part of traditions cultivated and adapted over many years, designs will vary depending on the specific tribe or region, meaning that even among, for example the Basotho people, one would still find various designs representing each tribe.
Blankets have many purposes in traditional culture, from being used as gifts for weddings to representing the ceremony of a young man retreating for his initiation into manhood.
Due to the sacred role that blankets play in some cultures and the specific meanings attached to patterns, design and colour, it is important not to confuse cultural blankets or expect that one culture would use the same pattern as another.
There is a significance of colour and design in cultural blankets. Xhosas are often referred to as the “Red Blanket People”; this is partly due to their use of ochre coloured blankets at traditional events.
Although the use of the blankets is not the sole reason for the reference to red, it still plays a significant role in that culture.
Colour and clothing is often used to signify a person’s rank within the Xhosa culture.
Ndebele women are especially known for their brightly coloured blankets, often used as part of their attire. The tribe’s blankets are designed to signify specific events, such as the marriage blanket which carries beads representing events in the bride’s life.
In both the Basotho and Xhosa cultures, the initiation ritual is an incredibly important event, however as the cultures differ so do the elements of the ritual and the design of the blanket.
Blankets are also used during the burial and mourning of a loved one. Traditionally an animal skin, such as a cowhide or leopard skin would have been draped over the body or coffin of the deceased, over the years blankets have replaced the use of an animal skin, partly as a symbol of coming home.
This year, while celebrating our heritage and diversity, perhaps something as trivial as a blanket will also remind us of our similarities. From a happy childhood memory with our favourite blanket to warmth from the cold when it was needed – at some stage of our lives we have all been touched by a blanket.
The South African nation is proudly different, yet deeply linked. As the use of blankets has been embraced and become widely acceptable within more cultures, traditional blankets are increasingly being mass produced.
Many have criticised certain industries and manufacturers for creating these blankets and exploiting tradition and culture for profit. However, I believe that although there is a cost to the blankets, they celebrate tradition and contribute to the continued spirit of these traditions by offering an affordable, quality alternative, while ensuring our designs reflect our respect and admiration for each culture.
These blankets are a part of the tapestry that makes up our country and encourage others to not only remember our heritage in the month of September, but to celebrate our roots throughout the year.

Link to IOL Article

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