Dressing in the dress and style of your own cultural group is a right that every African should have without fear of disapproval from any quarter. South Africa has nine official African languages representing specific population groups, which all have their own dress – and wearing it gives people a sense of belonging, a sense of great pride in their heritage, and, importantly, it makes them feel beautiful.
Dr Nomcebo Mthembu, Founder of Indoni SA, says it is unfortunate that African cultures continue to be benchmarked according to western standards. “Our ethos at Indoni is to try to reclaim what was lost by Africans when Africa was ravaged by colonialism and apartheid, when Africans were made to believe that what is theirs, and how they do things, is unacceptable.”
Westernisation of traditional cultural attire has happened over many decades and is a created and entirely unnatural development that has instilled a stigma of nakedness and nudity to traditional practices. “In our eyes as Africans, when we dress in traditional attire, we are fully clothed. We believe that women must be allowed to wear their traditional dress with pride – and people must acknowledge it for what it is, and adjust narrow mindsets about it being offensive,” adds Dr Mthembu.
She reports with distress that the situation has deteriorated to the point of the Indoni Instagram account being shut down because of images of girls in traditional attire. “This doesn’t make sense and these actions and others like them are far more offensive and disrespectful to people in general than are the pictures of the proud and beautiful women and men representing their cultural groups. It is not perceived as nakedness or as provocative or sexual within the cultural groups, and therefore should not be by anyone else.”Dr Mthembu makes the distinction between overtly sexual and even obscene pornographic images and videos that proliferate on the internet and elsewhere, and traditional attire. It is completely different – and responses to it should be completely different too. “There is a sense that male possessiveness of women has encouraged the need to cover up in different cultures around the world, particularly in more patriarchal societies. Those misguided notions should not be the standards by which our African traditional dress is judged.”
Seventeen-year-old Aubrey Skhosana, Indoni Ndebele Queen 2017, says she feels like a goddess in her traditional attire because she has the sense that she is carrying the kindness and spirit of her heritage that she shares with many other people. “It gives me confidence and it brings with it the dignity of my tribe and the beauty within it. I wear it with great pride and a feeling of freedom.”
In the words of Walt Disney, “Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards – the things we live by and teach our children – are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.”