WATCH | Ndebele traditional attire: Activist Thando Mahlangu continues cultural revival fight

19 April 2021 - 06:00

The bold and beautiful colours and patterning of Ndebele art was popularised globally by acclaimed artist Dr Esther Mahlangu and her famed abstract interpretations of traditional Ndebele art.

Despite the widespread recognition of her work — and by extension culture — the traditions and culture are slowly fading to make way for a 'modernised' world.

Of SA's estimated 59 million strong population, only just over a million belong to the nation of the proud Ndebele people, according to to the latest available population census by Stats SA.

Activist, author and entrepreneur Thando Mahlangu hopes to revive his culture, share his passion and inspire others to aid him in elevating the societal value of culture.

His love, pride and devotion are apparent at his residence in his hometown of KwaMhlanga in Mpumalanga. Ndebele colours and patterns adorn the outside and inside of his home.

On the edge of the bed, under the traditional painted wall — in the colours of his people — Mahlangu sits and speaks about his 2012 decision to fully embrace his culture.

“I saw that our culture was going down, I'm doing what I'm doing for the next generation,” Mahlangu says.  

Thando Mahlangu visits a traditional African shop on Bloed Street in Pretoria to do his monthly shopping.
Thando Mahlangu visits a traditional African shop on Bloed Street in Pretoria to do his monthly shopping.
Image: Emile Bosch

Mahlangu was catapulted into the public spotlight after he was turned away from a Click's store at Boulder's Shopping Centre in Midrand. The reason for refusing him entry — Mahlangu's traditional attire was deemed “inappropriate” by the centre manager.

While he felt grief and humiliation as a result of the incident, he admits that during the argument that ensued he felt nothing but rage.

“You know the fact that the Boulders incident happened 27 years into our democracy made me extremely angry, because I was humiliated by a black brother. The guy was supposed to protect me, but he didn't,” he says.

Mahlangu firmly believes that if people gave true value to their histories and respected their traditions and cultures, SA wouldn't suffer from as many of the socio-economic issues the country faces.

“If only people were respecting their languages and culture, we wouldn't be facing all this criminal activity and the abuse that women and children are facing currently in SA, we wouldn't be facing these challenges,” says Mahlangu.

Ndebele activist Thando Mahlangu greets other pedestrians while walking the streets of Marabastad, Pretoria.
Ndebele activist Thando Mahlangu greets other pedestrians while walking the streets of Marabastad, Pretoria.
Image: Emile Bosch

Mahlangu hopes that through his unjust treatment he may be able to spread the value of culture. He submitted a list of demands to the centre's management and a date of April 8 was agreed upon for the two parties to meet.

His demands included a public apology and a donation to a cultural organisation of Mahlangu’s choice. At the meeting, the centre rejected his list of demands.

“I’m not happy with what we’ve discussed. I’m not happy with the offer they’ve made and I’m not happy with how they are handling things,” he said, addressing a small crowd gathered in the mall's parking lot.

Left in tears by the unsuccessful meeting, Mahlangu vowed to continue his battle against the centre.

With his girlfriend Nqobile Masuku, Mahlangu also consistently petitions for an increase in isiNdebele broadcast options on both television and radio.

As the activist continues his fight against the centre management, the CRL Rights Commission is also set to continue its hearing of the matter on Monday.

Thando Mahlangu and his girlfriend Nqobile Masuku run a business selling items adorned with painted traditional prints. These items are sold in and around KwaMahlanga, Mpumalanga.
Thando Mahlangu and his girlfriend Nqobile Masuku run a business selling items adorned with painted traditional prints. These items are sold in and around KwaMahlanga, Mpumalanga.
Image: Emile Bosch

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