Saddled up in style in Berlin

04 December 2016 - 18:49 By Pearl Boshomane

An Eastern Cape community goes to town each year with horses, fashion and live music, writes Pearl Boshomane.

Children gather around a mechanical bull under the hot sun, watching as one of them hangs onto the bucking animal to gain the respect of his peers.

Boys walk horses around in circles, numbers written neatly on the animals in what looks like pink chalk. A group of bikers rev their motorcycles in the middle of a field, much to the delight of the crowd, with kids running among the bikes, oblivious to the dust from the spinning tyres.

There are stalls selling Steve Biko memorabilia, plus-size fashion, beadwork. It's easy to forget that we're in a small, sleepy town.

Berlin. Not the German capital but Berlin in the Eastern Cape, between East London and King William's Town.

The town's anonymity and open fields make it the perfect location for the Berlin November Traditional Horse Racing and Lifestyle event.

Now in its third year, the Berlin November took place last week and was the biggest one yet: in addition to traditional horse racing, there was live music and entertainment, fashion shows, stalls for bargain hunters and, of course, refreshments.

Vukile Pokwana, marketing head for the event, said Berlin was the ideal spot because, for a start, it offered a lot of farmland.

"Horse racing is primarily a rural activity so we wanted the rural people to benefit from the event."


More than 100 horses from the Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho competed in the races for a share of the R500,000 purse, which went directly to the jockeys and horse owners. The overall winners were two horses from Dutywa, Thabo Mbeki's birthplace in the Eastern Cape.

"A lot of the people [who competed in the races] were doing this as a weekend activity. Now they have money and get to continue with that culture that they love so much," said Pokwana.

The Eastern Cape wanted to become a sports tourism destination, he said.

The benefits stretch far beyond the horse-racing and horse-breeding communities. The first beneficiary of the Berlin November is the town and its people. Event organisers have partnered with a local rural development project called Masibambisane to improve development in the area.

Pokwana said the project wanted to attract investment. "We thought that by giving them that platform and opportunity, there would be some much-needed investment in the area."

With the exception of entrance to the VIP marquees, the event was free. Thousands of locals - it is hard to give a number because no tickets were sold - attended what is a rare extravaganza in their part of the world. Others watched the day's proceedings from across the road, sitting on a hillside or standing on the N2 freeway bridge overlooking the venue.

Preference was given to local suppliers for services rendered, such as catering. But that did not mean a free pass for entrepreneurs just because they were from around Berlin: they still needed to meet the standards of the event, with caterers being vetted by the Buffalo City municipality's health department.

block_quotes_start We’re trying to do something different from the Durban July. We’re trying to find our identity here in cloth block_quotes_end

Another beneficiary of the Berlin November is the Eastern Cape fashion industry. Students and alumni of Walter Sisulu University (its main campus is a few kilometres down the road from the venue) showed off their designs at a fashion show.

Sibusisiwe Nodada, from the university's fashion department, who co-ordinated the fashion show and exhibitions at the Berlin November, said Eastern Cape designs were underrated.

"There are so many tribes in the Eastern Cape: AmaHlubi, AmaMpondo, AmaXesibe, AbaThembu - that is the kind of fashion we showcase: raw and uncensored. We told the designers to look into that and then give us something that says 'vintage meets glam', which was this year's theme," she said.

The main fashion show was largely traditional, celebrating "the lifestyle of the Eastern Cape: how we dress, the differences in the beadwork, in the headgear, in the blankets", Nodada said.

"We're trying to do something different from the Durban July. We're trying to find our identity here in cloth. Whatever we do each year, the signature will remain the Eastern Cape."

Xhosa dress in modern form showcased in Berlin in the Eastern Cape.

It was important that the designers received exposure that allowed them to compete on a national level with the established fashion industries in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

"We have to export something that is completely different. We cannot export what everyone else has," Nodada said.

The first Berlin November did not feature fashion. Pokwana said that started last year and had really flourished. "We are giving exposure to a lot of designers from the Eastern Cape. For us, the fashion and craft component is about market access. We're introducing the audience to these designers so they know where to go when they buy fashion."

Pokwana hoped the Berlin November also encouraged locals to look into starting their own businesses and supply services. "Someone might have an 'Aha' moment," he said.