maXhosa Initiation Blankets and the Issue of Cultural Appropriation​

The amaXhosa are an Nguni people, the second largest ethnic group in South Africa and have predominantly populated Eastern Cape of South Africa from around the 1500s. They are a cattle herding people and have been historically known as the ‘Red Blanket People’ in reference to their dress of blankets colored with red ochre which varied in intensity and colour from one clan to the next due to the subtle geographical nuances in naturally occurring Ochre. 

One of the most iconic images of the Xhosa people is the initiation, Abakhwetha blanket, a white felted blanket with stark red bands which run along the length edges of the cloth. The use of red in this blanket is symbolic of the blood associated with the initiation ritual through which the boys pass into manhood. The isiXhosa initiation ritual begins with the building of grass huts, ‘iboma’ or ‘sutu’ by the adults of the community in an isolated natural space. The initiate or umkhwetha is then ceremoniously washed, wrapped in the blanket and ‘Ulwaluko’ or circumcision is performed. The next month is spent healing the circumcision wound in the seclusion of the huts, in immense pain and physical discomfort. Under the supervision of a caretaker who teaches them lessons in the responsibilities of manhood and how to survive with limited resources in harsh conditions, the abakhwetha attempt to prove their readiness for manhood, the ability to provide for and protect a family while enduring the heightened trials and symbolic difficulties of life. While the lessons of survival in nature are no longer as relevant to an increasingly urbanized culture, the ritual maintains important cultural significance in its role of educating initiates of the expectations and responsibilities of manhood and strengthening their sense of connection to their culture while testing their personal strength of character and physical resilience.

There are two initiation seasons, being performed either at the height of summer or more commonly the middle of winter, with the young men being pushed to extremes through exposure to the harshest of the elements under a state of enforced partial starvation, dehydration and exhaustion. Before beginning the rites, the umkhwhetha’s clothes are shredded and throughout the duration this secluded passage into manhood, with the exception of a daily application of white clay which covers the full body and face, the blanket forms the initiate’s only means of dress and protection from the elements. Some accounts, such as the autobiographical account of former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela in A Long Walk to Freedom, relate that following the ulwaluko, the foreskin is attached to the corner of the umkhwetha’s blanket further strengthening the symbolism of the cloth. The initiation passage is concluded with the burning of the huts along with the blankets symbolizing the shedding of boyhood and the protection of the possessions of their past from witchcraft. The young men are then presented to their communities as ‘Amakrwala’, wrapped in a new, generally more colourful and elaborate blanket.

Contemporarily, these blankets are acrylic, mass produced in mills and marketed for both traditional ceremonial use as well as ‘homeware’ and ‘decor’ for broader, culturally unspecific consumption. The Aranda Mills, founded by an Italian family who relocated in the wake of WWII to Randfontein is a major producer of the Xhosa Abakhwetha and Ingcawe blanket – a white blanket with black stripe traditionally used to wrap the corpse in burial – this mill has other cultural significant ties as the only officially certified producer of Basotho blankets for the landlocked kingdom of Lesotho, which you can read more about here

While the blanket forms an integral part of the traditional dress of the amaXhosa, this history does not precede colonial influence. Traditionally the Nguni tribes are a Cattle herding people and the majority of their dress was originally constituted by animal hide. With a rapid expansion of population, decrease of the availability of hide following the cattle killings and famines of 1856-7 led by the xhosa prophet Nongqawuse, an increase of colonial imports and the spread of Christian conservatism, blankets were adopted widely across southern Africa. Blankets as well as European produced iShweshwe or iJaliman, resist printed and heavily starched cotton, was quickly adopted and then assimilated by indigenous peoples as an affordable and practical form of dress. The amaXhosa have proven to be a highly resourceful and resilient people, adapting their languages and lifestyles to a rapidly changing environment while maintaining strong and rich cultural traditions and rituals. 

In his report documenting his first hand experience of an initiation ceremony, journalist Richard Bullock describes the passage as “a mystical, secretive ritual that occurs far away from the eyes of the public”. Therefore, to see Xhosa blankets used for culturally significant ceremonies being marketed as home decor to a broader and culturally unspecific market via online platforms raises complex questions of cultural appropriation. On the one hand, the sales to the broader market seem to be driven primarily by the merit of their aesthetic value, a generally superficial factor which is a concern in terms of cultural appropriation. However, the images of the blankets are generally accompanied by a summary of their history which even if sometimes somewhat short does not evade their cultural significance and  they remain to be sold at relatively affordable prices, thus not excluding the traditional market.  While it may be argued that appropriation of cultural symbols for a visual or otherwise trend driven motive can be derogatory if not damaging, it may be possible that approached in a respectful and sincere manner this could adversely encourage cross cultural connection. Through the inclusion of community participation best practices, it may be possible that cultural cross referencing could encourage greater visibility leading to destigmatization of and greater appreciation for varied cultural practices which often face difficulties of othering through mainstream representation.  


I was inspired to research the abakwetha blanket story after watching the beautifully crafted film Inxeba / ‘The Wound’ written and directed by John Trengrove and produced by Urucu Media which addresses LGBTQ Issues within the secretive space of the amaXhosa initiation ritual in which the abakwetha blanket forms a key aspect of the costume design. 

Reading List

McDowell, J.C. 2000. ‘A HISTORY OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN TEXTILE INDUSTRY. THE PIONEERING PHASE, 1820 – 1948’ University of KwaZulu Natal. Online 

Bullock, R. 2015. ‘Its Hard to Be A Man: A Month with Three Initiates During the Xhosa Circumcision Ritual.’ Africa Geographic: Online

Image credits

Featured Image: QUNU, EASTERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA, 14 DECEMBER 2013: Xhosa Initiates pass by close to the funeral of Nelson Mandela, Qunu, South Africa, 14 December 2014. These initiates have recently been circumsized traditionally and without anesthetic. They will spend up to two months dressed this way and learning the tradtions of Xhosa culture. Nelson Mandela, an icon of democracy, also went through this tradtional ritual. Mandela was buried at his family home in Qunu after passing away on the 5th December 2013. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images.)

Top: A Group of Abakwetha

Bottom: Still from Inxeba (2017)


Back to blog