In the heart of KwaZulu-Natal, the Zulu people of South Africa weave colorful and vibrant telephone wire baskets. KwaZulu-Natal is the province on the eastern coast of South Africa, around the city of Durban; it is the historical home of the Zulu people. Not only did the Zulus have to endure the inequities of apartheid, but its aftermath as well. The result was seemingly endless oppression, marginalization, and loss of traditional homelands.
Estimates placed the level of unemployment in the region near 80%, with most of the local Zulu population trying to make a living on subsistence farming, government handouts, and money sent home by family members laboring as migrant workers in the cities. A successful beading and sewing business launched in the area, and addressed some of these needs – but it provided work for women only. Thus, the telephone wire weaving project began with the goal of offering work for the men in the region. Today, while both men and women make up this weaving group that impacts 500 Zulu families, men comprise 65% of the weavers.
Each weaver buys the wire on credit, creating a sense of independence and accountability. The weavers take their work home where they can work at their own pace and deal with their other responsibilities. Many of the weavers work at night around the fire in their communal cooking hut, and the baskets acquire a smoky smell which helps connect U.S. customers with the weavers on a sensory level. The weavers are paid for each basket made, and each worker has a record of work completed and the wages due or paid to them.