Thebe Magugu’s giant capsule of African heritage

Thebe Magugu

By Mamelodi Marakalala 

There is much said about the importance of heritage to every nation. The most profound of these speeches is the encouragement of more people to build giant capsules that preserve their culture and memory. In their academic paper (first published in 2001) exploring the ways in which culture has long been traditionally managed and preserved in southern African nations, particularly Zimbabwe, archaeological scholars and heritage pioneers Dr Webber Ndoro and Dr Gilbert Pwiti make note of three cardinal reasons we strive for cultural capsules of our heritage. 

We want to protect our cultures for present generations to hold on to and for future generations to discover and continue. We want to understand and experience our cultural heritage because it carries insights into our quality of life. There is scientific knowledge in the cultural environment that has built the history of our ancestors, which has been up to our description and interpretation, and for our education. 

Scattered in between these purposes and ways of preservation was always the need to see our culture visually captured justly and sealed in a glass jar; to be archived and searched for, or displayed and viewed by the inheritors of that heritage. South African leading fashion designer Thebetsile Magugu, founder and creative director of the contemporary luxury fashion brand THEBE MAGUGU, uses fabric in his articulation and preservation of the cultural histories of the various regions and ethnicities in the country. 

Magugu’s giant capsule can be counted on and treasured as one of the visual presentations of momentous African cultural stories and histories. “My brand is an amalgamation of my own history and experience but also trying to capture events, people, and histories in the country and on the continent. When I started in 2016, I wanted it to be an encyclopaedic look at all the incredible people, events and histories,” Magugu said in the Contemporary Design as Heritage Preservation and Engagement panel discussion, at the Reimagining Heritage, Archives, and Museums: Today/Tomorrow convening in February 2024. Even more meaningful about inscribing heritage onto fabric is that the garment gets to be occasionally donned by its buyers. 

Mother and Child 

The Mother and Child edition – a second instalment – of the Heritage Series pays tribute to a moment that naturally marks the beginning of all heritage – when a woman creates and nurtures life. It is a collection of dresses that reflects the juxtaposition of the strong bounds and boundlessness of motherhood and child-rearing from the perspectives of nine South African cultures. 

Each dress features an image of a mother and her child in Pedi, Venda, Tsonga, Sotho, Tswana, Ndebele, Zulu, Swazi,  Xhosa and Ndebele traditional attire; as illustrated by South African graphic designer and illustrator Phathu Nembilwi. In the campaign images, the models are carrying everyday/functional items on their heads. Large enamel dishes, woven baskets, a selection of fruits and vegetables, chickens, oil lanterns, and various items are staples in many South African homes and symbolise African women’s fulfilment of their traditional roles in the household. 

In a few of these images, the model additionally carries a child on their back. This is a convenient way for women to accomplish housework and still maintain a consistent emotional bond with their babies during their early development. “Seeing the women in my family have to carry children on their backs and necessities on their heads always reminded me of (incredibly chic) Afro totem poles; a showcase of utter strength both physical and symbolic. I wanted to pay homage to this memory,” says Magugu. His association of African womanhood with the totem statues not only puts the African woman on a pedestal that calls for her to be respected but also reflects on the natural and spiritual nuances behind her motherhood. 

We are educated on these nuances through the accompanying short essays on the childbearing beliefs that each of the nine cultures holds and upholds, as well as the practices or rituals that take place during antenatal and postnatal care for both the mother and child. The texts were written by experts in health who undertook the research exclusively for the capsule, namely Dr M.E Chauke and Professor M.C Matlakala (from the University of South Africa) with Professor J.D Mokoena (from Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University). 


The Heirloom Satin Shirt encapsulates and reflects heritage from a personal perspective, giving the wearer the weight of family and love on their shoulders both as a symbol and literally. Although not directly a Heritage Series collection, Heirloom does reverberate the THEBE MAGUGU brand’s mission to celebrate and preserve cultural and personal heritage. As part of the project, buyers were granted the opportunity to upload images of their loved ones from 6 – 22 October 2023. The image sent would form part of the shirt’s patterning, the memory of and love for them forever preserved into the fabric. 

Laia Garcia-Furtado made an important note about how Heirloom connects us even more to fashion in the Thebe Magugu Wants You to Wear Your Heart – and a Photo of a Loved One – On Your Sleeve article, which was published in Vogue in celebration of the capsule launch. She noted that the idea not only appeals to our desire to honour those we cherish but enables us to use garments in manifesting our identities. It is the people that stood behind us that have informed who we became today and it is acknowledging their place in our lives in such a powerful way that affirms our gratitude. 

Magugu used an image of his grandmother Matiego Magugu, captured during the precious moment of praying over her daughter, his mother, at her 21st birthday. He says, “My grandmother raised me while my mom had to work in a neighbouring city, and her maternal cushioning of my sense of self [has] built me into the person I am today. I remember how encouraging she was when I was around 10 years old and revealed that I would like to make clothes.”

Lobola Negotiations 

Lobola, lovola, magadi, mahadi, or mamalo translates to “bridal price” from multiple South African indigenous languages. It describes the South African custom whereby a prospective husband mobilises his elders and family to ask for his future wife’s hand in marriage. Taking place ahead of a wedding ceremony or constituting the wedding ceremony in some families, lobola involves the bride’s family negotiating with the groom’s family for how much they are willing to part with their daughter. 

In true THEBE MAGUGU fashion, this third edition of the Heritage Series sheds light on the customs or rituals that are specific to each region, ethnicity, or family’s lobola ceremonies. Once more, we are in awe of Phathu Nembilwi’s illustrations. The dresses become windows through which we see the full traditional attires and artefacts that are significant to the nine South African cultures, especially during such grand occasions. 

For example, the two Zulu men figurations in the Zulu Lobola Dress don animal skins and furs, while holding Nguni oval-shaped shields. The Tswana Lobola Dress portrays two elderly women wearing headwraps and blankets over their shoulders, and one of them carries a sorghum beer-filled calabash on the head. To further reflect the idea of a union between two people and two families, the dresses were launched simultaneously with the men’s shirts for the project. 

Images from the campaign feature particular objects and elements that founded and maintained the lobola tradition. A life-size signature THEBE MAGUGU Sisterhood Coin appears in one photograph and a leaping cow is featured in another photograph to signify the core aspect of the negotiations – the two accepted forms of payment for the bridal price. There is a large pack of Magugu Maize Meal in another image, an ingredient of pap/porridge and sorghum beer, which are a necessity in Black South African homes, rituals, and small and grand ceremonies. 

THEBE MAGUGU also features celebrated people from the arts, media, politics, and other influential professionals in his campaigns. In this instance, featuring 18 South African icons holds an even greater meaning because it signifies the fact that chosen lead negotiators and family representatives turn out to be the icons and backbones of their families. 

The subjects explored in THEBE MAGUGU’s capsule are specific milestones and experiences that form African cultural identities. The very means through which Magugu explores these subjects is worthy of celebration. Heritage preservation and engagement have come a long way since our ancestors’ oral traditions of passing down stories and heritage, since our great-grandmothers started to document important pieces of our heritage in their journals and notebooks, and since our grandmothers and mothers started to weave them into tapestries. It is an important feat that this generation continues to imagine and reimagine how future Africans will learn and be connected to their heritage. 

In May this year, Magugu House was introduced to the public. He says, “I have always loved the idea of pouring all my collections, installations, events, and projects into one space, and Magugu House becomes exactly that – an institution solidifying our universe.” Located on 52 Bompas Road, Dunkeld, Johannesburg, the space is a way through which we can always engage with the living and growing capsule.

The Heritage III in Magugu’s giant capsule of African heritage is currently ongoing, with dresses and shirts still available on the THEBE MAGUGU website.

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