The Swazi clothing and adornment collection at the UCLA Fowler Museum: A transnational collaboration between Hilda Kuper and Thoko Ginindza

Thoko Ginindza and Hilda Kuper, 1984/85, from the Kuper family collection, courtesy of Mary Kuper

Dr. Abby Gondek, Morgenthau Scholar-in-Residence, FDR Library, Hyde Park, NY

PhD Global and Socio-cultural Studies, Florida International University

MA African and African Diaspora Studies, FIU

MA Women’s Studies, SDSU

Part of the panel: MuSeums as Sites of and for research

American Anthropological Association Meeting, November 22, 2019, Vancouver, BC


Hilda Kuper was a Jewish political-legal anthropologist, novelist and playwright, born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia in 1911. She grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and received her anthropological training with Winifred Hoernlé at the University of Witwatersrand and Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. Kuper is best known for her research in Swaziland where she became a citizen in 1970; Hilda took a “Swazi point of view,” arguing that Westernization weakened women’s position. Very little has been written about Hilda’s collaboration with Swazi anthropologist, Thoko Ginindza (1942-1996).

Though nothing has been published about their Swazi artifact collection at the UCLA Fowler Museum, these Swazi women’s clothing and adornment items provide tangible evidence of the transracial and transnational collaboration between Kuper and Ginindza.

Hilda and her husband, Leo Kuper, came to UCLA after increasing police surveillance made staying in South Africa untenable. Hilda eventually became a Professor in Anthropology at UCLA. Thoko wrote to Hilda (whom she knew from Swaziland) in 1967 asking for Hilda’s assistance to attend UCLA, where Thoko earned a MA in African Studies in 1972. Their shared research emphasized the impact of colonization and the traditional Swazi aristocracy on women’s roles in Swaziland, manifested through gendered clothing norms.

This presentation will provide a history and visual analysis of the Swazi collection and their research relationship through an exploration of correspondence between Kuper and Ginindza and fieldwork photographs from the Hilda Kuper Papers held in the UCLA Special Collections.

Abby Gondek with the Thoko Ginindza Swazi collection at the UCLA Fowler Museum in November 2016. Photo by Erica P. Jones, Asst. Curator of African Art
Abby at UCLA Fowler Museum with the Teresa Thoko Ginindza Swazi collection. November 2016, photo taken by Erica P. Jones, Assistant Curator of African Art


The goal of this presentation is to raise awareness about the Swazi collection held at the UCLA Fowler Museum and to investigate the long-term research relationship and collaboration between women that crossed racial and national borders. This collaboration occurred between a Black Swazi woman anthropologist and a Jewish Rhodesian/South African woman anthropologist. I want to emphasize how museum collecting and anthropological theorizing is a collaborative project and not one done in isolation. I especially want to underscore how women of color and indigenous women did and do much of the ethnographic labor/theorizing that made and make these collections and writing projects possible. Lyn Schumaker’s Africanizing Anthropology (2001) has been especially influential for my thinking. My dissertation explores theories related to these politics of knowledge production and canon creation in much more depth. This presentation is part of a larger project which investigates how and why Jewish women social scientists throughout the Jewish and African diasporas wrote about Black women and how that reflected Jewish women’s positionality within racial, political, class and other institutional and professional networks. Here I center on the material connections between Thoko Ginindza and Hilda Kuper, cross-referencing the multiple forms of evidence that document the formation of the Thoko Ginindza Swazi artifact collection at the UCLA Fowler Museum as well as images of the artifacts which exist in the collection. I interweave the following sources with a strong emphasis on the objects themselves:

  • correspondence between Thoko and Hilda about the collection
  • Thoko’s description of the objects she collected both in the digitized description of the collection and her handwritten and photocopied field notes that accompanied the collection (both of which Erica P. Jones at the Fowler Museum shared with me)
  • photographs of the objects in the collection that I took when I visited the museum in 2016
  • photographs from the Hilda Kuper Papers that display the clothing and adornment items found in the collection (some of the photos show Hilda wearing some of these types of items)
  • Thoko’s writings including a paper she wrote in 1971 “Dress in Swaziland” for Hilda’s anthropology course & Hilda’s related 1973 article “Costume and Identity” which drew upon Thoko’s work
  • Thoko’s Statement of Purpose (1974) written to gain admission to a PhD in Anthropology at UCLA & Hilda’s corrections to it
  • Hilda’s academic and creative writings about Swaziland and Thoko’s development -oriented writing about Swazi women

My main argument is that Thoko’s labor (collecting, writing, researching) powerfully informed Hilda’s writing and theorizing. In turn, Hilda enabled Thoko’s transnational access to UCLA. Thoko collected artifacts and data for Hilda. Thoko wrote about Swazi clothing and adornment and Hilda utilized this information for her own writing. The collection at UCLA would not exist without their collaborative partnership. In addition, I argue that Thoko was working in a more “feminist” direction than Hilda was comfortable with, and Thoko critiqued Swazi patriarchal systems in a way that Hilda did not, except for in her creative writings.


  • Introduction: How did I learn about their collaboration and the Swazi artifact collection at UCLA? Correspondence and detailed explanations of clothing items mentioned in Thoko’s letter. Photographs of items from the Swazi collection at UCLA and from the Hilda Kuper Papers.
  • Development of relationship between Thoko and Hilda & Hilda’s revisions of Thoko’s statement of purpose (from the Hilda Kuper Papers correspondence): this is the lead up to the beginning of the collection process
  • Specific objects in the Swazi collection and their meanings/uses
  • An explanation of Hilda’s perspectives regarding women in Swazi society & Thoko’s writings about women
This you tube video by Gabby Dlamini demonstrates the contemporary use of the “traditional” Swazi attire for young women including many of the items that I describe in my presentation.

Gabby Dlamini is Associate Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology at Nelson Mandela University


I learned of the collaboration between Hilda and Teresa Thoko Ginindza during my first trip to the Hilda Kuper Papers in May 2016. I came across letters between Hilda and Thoko in which Hilda asked Thoko to collect Swazi artifacts to form an object collection at the ethnology museum at UCLA .

“I spoke to George Elkin, who is in charge of the ethnological museum at UCLA, and he is very interested in getting as full a collection of Swazi materials as possible, but the amount of money available is limited. He thinks that he could get $500 for it and has asked me to arrange things with you so that the money be spent most advantageously. I suggested full sets of traditional clothing for men, women and children would be a starting point, but pointed out to him that the leopard skin loincloth now costs an enormous amount. I wonder if you could give me an estimate? It would be very good to start with clothing, including sample bead work and then to other handicrafts.”

-Hilda Kuper to Thoko Ginindza, March 13, 1975

Hilda Kuper Papers, Box 24, Folder 20, UCLA Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library

In turn, Thoko reported on which types of objects she managed to find and purchase.

Thoko Ginindza to Hilda Kuper, April 16, 1975, regarding Swazi material culture collection for UCLA ethnology museum, Hilda Kuper Papers, Box 24, Folder 20
Thoko Ginindza to Hilda Kuper, April 16, 1975, Hilda Kuper Papers, Box 24, Folder 20

This section of the letter states: I have placed an order for some emagcebesha and tingciba specimens for the Anthro museum. But as you have realized, the $500 will not go very far, particularly as the postage will cost quite a bit. Emagcebesha now cost E1.50, a piece Indlamu starts at E16.00. It will take some time to get the things, but I will send anything I can get and then you reimburse me. I will send the things directly to you. The hide for the loin skin [emajobo] cost between E5.00 and E6.00 a piece, and it’s very difficult to get as people have to poach. I will next be working on those and tidvwaba. I am trying to concentrate on dress and costume for this year, but I have collected a few other items, old emakhuba [?] and imugcwembe [?] and other things as I come across them.

I will explain the objects described in this letter below.

The objects described in Thoko’s letter

Emagcebesha: beaded necklaces (Betty Sibongile Dlamini “Women and Theatre for Development in Swaziland” a doctoral dissertation, 2008, p. 141) [Note that ema- is the plural form, so this is the plural version of ligcebesha, described below. Thank you to Beth Rosen-Prinz for this explanation of singular and plural forms of terms included in this presentation.]

Tingciba: plural form of ingciba, a type of beaded necklace included in Thoko’s Swazi collection and discussed in her paper “Dress in Swaziland”; ingciba are discussed below

Indlamu: unmarried girls wore this for the reed dance. It is a short skirt, of beadwork on cloth, which is very expensive so typically one would be shared among all the girls in the family. A substitute would be a cotton skirt called a indiloko, which Thoko explained came from the Afrikaans term “onder rok” or petticoat (Ginindza, “Dress in Swaziland,” 1971, p. 8). From the digitalized description of the Swazi collection at the Fowler Museum (catalogue no. X76-376): “Waistband of brass studded blue cloth and beads which is worn by unmarried women during the Reed Dance (umhlanga). Also worn at other occasions such as weddings.” For a contemporary video of umhlanga and contemporary critiques of the ceremony, see below.

“The Umhlanga, a Swazi cultural tradition that celebrates chastity and virginity, attracts tens of thousands of women from across the country. On the final day of the festival, the young women, or ‘maidens’, parade bare-breasted at the royal village. Traditionally, the king is allowed to choose one of the women as a wife, but in recent years the festival has been more about preserving a cultural heritage. However, there is growing criticism from human rights groups who claim cultural ceremonies are enforced in Swaziland by the last absolute monarchy in Africa.

-Sara Assarsson, The Guardian,
22 Sep 2016

Sara Assarsson also explains that families who do not send their daughters for the umhlanga must pay a fine in the form of an animal like a cow or goat. Girls are rewarded if they participate with a payment of 500 rand, which for many families is a strong motivation (2/3 of Swazis are living below the poverty line).

The girls who participate in umhlanga are unmarried, and without children, and range in age from 5 to 22. The ceremony provides a reed tribute and dance to the Queen Mother and also serves to prove the girls’ “chastity” (Dlamini, 2008, p. 136).

Betty Dlamini makes a powerful argument that “the umhlanga dance is… a political mechanism …to control girls” (p. 143). B. Dlamini analyzes two conflicting songs that young women sing during the ceremony. She contends that these songs criticize girls who have sex of their own choice but promote older men’s initiation of sex with girls, without girls’ agreement (p. 139). She also explains that historically Swazi women wanted to wear indlamu (the short skirt) because its high expense showed off the financial status of the family. In contrast, the slightly longer skirt (indiloko) was associated with poverty and was looked down upon because it was seen as covering the girls’ bodies which were supposed to be on display. In the contemporary context, many girls prefer to use lihiya (described in the video by Gabby Dlamini at the beginning of this post, lihiya or emahiya were called umhelwane by Thoko Ginindza). B. Dlamini emphasizes how contemporary girls often feel embarassed to be dressed with so little clothing and to have their bodies be “scrutinized” as a “sexual resource for the king” and by tourists and even their male college classmates (pp. 141-142). Dlamini also details the negative impacts of the umhlanga since it is during this time that girls have sex for the first time, use drugs, become pregnant and even contract STIs such as HIV.

Dlamini, Betty Sibongile. 2008. “Women and Theatre for Development in Swaziland.” The University of London.

A contemporary version of the umhlanga (reed dance).

Tidvwaba (the plural form of sidvwaba): In Ginindza’s 1971 paper “Dress in Swaziland” which she submitted for Hilda’s course, Anthropology 107a in Fall 1971 (Hilda gave it an A-), she focused on Swazi gendered clothing norms, and she spoke of a specific skirt, made of cattle or ox hide, that only married women (or mothers) wore called a sidvwaba, that was so heavy it “broke the waist” (p. 1); Thoko noted that it was so stiff that it conquered “even the most stubborn woman” ensuring that she relinquished her freedom and conformed to the demands of married life (p. 2). Thoko’s research clearly influenced Hilda, since this description can be found in Kuper’s 1973 article “Costume and Identity” (p. 352). However, Thoko’s implication (with a strong feminist undertone) in her 1971 paper is muted in Kuper’s re-telling. Kuper wrote: “the leather skirt is the breaker of the support (insika is the pole that supports a hut, and the meaning is that even the most stubborn woman is overcome by the leather skirt)” (p. 352).

I contacted the African Art curator, Erica P. Jones, at the Fowler Museum on the UCLA campus in July 2016, to inquire if a Swazi ethnographic object collection existed. Indeed, there was a collection, with a visual index of the materials, though the documentation listed Thoko as a man! I set up a time in November 2016 to go to the Fowler to see and photograph the Swazi objects that Teresa Thoko Ginindza had collected and sent to Hilda Kuper in 1976-1977. At that time Thoko’s official title was: Ethnographer at the Swaziland National Center, in Lobamba (the legislative capital of Swaziland).

Swaziland map,
A map of Swaziland, Lobamba is the legislative capital.

The development of the relationship between Hilda and Thoko, 1967-1973

Thoko knew Hilda from Swaziland and wrote to her in 1967 asking for Hilda’s help to attend UCLA . With Hilda’s support, Thoko earned her M.A. in African Studies in 1972.

Thoko was born December 10, 1942 and received her BA in African Languages and Literature in 1968 at UBLS (the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, located in Roma, Lesotho). On November 28, 1967 she wrote to “Doctor Kuper”:

“You said when we met at Mbabane [the administrative capital] that I must write to you in California. I hope this letter reaches you. I am writing this letter to ask you if you can help me in any way possible. I so wish to get to that university of California to do African studies…I have no other interest except doing African Studies and digging down to Swati Traditional Literature”

(Miss) Teresa Thoko Gindinza, November 28, 1967, Hilda Kuper Papers, Box 24, Folder 20, UCLA Special Collections

August 25, 1970: Thoko’s graduate application rejected by Linguistics department at UCLA. Hilda wrote: “I cannot tell you how disappointed I am…I will do all I can to get you to Los Angeles.”

June 8, 1972: Hilda recommended (along with other committee members: Maquet, Povey) to the “Gentlemen” of the African Studies Center that Thoko should receive her MA in African Studies based upon her examination, her papers and classwork. Hilda also stated that all three committee members felt Thoko was “of PhD caliber.”

November 7, 1973: Thoko unemployed but conducting research for HK for Kuper’s biography of Sobhuza II. Collecting speeches from Queen Mother, Gwamile, and the King. Interviewing members of the government, like the constitutional commission. Collecting newspaper clippings about special events such as royal weddings.

In the same folder as the correspondence between them, is Thoko’s statement of purpose for her admission to UCLA for her PhD (March 18, 1974). This reveals Thoko’s interest in the impact of colonization as well as the traditional aristocracy on women’s roles in Swaziland and women’s attitudes in the post-colonial era. Thoko developed the theme of gender in Swazi culture that Hilda would only address in her creative writing.

Thoko’s Statement of Purpose, 1974

TG’s original

“My interest in Anthropology is in Ethnology. I intend to undertake a study of the changing role of women in the Swazi society, the Kingdom of Swaziland, a former British Protectorate, achieved its independence in 1968, September 6…I would like to focus attention on the social, ritual, domestic and economic roles of women and the consequences of change on the traditional family structure.”

She cited HK here (Uniform of Colour, 1947) to argue that “Swaziland is considered a male dominated society” where “women fulfill subsidiary roles”; however, Thoko emphasized that there was a system to “integrate women into the national society” and at the same time “preserve national consciousness and unity.”

Thoko was interested in examining institutions that were both “traditional and modern” including the family, political, law-making, religious and voluntary organizations. She also wanted to study the role of Gwamile, the Queen Mother, in ritual, especially the Reed dance [umhlanga], incwala [first-fruits], as well as in Christian gatherings. Thoko argued that “Women have always been in the forefront in religious activities.” She wanted to investigate the attitudes toward the “superimposition of Christian marriage upon traditional marriage.”

She forcefully contended that “male domination” determined  “economic opportunities for women’s advancement” in certain professions (civil service, medical, teaching) and caused a wage gap which led women to pursue entrepreneurial careers.

Thoko’s research questions:

i. Would the role of women been [sic] different if Swaziland had no colonial history?

ii. Is there an identity of interest between the traditional aristocracy and the colonial administration in maintaining women in their subsidiary role?

iii. Have attitudes changed to the role of women in the post-colonial era?

“The consequences of this imbalance are to be explored, for in the rural areas the burden of domestic affairs falls on the women” (2).

HK’s changes

Hilda changed Ethnology to “Socio-cultural Anthropology”

HK deleted the mention of herself. She also made this paragraph sound more positive and therefore Swazi society sound less sexist:

“The Swazi have been described as a male-dominated society but an analysis will reveal the extent to which women are integrated into the national political system and the considerable influence that they wield in all activities.”

Hilda’s corrections to Thoko’s statement of purpose

This sounds more like Hilda’s argument than Thoko’s. Hilda only expressed a more critical view of Swazi society (in terms of the treatment of women) in her creative writing, like the play A Witch in my Heart (1970). This is explained below.

HK toned down Thoko’s critique of Swazi society’s economic discrimination against women. “The study will, if necessary, include an analysis of voluntary organizations in which women are involved, opportunities for women’s advancement in the civil service and various professions and the circumstances favoring the development of women entrepreneurs in modern Swaziland.” Hilda took out the term “male domination” as well as “differential wage structure” thus the paragraph lost the causal relationship that Thoko made between male domination and economic discrimination against women evidenced in the wage gap and lack of employment in specific industries in Swaziland.

Hilda crossed out Thoko’s first question, noting “speculation.”

In the revised version, Hilda removed Thoko’s questions. Intriguingly, these are all issues that are explored in Hilda’s creative writing about Swazi women’s position.

Hilda put a slash through the section where Thoko critiqued the government’s lack of attention to providing economic opportunities for rural communities which had led to male out-migration, and caused a high ratio of men in the cities and a low ratio in the rural areas.

Hilda removed the critique of the Swazi government from Thoko’s argument. Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that Hilda was working on an official biography of Sobhuza II and her tendency to take an elite or royal Swazi point of view. I will expand on this at the end of this presentation.

From the Thoko Ginindza Collection


According to this contemporary explanation, umhelwane are described as lihiya (singular) and emahiya (plural).

Details about umhelwane from Thoko’s paper “Dress in Swaziland” for Hilda’s course Anthropology 107a in Fall 1971: The umhelwane is an item of clothing worn over the sidziya (p. 5). The sidziya is an apron made of goat skin given to a woman by her in-laws, similar to a “wedding ring” (p. 3). “Big girls not having reached puberty wear one ‘sidvwashi’ with or without ‘umhelwane.'” Sidvwashi is tied on the left side while umhelwane is tied on the right side; it has to be knotted in a specific small knot, not a big one (p. 5). For girls after puberty, the umhelwane is tied on the right; it goes under the left armpit and meets just above the right breast. The part on the back right side protrudes more than the front so that it forms a sleeve (p. 6). Sidvwashi: Thoko explains that the “tidvwashi” (the plural form) are the “bottom pieces worn around the waist” (p. 6). She also explains the linguistic history of the term: sidvwashi could have been “derived from the noise caused by the cloth whilst new and starchy, dvwasha dvwasha, hence sidvwashi” (p. 6).

“Dress in Swaziland” can be found in Box 24, Folder 20 in the Hilda Kuper Papers in UCLA Special Collections

Kuper referred to “sidwashi” in her article “Costume and Identity” (1973). When she and her daughter, Jenny, were in Swaziland in October 1966 for the Ncwala (incwala is the first fruits ceremony to honor the king) a dilemma developed as to what they would wear. This was because the King (Ngwenyama) and his supporters were supposed to wear “traditional” clothing to demonstrate their national and cultural identity (this was common as African countries established independence from colonial rule). It is suggested to Hilda that Jenny wear a “sidwashi” (notice the v is missing) which Hilda described as a “beautiful but very short beaded skirt which loving mothers usually sewed laboriously for their adolescent daughters” (pp. 358-360). However, what Hilda described sounds more to me like “indlamu” (see above). This website displays contemporary images of “sidvwashi” (which is a cloth skirt), and umhelwane (called lihiya and emahiya on the website).

A video explaining how to wear the “traditional” Swazi attire for young women. I include this video again here because it discusses sidvwashi (this specific type of skirt).


Umgcula: This is a “cloak”, “worn as a shawl by women only.” This design was developed for Swazi independence in 1968 “as a souvenir”; it contains the “same colors as the flag” and the shield at the center is also found on the Swazi flag (p. 7 of Thoko’s Field Notes, stapled to Acquisition Cover Sheet, and Record and Receipt of Incoming Objects ).

Thoko calls this an “overall piece” worn over all the other items of women’s attire she describes in her paper: “Dress in Swaziland” for Hilda’s Anthropology 107a in Fall 1971, see p. 6. She explains that this piece of clothing covers the whole body, from shoulder to ankle.

Beadwork: Ligcebesha

“Ligcebesh [represented in the collection at the Fowler museum] is worn around the neck and has two pieces with the same design at the front. These are woven into a string long enough to go round the neck. Instead of ligcebesha, ingciba may be worn, it is very similar to the ligcebesha, the only difference being that unlike ligcebesha, ingciba does not have the two pieces. Sigcizo is worn around the wrist and the ankles” (Ginindza, “Dress in Swaziland”, 1971, p. 8).

Hilda Kuper with Leo Kuper and Max Gluckmann at Watts Towers, in LA in the early to mid 1970s. Hilda is wearing a ligcebesha necklace.
Hilda Kuper (center) with Leo Kuper (behind) and Max Gluckman (right) at Watts Towers, Los Angeles. Hilda Kuper Papers, Box 45, Folder 20. Gelya Frank thinks that this photograph was likely taken in the early or mid-1970s when Gluckman came to UCLA to give a lecture. Hilda is wearing a Swazi ligcebesha necklace. Examples of these necklaces can be found at the UCLA Fowler Museum, Thoko Ginindza Swazi collection, catalogue numbers: X76-336 to X76-345.

Hilda’s Swazi affiliations & Perspectives

Casey Golomski reveals that what Hilda viewed as “traditional” Swazi customs were likely recent re-introductions that King Sobhuza II initiated in the 1920s and ‘30s (and that Hilda helped to reinstate as “traditions” through her writings) in order to revive the “militaristic regimental age system” called emabutfo, which served to bolster his own royal power and control over national consciousness (Golomski 2011, 8–9). Hugh MacMillan (1995) maintains that while Kuper believed in the importance of studying history and social change, she still did not emphasize discontinuities within Swazi so-called “traditions” because she wanted to support “the Swazi point of view” which was a royal and elite perspective (Macmillan 1995, 559–61). Leroy Vail and Landeg White (1991) contend that Hilda’s writings about Sobhuza served to promote his propaganda campaign to promote Swazi “tradition” in support of his monarchy (Golomski 2011, 9; Vail and White 1991, 179, 192).

Golomski, Casey. 2011. “Hilda Kuper, Anthropology, History.” In University of Swaziland, UNISWA, History Staff Seminar Series, 21. University of Swaziland, Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

Macmillan, Hugh. 1995. “Administrators, Anthropologists, and ‘Traditionalists’ in Swaziland: The Case of the ‘AmaBhaca’ Fines.” Africa 65 (4): 545–64.

Vail, Leroy, and Landeg White. 1991. Power and the Praise Poem: Southern African Voices in History. University Press of Virginia.

In an interview with her student, Gelya Frank (1979), Kuper maintained that Westernization caused the deterioration of women’s position in Swazi society: “The westernized Swazi man retains the most terrible chauvinist attitude toward women.” Hilda believed that polygamy was part of the Swazi respect for women (18). An example Hilda provided was that Sobhuza II (the King of Swaziland who had authorized her research and publications on the Swazi from 1934-1978) had to sit on the ground when his elder sister entered the dwelling where Hilda sat. Hilda explained that age, rank and sex all played an integral role. Thus, it could not be argued that women were necessarily inferior within Swazi society and instead she used the term “complementarity” (Frank and Kuper 1979, 17–18).

Frank, Gelya, and Hilda Kuper. 1979. “Rough Transcript Interview Conducted by Gelya Frank with Hilda Kuper Re: Ethics/Morality of Life History Work and Hilda’s Biography of Sobhuza II, June 28, 1979.” Los Angeles: Hilda Kuper Papers, Box 16, Folder 5, UCLA Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

Kuper’s perspectives were highly influenced by her identification with Swazi culture and especially her affiliation with the Swazi royal family. For example, she told Gelya Frank:

And I think an anthropologist owes it to the people who take her into confidence…

But I was also given a very specialized position in the hierarchy and would have to stand with the queens, stand with the princesses.

Hilda Kuper, 1979, page 11

Hilda’s argument that Swazi women were better treated than Zulu women (who did not have a “Queen Mother”) rested upon an example from the royal family, rather than reference to non-elite Swazi gender relations. Also, her ties of obligation to Sobhuza necessitated her adoption of a Swazi elite male point of view regarding women’s position in Swazi society, at least in her “academic writings.”

In the Swazi society that Kuper observed, conformity was of the utmost importance in order to prevent jealousy and rivalry between co-wives: “A conservative (and wise) polygamist bestows on all his wives identical prints and blankets so as not to awaken jealousy; though each woman may impart her own distinctive quality and express herself in small part by the ornaments she herself makes” but to an outsider the prints all looked the same (Kuper 1973, 353).

Kuper, Hilda. 1973. “Costume and Identity.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 15 (3): 348–67.

A Witch in my heart- Hilda’s Creative Writing

Hilda tended to portray women as victims rather than as empowered and creative resistors to hierarchical and patriarchal structures. As Kuper depicted in A Witch in my Heart, Swazi wives, who were considered outsiders in their husband’s patrilocal family, were required to conform to strict rules. If one of the wives (in this story her name is Bigwapi) demonstrated any extraordinary talents including cooking, gardening or creativity, and if a tragedy befell the family (such as the death of a co-wife’s child), they were deemed a witch (and murderer of the child) by male diviners. Fathers-in-law were responsible for hiring these male diviners. If (& when) the non-conforming co-wife (in this story Bigwapi) was found guilty of witchcraft she was banished to her natal home, where she continued to be dreaded and feared. Even if the woman’s husband did not want her banished, he was forced to obey his father, who was the ultimate head of power; the father-in-law maintained the stability of the male controlled family and protected co-wives from what were considered non-conforming and aberrant wives (Kuper and Institute 1970, xiv–xxvi).

Kuper, Hilda, and International African Institute. 1970. A Witch in My Heart: A Play Set in Swaziland in the 1930s. Oxford U.P.

The Swazi mother- in-law character in Kuper’s play A Witch in My Heart, seemed to blame the Swazi patriarchy for Bigwapi’s exile when she stated “the law of our people is hard on women” (Kuper and Institute 1970:56). Bigwapi’s banishment can also be partly explained by the colonial system that not only forced Swazi men to journey to cities for access to money, but also imprisoned them unjustly for drinking beer in privately-run bars.

Uniform of Colour

However, in her academic writing, the European colonial authorities were clearly identified as the cause of social injustice for Swazi people, especially Swazi men. In Uniform of Colour (1947), Kuper revealed that Swazi men felt feminized by the European legal system, remarking that they had become the “women of the Europeans” (Kuper 1947, 152). Swazi men also perceived the European colonial system as protecting women and witches (1947, 70-71) and Swazi male leaders no longer sentenced accused witches to death because of fear of the white man’s punishments (1970, 53-55).

Kuper, Hilda. 1947. The Uniform of Colour; a Study of White-Black Relationships in Swaziland. New York: Negro Universities Press.

Kuper explicated that, “A Swazi woman, like most women, values her family life more than economic independence or equality before the law,” and that Swazi women preferred being beaten to being celibate or lonely; even though Swazi women might have seemed “frustrated,” they were “complete” within their society, she argued (1947, 152). However, in apparent contrast to her own argument, she also wrote that Swazi women sought out the European courts when they were accused of witchcraft and in domestic disputes with their husbands (Kuper 1947, 70–71; Kuper and Institute 1970, 35).

The female characters in Hilda’s fiction emerge as the victims of not only the colonial authorities but also indigenous societies. These underlying messages oftentimes stand in direct contrast with Kuper’s explicit arguments in her academic writings that direct the blame to the European colonial systems. As Kerry Vincent illustrates: Kuper was part of a “literature of protest” written by other South African “white liberals,” to contest “colonial fantasies” but also to “alert Swazis to the violence of some of their own traditional practices” (Vincent 2011, 96).

Vincent, Kerry. 2011. “Literature as Laboratory: Hilda Kuper’s Factional Representations of Swaziland.” African Studies 70 (1): 89–102.

Thoko’s writings about women

Thoko cited Hilda’s An African Aristocracy (1947) frequently in her 1989 report Swazi Women: Sociocultural and Economic Considerations in Chapter 3 about the “Traditional Role of Swazi Women.” For example, “The importance of the mother and her control in all matters affecting the homestead is an outstanding feature of Swazi family and national life” (Kuper, 1947, pp. 38-39; Ginindza, 1989, p. 15).

“Swazi men succeed to positions of power, authority, and wealth by virtue of the position of their mothers”

Thoko Ginindza, 1989, p. 15

“…married women are perceived always as outsiders and as potential sources of conflict that threaten the unity of the man’s group; often, cases of social conflict are [grounds for suspicion of witchcraft]”

Ginindza, 1989, p. 16

This directly relates to Hilda’s play A Witch in my Heart. In addition, Gindinza cites Kuper in regards to the inferiority of women’s work in comparison to men’s. Hilda wrote that it was the sex of the work that gave the work its value (Ginindza, 1989, p. 17; Kuper, 1947, p. 140).

In Chapter VI, “Summary Findings on the Position of Swazi Women- Constraints to Women’s Full Participation in Non-Farm Economic Activities,” Ginindza cited Kuper in order to emphasize how “Swazis need strong incentives of prestige or utility to accept innovations that will affect deeply-entrenched attitudes and behaviour.” Kuper argued that because leadership was based on pedigree, leaders needed incentive (an enhancement of prestige) in order to make changes. Thoko used this to explain the “constraints” on “women’s full participation in economic activities” (Ginindza, 1989, p. 52; Kuper 1947, p. 139).

Thoko’s earlier interest in women’s organizations (expressed in her Statement of Purpose to UCLA) is clear in her report (1989):

Women show a potential to organize themselves. There are numerous women’s organizations and associations-formal and informal, secular and religious, registered and unregistered-in urban, periurban, and rural areas. These organizations should be tapped for development purposes. Generally, the women have identified their needs and decided on their goals. Very little information on women’s organizations exists, and a study on this subject is vital if women are to be fully integrated in the socioeconomic development of the country.

Swazi Women: Sociocultural and Economic Considerations, p. 7
A network visualization of the publication intersections between Thoko Ginindza and Hilda Kuper
A network visualization developed using nodegoat, a database and network visualization software created by Lab1100. This visualization demonstrates the publication intersections between Hilda Kuper and Thoko Ginindza, including the thematic overlap between their work. Note that Umnyakaza was assigned or “given” to Hilda by Sobhuza II, as her “umfana” or “boy” who was supposed to serve her as he would a member of the royal family. In An African Aristocracy (1947/1961) she wrote of Umnyakaza: “The umfana becomes a member of the over-lord’s intimate circle of dependents, regards him as a father and is treated much like a son. Umnyakaza, a warrior from Sobhuza’s own bodyguard, acted as my teacher, interpreter, cook, and travelling companion” (2). This demonstrates how affiliated Hilda was with the royal family and her elite position within the Swazi community.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s