Soni “Kortman” Mahlangu’s trade is only seasonally lucrative and dying out‚ but it has sentimental value for the master craftsman.
The 72-year-old bespectacled man’s trade is turning goat skins into material for use in sacred rituals by the deeply traditional Ndebele people of Mpumalanga‚ such as rites of passage and marriage.
Popularly known by his clan name‚ Somakhawula‚ in his village of Kameelrivier‚ in the former KwaNdebele homeland‚ about 100km northeast of Pretoria‚ he has the dedication and the passion required for the labour-intensive softening of the goat skins.
With the male initiation‚ conducted every three years‚ currently in full swing in the area‚ Somakhawula is under immense pressure and business is booming.
He has had to produce hundreds of goat skins that initiates cover themselves in‚ as a form of underwear. This is the only garment they wear during their first parade when they leave for their two-month seclusion in the mountain. This is the same garment modelled like a nappy which the initiates will again wear for the last parade when they return home as men in less than two weeks.
Somakhawula’s trade is simple but time-consuming. A client arrives with a dried goat skin‚ which he then has to treat.
“I shave it whilst stretched on the ground. I then sprinkle coarse salt and then leave the skin to dry. Once dried‚ I soak the skin in a bath for a day to get it wet. I then start softening the material by hand‚ making it permanently softer for a garment‚” he explains.
For all this‚ one skin at a time‚ Somakhawula‚ charges R450.
For R30 more‚ he will cut the completed canvass according to a customer’s requirement‚ be it for a rite of passage ritual‚ where female initiates use the canvas for a drum which they thump at midnight during the ritual‚ or for a traditional marriage ritual where the skin is cut into an apron worn by a bride.
The skin also makes iphotho‚ a beaded apron worn by married women during important ceremonies.
“The male initiation is winding up and now I am preparing for the female initiation in December. I am very busy around that time. There are only three people who can do this work in this area because young people do not care to learn these critical skills‚” he said.
The skill was passed to him by late father. He said his father‚ who was going blind due to old age‚ called him into his hut just before he died and said “you need to continue with this work. Be the custodian of Ndebele rituals”.
“That is how it started‚ many years ago. I have to do it for the nation‚ for my father and to put food on the table‚” he said.