Six years ago at a remote village of Kutung in very rural Bushbuckridge, (now Mpumalanga) four women sat under a mulberry tree trying to run a small silk and cotton weaving business. It was March, 2001 and Dineo Moropane (54) had just been retrenched from her job as Secretary to then manager of Inyaka, Pieter Swart.
The epic story she later relates actually begins before the four women found themselves sitting under the tree, a solid ten kilometres away from the R40 national road, which links Mpumalanga to Limpopo and which is a crucial route for tourists on their way to the Kruger National Park and Manyeleti Game Reserve.
"When I was retrenched I wanted to do something. I was forty eight years old and still very young. My former manager told me that his wife had a businesses that I could work at. I organised some women to come and join me in my new venture which was going to have something to do with spinning silk", Moropane remembers.
This was after she already had a fruitful meeting with silk farmer Ronel Swart. "Dineo recruited me first and told me what we were going to do. We were working under a tree at her place. Mrs Swart came and told us that she was going to try and secure a sponsorship for us so that we can take off the ground and be a formal business. She wrote letters and we waited for the response",
Ritah Mogane (pictured) takes up the story. In that meantime they were busy applying for a Non Profit Organisation status. Apparently Swart already had three similar projects up and running all over the country.
A few months later the Embassy of the United States of America funded the building of their workshop which they developed on vacant land ceded to them by tribal resolution from the Chief. The embassy demanded that their builders and suppliers had to come from Kutung, which is what they did. "I think the women were professional in every manner which they handled the project. The Americans were strict, they wanted receipts for everything, screws, bolts and minute purchases, but the way they managed the construction of the building was impressive",
Swart informs Kasiekulture from her artefacts shop at Graskop, 50 kilometres from Kutung.
Swart then trained the now 30 women who were at this stage involved in the project in relation to spinning and weaving silk. Mogane, who stays together with five of her own children and her four grandchildren says that their other hiccup was electricity since Kutung was only electrified post 2000. One of Mogane's daughters passed away a few years ago, leaving her wit
h two grandchildren to take care of. Her five other children are unemployed.
After the white building was completed the next step was for them to acquire spinning, weaving and sewing machines that they could use in their project. "I spoke to Annah Ramatlhodi (the wife of former Limpopo Premier Ngoako) about the project one day and told her that the women were trying everything in their power but didn't have anything. She reported their case to the South African Breweries (SAB) which agreed to sponsor them by buying them machines to use in the workshop", reports Swart. The first machines were made of steel even though the ones they got later are all wooden. The women say some of the machines given to them by SAB are not based at their workshop due to the high crime rate in the area.
Then another problem arose, they wanted to continue using the machines to spin and weave to make wool and thread so that they can use in sewing warm clothes. Quite logical and fortunate for them Swart had silk making factory and worms at her farm near Graskop. "Every two weeks I get 200 000 worms of which one produces approximately 8.21 to 8.51 grams a of silk a week. In Winter we get less worms as compared to other months", Swart says, adding that the worms reproduce better in other seasons but Winter. Overall the worms produce approximately 50 kilograms of silk a month. The women use silk, cotton (which Swart grows) and mopani which comes from Mopani worms.
The silk production process is an interesting one as Swart explains that after each worm is born it eats mulberry leaves and produces silk which it spins around itself into a cocoon which it leaves after a few weeks. The cocoon is then harvested and cracked open, the silk which the worm built to keep warm is extracted and cleaned. After cleaning the process involves sorting good quality wool from the bad and spinning it into pure wool which can be put in a weaving machine to produce thread. The thread then dyed into any colour they desire. After that the wool is spinned into ready made wool which can be sold as a raw material or used to sew warm clothes or houseware.
Moropane says, "Here we need more than 600 grams of silk a day to be able to work properly. We only get 600 grams from Mrs Swart which is small. She then pays us R177 per kilogram of dyed and spun thread. Furthermore we make clothes, handbags, scarfs and duvet covers which she sells at her store in Graskop"
Swart's store is named Africa Silks and targets tourist who want to acquire as many local products as possible. "We sell clothes, table, bedware and everything made of silk. Sometimes we use brown silk from a bruin werm which is difficult to extract value since it comes out coloured already, unlike the white silk which we can manipulate into any colour to suit our needs. Here we sell the original Madiba shirt which is made of cashmere silk. When it's cold it is warm and vice versa", Marina Colfby of Afrika Silks says unbuttoning the Madiba shirt hung next to a picture of the designer with a smiling Nelson Mandela to expose the smooth interior. "We are the first people to sell this design which is made in Cape Town. Tourists love to buy everything South African and they add to our clientele", she says. Their shop, which also encompasses a factory where clothes, duvets, pillows, table cloths and everything conceivable is sewn and sold, weaved and spinned is full of South African made products. "80% of our products are locally produced", she says as she takes
Kasiekulture on a tour of their big space, where they also have Malian fabrics and some which she can only say come from the East.
Itireleng is an important feeder to the factory and the store. Colfby shows silk handbags with wooden buttons. She is quick to report that the buttons are supplied by a septauganarian who lives in Thulamahashe, twenty kilometres form Kutung and 70 from Graskop. She says that overall, throughout the country all the projects they use to produce some of the silk, like Itireleng, employ at least hundred people. Itireleng now employs 26 women, which worries Moropane because she says the money is not enough for them to make a living. "I have four children, the first born does not love school, the other three are all at tertiary. Two of my boys are at the Tshwane University of Technology while my daughter is at Nursing College.
"Every month Mrs Swart pays us R12000 for all the production we make because the target she set for us is 70 kilograms a month. However we would like to do more so that we can make a living out of this. If we could get at least R270 a kilogram plus a salary", Moropane adds.
Swart says she was impressed by the positiveness of the women, which drove her to be involved with them in the first place. "They are always positive, they haven't got very much but they are satisfied with what they got and they go all out for it. If Dinah wasn't there they wouldn't have made it, she's a strong woman with leadership qualities", Swart blows Moropane's horn. Moropane is fond of her too.
With the tourist boom predicted for the country and the (Ehlanzeni) municipality where Afrika Silks and Itireleng are situated having been chosen as one of those that will host some 2010 FIFA World Cup games, the women of Itireleng want to supply as much as possible to Africa Silks and make as much money as possible to feed their big families. Common sense says that once the tourist starts pouring in their thousands, demand for the silk products at Graskop will increase, and the quota that Swart requires will do so as well. And at the end they will all be happy.
The 26 women are united in a common goal to make their small contribution to President Thabo Mbeki's envisaged 6% annual economic growth. They want to reap the benefits of the government's Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative of South Africa (ASGISA). With their partnership with Africa Silks, they are better positioned to realise their dreams.. The project's name is Itireleng, which means, "as women we work for ourselves", concludes Essie Mola.

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