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Souvenirs in South Africa- buying responsibly.

South Africa is a great place to buy gifts to take home. There are so many markets and small shops selling a huge diversity of unique crafts ranging from beaded animals, wooden giraffes, soapstone carvings, and telephone wire baskets to original art. So is there a right and a wrong souvenir to buy in South Africa? How does the tourist make an ethical choice? How can you be sure you are supporting the artists that actually made the goods?


Let’s start with those tall wooden giraffes that are so popular. Some of these are made in African countries, but if they are varnished, they probably come from China or Malaysia. Our crafters polish their giraffes with shoe polish. The same applies to big beads you will see in necklaces- regular big round beads are from Asia. Traditional African beadwork uses seeds and pods.


Beading is very much part of our African cultural tradition however. The colourful beadwork on sale at almost every street corner provides work for many men and women, and the talent they show is remarkable. Many of the best bead artists come from Zimbabwe and Zambia and are here as economic refugees. They are usually more than happy to create something especially for you, whether it is a car or an animal or a Christmas tree. If you would like to buy a piece of beadwork as art, visit Monkeybiz in the BoKaap where you will find the most elaborate crazy exotic beaded animals that are exported to galleries all over the world.


Beads are expensive so street vendors are also good at making something from nothing –cars from Coke cans, beads from paper, coasters from teabags, and chickens and flamingoes from plastic bags. Bartering is not part of our culture, so rather don’t try to bargain the vendor down. If he (or she) drops the price, it may be that he is just desperate to put some food on the table.

Look out for the small animals carved from soft Jacaranda, a tree that isn’t indigenous and grows very quickly- you’ll recognize Jacaranda from the pale colour of the wood. Try to avoid bowls and carvings made from hardwood, as that encourages deforestation. Rather buy one of the driftwood carvings in the shape of fish and owls.


Wildlife experts are adamant that porcupine quills are a no-no. While porcupines do shed quills naturally, the demand is such that they are now being trapped and killed by farm workers who then sort the quills by size and sell them to dealers. The popular porcupine lampshades need 140 quills, which means that eight porcupines are killed to make just one, and so the long-term survival of these animals is threatened. Similarly avoid buying curios made from animal parts like teeth, horn, elephant hair, tortoise shells or skulls. Tanned animal hides such as Springbok or Nguni cattle bought from reputable dealers will be from sanctioned culls but do check before buying and also make sure you have a permit to import it back into your home country. With any wildlife product, it is worthwhile remembering the slogan: If we don’t buy, they won’t die.


If you are looking for something for someone special pop into one of the Heartworks outlets in the Gardens, Green Point or the Old Biscuit Mill. The ladies in their workshop create colourful teddy bears, fantastic monkeys, and heart-shaped cushions embroidered and appliqued with images of flowers, animals, plants, and birds.


And finally why not spoil yourself? A really great memento of any trip to Africa is a handwoven karakul rug. These chunky rugs are right on trend, bringing that natural look into your home and the best part is the luxurious feel underfoot. You can visit the studio in Somerset West, see the women spinning and weaving and choose your own design. They’ll organize the shipping back to your home. For more information, visit

The happiest memories are from the gifts that keep on giving!
(photograph of Heartworks monkeys by Diaane de Beer)

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