Maverick Citizen


Rural women of Winterveld sew to reap rewards of empowerment through embroidery project

Rural women of Winterveld sew to reap rewards of empowerment through embroidery project
The Mapula women’s embroidery project is based in the Winterveld, Pretoria. (Photo: Alet Pretorius)

‘I found a sense of purpose and confidence through Mapula and I see the impact it has on women in the community who are now able to get an income. It makes me feel empowered.’

Just more than 90km out of Johannesburg on the outskirts of Pretoria lies the rural town of Winterveld. Between potholes, half-finished and uneven roads that become especially difficult to navigate after rain, it is not an easy place to get to. This is where the Mapula women’s embroidery project is based. The Mapula Project was initiated in 1991 by members of the Soroptimist International Club of Pretoria as an income-generating empowerment project for women in the Winterveld area and has developed into one of the important community art projects in South Africa. It started with just 14 women and now has more than 170.  

Describing the problems faced by residents, the women of Mapula say they have been without electricity for two months and the water supply is erratic. The roads are in such bad condition, they say, that sometimes buses carrying children to school get stuck and need residents to help. In addition, dumping in the area was contributing to environmental degradation. 

Jinnefer Makoma (right) is one of the members of the Mapula embroidery empowerment project. (Photo: Alet Pretorius)

With few jobs in the area, the women of Hlanganani community in Winterveld have turned to the Mapula Trust for a sense of purpose and, more importantly, a source of income for themselves and their families. They use embroidery to artistically tell the stories affecting their community, as well as historical accounts, which they then sell to the public. They also receive commissions for specific artworks, many of which have been exhibited around the world, earning many awards.

‘Sense of purpose’

Speaking to Maverick Citizen, Dorah Hlongwane, who joined Mapula in 2001, says she works two days as a domestic worker and spends the rest of the week at the embroidery project to supplement her income. “I found a sense of purpose and confidence through Mapula and I see the impact it has on women in the community who are now able to get an income. It makes me feel empowered.”

Rosinah Maepa is a coordinator at the Mapula project. (Photo: Alet Pretorius)

Hlongwane says she taught herself how to design and now considers herself one of the best designers in the project. She is also chairperson of the Mapula board, and a trustee. 

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“I joined Mapula in 1991 when it started,” 64-year-old Rosina Maepa told Maverick Citizen. “At the time I was in matric and used the money that I earned towards further studies. I also managed to educate, clothe and feed all four of my children through Mapula.” 

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Maepa is now the coordinator of a group of 82 embroiderers, and a designer and embroiderer herself. And while she will retire from teaching Northern Sotho next year, “I will never retire from Mapula – it has helped me so much, even my youngest child is now a member of Mapula”.

Climate message

Currently exhibiting at the Javett art centre in Pretoria, Mapula’s latest piece, Women of the Winterveld: Hands Become Voices for our Planet, depicts the climate crisis and stands 2m tall and 10m wide, showing through intricate embroidery the damaging effect that environmental degradation is having on poor communities. It was conceptualised and executed by five designers and 42 embroiderers from Mapula.

The women at the Mapula project tell stories through embroidery. (Photo: Alet Pretorius)

Dorah Hlongane at the Mapula project in the Winterveld. (Photo: Alet Pretorius)

Pinkie Rasenga, who has been with Mapula since 1994, says: “The reason we did the climate crisis work was to show that when our environment is polluted it impacts us in terms of things like not having enough water to cook, to grow food in our gardens and even for our livestock to drink.”

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Mapula Embroidery Trust chairperson Sally Currin says the work raises awareness of climate change and aims to promote an urgent response in the women’s own families, community and far beyond.

Mapula members Stella Mnisi (left) and Savannah Chauke at work. (Photo: Alet Pretorius)

The centre panel of ‘Women of the Winterveld: Hands Become Voices for our Planet’. (Photo: Paul Mills)

‘Women of the Winterveld: Hands Become Voices for our Planet’ is 2m high and 10m wide. (Photo: Paul Mills)

“Mapula’s hope is that by engaging with this work the public of all generations will engage seriously with the issues of the climate crisis, climate action, vulnerability of women (rural women especially) in gender-unequal societies and their intersectionalities,” says Currin.

Mapula’s climate crisis piece has been awarded one of the 10 Rupert Museum 2022 Social Impact prizes and will travel to Stellenbosch to be exhibited in the Rupert Museum from 1 December to early 2023 and in Gauteng in May 2023. DM/MC



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