The people who call themselves “Ntwane” live mostly in the Moutse area of Mpumalanga. Their name, Ntwane, means “hard-headed”.
Even in the midst of political turmoil in the late 1980s, and when Ntwane men went off to work as migrant labourers in South African towns and cities, many of the Ntwane women maintained their traditions. One of these was the making of the gimwane figures. The skills needed to make these were passed down from mother to daughter.
These gimwane are constructed around a central grass core, or sometimes a core of wood, around which rings of braided grass are coiled. Materials such as beads, buttons, twine and string, strips of animal hide, wool and metal beads might be used to decorate the figure.
There is a ritual – or a game – in which the young girls pretend that their gimwane is the baby of their current boyfriend. Boyfriends are invited to take part in a dance contest with the girls and their gimwane. The boys gather at one of the girls’ homes, and the gimwane figures are placed on the ground in a long line. The young “fathers” and “mothers” then form two rows on either side of the gimwane and perform a competitive dance with their partners.
One of their parents will judge the contest, and the best pair of dancers receives a goatskin as a trophy.
Previously, gimwane seemed to be identifiably male or female – one could tell by the beaded “apron”, which would be square for a male or triangular for a female. Later gimwane, however, are distinguished less in this way, but have become more decorated, with commercially available trinkets added.