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Kaolin: The business of culture

The aim of this project is to find out more about Kaolin and its general uses with particular focus on Grahamstown and Kaolin's commercial past and possible future if the mining of Kaolin is renewed.




Kaolin is a clay mineral that is white, soft and earthy created by the chemical weathering of aluminium silicate minerals such as Feldspar. In many regions of the world where iron-oxide is high in concentration, it's coloured pink-orange-red but where the concentration is lighter, it's usually white, yellow or light orange in colour. Kaolin is used in a lot of industries, some of them being the paper industry, the concrete industry, the plastics industry and even in agriculture! This clay is used because of its ability to stay inert over a wide ph range and that makes it very attractive for most industries to use.



Commercially, in terms of mining, Kaolin is used in ceramics, medicine, food additives,toothpaste and cosmetics to name a few.

Have a look at this web site to find out more: Uses of Kaolin.

These are the general uses for Kaolin, however in South Africa, including Grahamstown, it also has traditional cultural uses. It is also used as sunblock. imageexpanded|raUID=361096535909221676|size=width300|imageexpanded|raUID=182039000310329349|size=width300|imageexpanded|raUID=128633762815314216|size=width300|imageexpanded|raUID=203771555413299967|size=width300|


4. Interview on the 17/02/2012 with Mr Amir Peters of Super Star Herbs by Blessings Chinganga.

On the afternoon of the 17/02/2012 Lelethu, Dr Hanton (our teacher) and I went to interview Mr Peters, a local herbalist to see what he could tell us about Kaolin and how it plays a part in his profession as a herbalist. Below are some of the questions we asked him and the answers we received.


  1. What is the name of the clay(kaolin) in isiXhosa?
  2. What colours does it come in?
  3. What do the different colours symbolize?
  4. Who gets to put on the clay and what are the uses?
  5. What patterns are used and what do the different patterns symbolise


  1. The clay is called Imbola or Ifutha.
  2. The clay usually comes in two colours, red(Imbola) and white(Ifutha)
  3. The white clay is used to show connection with the ancestors so it is used during rituals. The white clay is also used as sunblock as it is very good at protecting skin.
  4. Anyone can put the clay on, but people taking part in rituals especially abakwetha (the ritual of the passage from boyhood to manhood). 
  5. There are a lot of patterns and all are to show connection with the ancestors. There are circles and dots drawn on the face etc. 

After this w e asked Mr Peters about his job and family history concerning herbalism and he then went  on to tell us more about kaolin in Grahamstown.


  1. How long has herbalism been a family business?
  2. Did your family always work in Grahamstown?
  3. Where did your family pick up the practice?
  4. Has Kaolin mining stopped in Grahamstown and why?
  5. Do you know anything about the history of Kaolin mining in Grahamstown?
  6. Where do you get your clay?
  7. Who mostly buys your clay and what do they use it for?

Answers:By Mr Peters

  1. It has been in my family for more than 20 years.
  2. Yes. The business has always been in Grahamstown.
  3. My family picked up the tradition in Pietermaritzburg.
  4. The mining has not stopped, just that they are mining in a different place now somewhere in the Southwell side because kaolin of good quality is found in the topsoil and then when one place has run out, they go to another place so that the one place can recover.
  5. No.
  6. I go to a market place in the location, and there, I get the clay that has been collected by medicine collectors who are very spiritual and non-materialistic because to be able to channel energy properly into the clay, the person must not be distracted by materialistic things and they must be spiritual.
  7. Anyone can buy the clay but it's mostly the abakwetha who buy it when they are going for their initiation, otherwise anyone who wants to use it for sun-screen or any other uses is welcome.






5. Interview on the 28/02/2012 with Mr. Anonymous by Lelethu Bodlani

On the afternoon of the 28th February 2012 I Lelethu Bodlani had an interview with Mr. Anonymous. He is a very cultural man with lots of knowledge about kaloin and find it very important to learn about kaloin or ifutha when it appears white and imbola if it appears red.

Interview Questions

1.  What does Kaolin mean in your culture and what significance does it have?

2.  I.m sure you've used kaolin before. How was you expierence with it.

     2.1.  How did it smell?

     2.2.  How long was it used for?

     2.3.  Is it applied on the entire body or just the face?

3.  Is it neccessary during cirumsition to use it?

(As does it make you less of a man of you don't?)

4.  Why is that it's mainly used during circumsition , can't people use it any other way. Susch as sunblock per say?

5.  Would it undermine the culture if a woman where to use it?

6)  Are there any other interesting facts that you would like to share with us today?


The answers from the interview:

1)  Kaolin has a big impact on circumsition. There are mainly two types of circumsition in varies cultures. The first is the circumsition of umkwetha which is the ritual of boys changing into men. These boys have to apply kaolin or ifutha on their entire body. Scientifically white is worn or is seen as the colour that doesn't radiate heat that is why 'ifutha' is used, as it keeps the body cool. When their about to leave, they wash ifutha off as they feel as if their washing away the bad luck and dirtyness of "boyhood' and getting into manhood with good blessings. 

 2.1)  It didn't really have a smell.

 2.2)  It depends really on how long your stay is, which mainly depends on how fast or slow you healed in the process.

2.3)  it is applied on the entire body.


6. Interview on the 27/02/2012 with Ms.B. Ntombela by Lelethu Bodlani

On the evening of the 27 February 2012, I, Lelethu went to an interview with Ms B.Ntombela about the significance of clay in the Xhosa culture.

In the the interview the following questions were asked:

1.  What does it mean in your culture, what significance does it have?

2.  Have you ever used it?

3.  If so, where, when and why?

4.  Are there any other interesting facts?

The answers recieved from the interview:

1.  It plays a huge role in circumscision as abakwetha use it to apply on their bodies.

2.  As a lady, no. It's not something females would use but if there are women that do use it, they are very few and it depends on the people living in that specific area.

3.  Not Applicable

4.1.  The xhosa name for the white kaolin is ifutha and for the red is imbola.

4.2.  In many other parts of the country white kaolin is usually scarce and people will have to buy it that is why the red kaolin, imbola is most commonly used. 


7. Interview of Colin Meyer and Mark Van Zyl from Makana Brick by Inga Macingwane-05 March 2012

On Monday the 5th of March,Mrs Hanton and I went to Makana Brick to get more information on Kaolin.I interviewed Colin Meyer(CEO) along with Mark Van Zyl who is the Sales Manager of the company.Here is some information obtained from the interview.

The company was started by Colin Meyer in 1994.Before that the factory used to be farm and the factory is built on clay.The geographic sales area are from Mossel bay and extend to Kokstad.They obtain their clay from a nearby quarry.Kaolin is the main source and this can be made into shale as well.Makana Brick has two factories.The old factory is plant one and it produces bricks solid bricks.The second factory is plant two and it produces bricks with holes but these come in various patterns.

Interesting Fact-There is a theory that in the construction of the Union Buildings in Pretoria some bricks could have come from Grahamstown since various building materials were taken from different parts of South Africa!

There is more information from this interview that will be revealed later on!

By:Inga Macingwane


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by: awarenet Open Day visitor
on: 2012-11-15 15:48:42