Shembe leaders opt for fake fur

By Drum Digital
19 February 2014

Carrying Zulu warrior shields and draped in leopard skins, the men of South Africa's Shembe Church move hypnotically as they go through the steps of a traditional religious ritual.

But the striking spotted pelts around the dancers' chests are slowly being swapped for synthetic faux fur - thanks to a pact between conservationists and church leaders.

Leopard skins are a symbol of pride and royalty in the Shembe religion, which was founded a century ago in the country's eastern KwaZulu-Natal region with roots in Christianity and Zulu customs.

However, with the big cat populations threatened by loss of habitat and poaching, Shembe leaders have backed a cheaper and predator-friendly alternative that still upholds tradition.

"The leopard skin has got a significance because it shows power," said Lizwi Ncwane, spokesperson for the church officially known as the Nazareth Baptist Church.

Boasting more than five million members, tens of thousands of faithful flock to a special service every January where older men move to the rhythmic sound of drumbeats and low trumpets.

"That is the way we worship God, we worship through prayers as well as dances," said Ncwane.

But participants must wear the colourful ceremonial dress, which includes a loin cloth of monkey tails, a leopard skin belt, elaborate headgear with ostrich feathers and above all a cape of leopard skin slung across their naked chests.

"It represents being the king," explained mineworker Sphiwe Cele, who said he paid R4 500 for his legally-hunted authentic leopard skin.

To stem poaching, Panthera in recent years has worked to develop authentic-looking fake leopard skins and to convince the Shembe to use them.

Some less well-off dancers were already wearing a form of fake fur with cow and impala skins painted with leopard spots, said leopard programme coordinator Tristan Dickerson.

"So I thought, 'Well if I came up with a realistic version, maybe we can introduce it to the church'," said Dickerson.

The fabric is produced in China, then shipped to Durban where it is sewn into the final product.

About 10% of members' furs are now estimated to be fake, since the church threw its weight behind the initiative.

Donning his own synthetic leopard fur, spokesperson Ncwane suggests that up to 70% of dancers will have given up real skins within two years.

Later, loin cloths, bracelets and belts will follow, costing much less than the full natural fur regalia which costs up to R15 000.

"It has become a kind of a trend," said Panthera volunteer John Smith.

"At the beginning, some were very rude and told me they didn't need those needless blankets. It was then endorsed by the church."

- AFP

- Picture by Ulwazi

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