Clearly, Elsie Madlala is an accomplished seamstress and astute businesswoman. 

Neat uniforms, flamboyant African dresses and promotional t-shirts are stacked high in the storeroom of Babanentse headquarters in Bruntville, Mooi River.  At the top of the hill at the Siqalo creche that her sister, Aletta Mpangase runs, learners are dressed in blue uniforms that Aletta makes for them during the holidays.

When they were little, their mom made most of her clothes – often matching outfits – and taught them basic sewing and knitting skills.  “I used to unpick my children’s clothes, copy the pattern and then sew them back together by hand. That is how I learnt.” Elsie remembers, “Zandile, my daughter, was always beautifully dressed, usually in her favourite colour – pink.”  Soon neighbours were asking her to make hats, jerseys and dresses for their families too.

Elsie, Zandile and Aletta formed Sinothando Sewing Club in 2001 with a couple of other keen seamstresses.

Five years later, they formalised as a co-operative on the advice of the local Municipality to access government grants.  “We took the first letters of all our names and put them together to get Babanentse. It means to care of others,” says Elsie.  Older members who are not up to sewing anymore, are still part of the vibrant team, but have new jobs. Nosicelo Zondo oversees checking the quality of the workmanship, while Nomsa Msomi is inspector of ironing the final garment, giving gentle advice to younger people employed by the Co-Op.  Zandile (of the unpicked pink dress fame) is now administrator as well as seamstress when big orders arrive.  Her desk, files and laptop are housed in a container beside the factory.

In 2012 with a loan from Itala bank, to buy three industrial sewing machines, they started making uniforms for Mooi River Primary School.  Then a tender to sew the curtains for the newly built Bruntville Clinic enabled them to pay back the loan and buy more equipment.   Clearly there was no stopping these women!

With everyone’s fingers flying at the machines, they needed care for their children and grandchildren. Aletta, who has always loved children and had done a course in Early Childhood Development started a creche at her home. Within a few years of saving the fees, she and Elsie were able to buy a dedicated house for the pre-school.  Now they have 70 children enrolled, employ two teachers, a cleaner, a gardener and a cook. “It is very important that we create jobs for people. We women need to work together to make Mooi River strong again.”

They have plans to buy the empty plot next door and start a Foundation Phase School to cater for the children of Phumlasi area.  In an effort to strengthen community, they are looking at sourcing all the food for the daily feeding scheme from local vegetable gardeners – ensuring that money keeps circulating in the township and does not drain out.

As orders for t-shirts rolled in, Babanentse realised they needed an embroidery machine and a screen printer, so that they could supply the finished product rather than send their t-shirts away to have event logos printed or embroidered.  The tiny space is now crammed with all this equipment.

Elsie dreams of expanding to a spacious factory, with a shop space to display garments for sale. The visibility would allow her to compete with other shops at the Mooi River Mall, although she says sadly, “People like to buy cheap Chinese clothes that look like African attire.  The material is poor quality and the workmanship is not good.”  The Babanentse range is exceptional quality and ticks all the boxes – community development, skills sharing, local empowerment, careful craftsmanship.  Exactly what the area needs.

Epitomising the fighting strength of women, these sisters are certainly doing it for themselves.

Contact Elsie Madlala 076 277 6640