Swaziland Gem: Ngwenya Glass

PHOTOS Shavan Rahim PRODUCTION Sumien Brink WORDS Ashraf Booley

A few members of the VISI team journeyed to Swaziland to celebrate the 30th birthday of Woolworths supplier Ngwenya Glass. The event culminated in a collaborative workshop with top international glassblowers and talented local designers.

Glass-blowing is silent poetry with a rhythm that only a skilled few can capture. In the Ngwenya Glass factory, a group of Swazi craftspeople work together to breathe life into what was once simply shards of recycled glass, without using a word to communicate.

They do this by way of a ritualistic rhythm that, at first sight, appears disorderly. But there’s method to the madness. Orbs of molten glass fixed to steel rods come out of the approximately 1 200°C furnace, hot and hissing, resembling glowing bulbs. Blow by blow, a worker inflates the molten glass into a hollow bubble, subsequently (and speedily) passing it to another worker, who then starts shaping it with nothing but mounds of wet newspaper – and a skilled rhythm. Finally, another group takes over, fashioning it into its final form.

Thirty years ago, the owner of Ngwenya Glass, Chas Prettejohn, bought a liquidated factory, Swazi Glass, with his late father Richard and mother Alix. “We didn’t know a thing about glass at the time,” says Chas, “so we set out to find the factory’s former employees.”

First they tracked down its production manager, Sibusiso Mhlanga, to help restart the business. “I was sceptical at first, because Chas didn’t know anything about glass,” says Sibusiso. “He asked me to teach the guys.”

Thanks to Sibusiso, one of Ngwenya’s master glass-blowers who trained in Sweden under Jan-Erik Ritzman, the glass-manufacturing hub was revived. Chas’s wife Cathy joined the team soon after acquisition, and together they have run the business for the past 20 years. Over three decades, Ngwenya Glass has grown from 4 to 70 employees. Every product is individually crafted by hand, requiring about 12 workers to produce, for instance, a single wine glass or a popular animal figurine.

“Glass is me, my family, my story,” says Davide Salvadore, a glassblower from Italy’s Murano, whose family has been working with glass since the 1650s. Davide was one of five international glass-blowers, with James Devereux (UK), Tim Shaw (Australia), Richard Price and Marco Lopulalan (both from the Netherlands), who attended the workshop.

Peter Bremers, glass designer and sculptor from the Netherlands, was also in attendance, as well as local designers Katy Taplin and Adriaan Hugo from Dokter and Misses, Laurie Wiid van Heerden from Wiid Design, Schanè Anderson and Debbie Steinhobel from Olàlà! Interiors, Joe Paine from Joe Paine Design, and Gerhard Swart from Ceramic Matters.

“Very few top South African designers have had the opportunity to work with glass,” says Chas. “One of the main objectives of the workshop was to educate them in the medium of glass and to showcase what Ngwenya is capable of producing.” Apart from collaborating with Peter Bremers to potentially produce a new range of tableware, Chas says there are plans in the pipeline to collaborate with the aforementioned local designers to produce either new signature Ngwenya Glass pieces or to exclusively manufacture the designers’ own products. So, although some say glass-blowing is a dying art, the folk at Ngwenya – and their collaborators – continue dancing to the (silent) beat of the glass.

The Glass Is Greener

• Ngwenya products are made by hand using only recycled glass, which comes from various sources but mainly members of the community, who are paid for it.
• The furnace, which requires 700 litres of fuel per 24 hours, is fuelled with a combination of old KFC oil and motor oil.
• Ngwenya uses recycled newspaper as protective covers in the making of their glass and to wrap their products.
• Only exotic wood is used to make moulds.
• The Ngwenya factory has 550 solar panels.
• The company uses rainwater and grey water in production, considerably reducing potable-water consumption.

Take a look at the Woolies Studio.w Ngwenya Glass Curve range.