In the late 1970s, South Africa was in the grip of apartheid and Mozambique was in the midst of a vicious civil war. Nestled between these two fractured countries was—and still is—Swaziland, a small independent nation that, at the time, served as a strategic hub for foreign governments seeking a safe ground from which to operate in South Africa and Mozambique. Along with the influx of diplomatic offices came foreign aid workers and money to start local development projects. An aid group funded by the Swedish government was one such organization in Swaziland at the time, looking to establish businesses in the area that would provide skills and economic security to the Swazi people.
That craft the Swedes brought was glassblowing, and the company that they started almost 40 years ago, and which today has made Swazi glass famous around the world, is Ngwenya Glass.
Glassblowing may not seem like an obvious skill to import, but in fact it makes good sense. There was a need for jobs. The local iron ore mine, one of the oldest in the world, was shuttering, and local Swazis were out of work. There were natural resources. The area’s temperate climate along with a natural silica deposit near the site of the factory make it an ideal location. And there was the matter of knowledge. The Swedes are world-renowned for their glassblowing, and had a trade they could teach that could potentially sustain the local economy.
From the beginning, there was huge interest from the local community. “When the building was finally built and the equipment laid out, the word was put out that they were looking for employees,” says Chas Prettejohn, the owner of Ngwenya Glass—“Ngwenya” meaning “crocodile” in Swazi, referring to a nearby mountain that resembles the giant reptile. “Over 600 people arrived for interviews, of which they were only looking for six to start with. I think it is safe to say that the impact was going to be huge.” Those six Swazis—including Sibusiso Mhlanga, who today is a master glassblower at the factory—were trained in the art of glassblowing, creating vases, drinking glasses, and ornamental animals out of recycled glass.
For the next three years, the Swedes and the Swazis worked hand in hand to build the business and produce their works, at which point the factory was turned over to the Swaziland government under the assumption that the factory would be able to sustain itself. But that was not the case; the infrastructure wasn’t strong enough, and the Swazis weren't able to produce the same products as they had under Swedish guidance. “When they asked for further assistance from Sweden, they were told that as long as they were selling their products in apartheid South Africa, Sweden would not be in a position to help,” Prettejohn says. “At this stage in history there was no tourism in Swaziland, so the local market was very small and to maintain the business they had to trade in South Africa.” And so the factory shuttered.
Six hundred miles away, a family of farmers was collecting glass animal figurines. “We were living on a farm near East London, which is on the southeastern coast of South Africa,” says Prettejohn. “My parents were collecting the little glass elephants, and there was a shop in the town that stocked them. They would try to stop in at the shop every time they went to town to increase the collection, and one day they were told that they were no longer available and the company was in liquidation.” Prettejohn, who was working as a marine engineer for a South African shipping company at the time, took a shore leave and he and his father traveled up to Swaziland to see the factory that was no longer making those little glass elephants.
What they found was a factory that had been standing abandoned for a number of years. “Everything was derelict,” he says. “There were even tea cups with leaves in them on the desks, as though someone had closed the doors at the end of a day and never came back. There was a wattle tree growing through the concrete floor in the middle of the factory.” But most of the equipment was still there, as was some of the stock—glasses, vases—from when the factory had been operational. The Prettejohns were intrigued. They were also looking for a change. “When we got to Swaziland and saw the factory, we knew it was going to be hard, as we knew nothing about glass, but sometimes ignorance is bliss,” he says. In January 1987, the Prettejohns purchased Ngwenya Glass. In June 1987, they moved from South Africa to Swaziland. On August 16, 1987, they reopened the factory for production.
It took the Prettejohns a while to figure everything out (they were farmers, after all), from repairing the furnace to learning what all the equipment was used for. But they had a guide in Sibusiso Mhlanga, one of the original glassblowers at the factory who agreed to train other Swazis in glassblowing. “He has often said that when he saw my father and I, he did not have a lot of hope for the future of the business,” Prettejohn says with a smile, “But once he was back in the doors, he never left and has been with us ever since.”
Learning the trade was not an easy task. “Many times we were told by Sibusiso and the team that our ideas would not work, but we did not give up,” Prettejohn says. “We had a strong belief in the product.” Prettejohn’s faith comes partly from the fact that products they were making at Ngwenya Glass are truly unique; their glasses, decanters, bowls, and barware are refined without feeling precious, handmade while still remaining sophisticated, special but comfortable enough to use every day.
Getting to this level of refinement has required much additional training for Ngwenya Glass’s craftsmen, which Prettejohn facilitates both by bringing expert glassblowers to the factory and by sending his glassblowers out into the world to work under other masters. He believes in education, in whatever form that education might take, as he illustrated with a story about the glass animal figurines they produce. “We realized early on that our staff had never actually seen the elephants, rhinos, hippos, buffaloes, and giraffes they were making,” he says, “so we took them to Kruger National Park for the day. This little exercise was amazing and really helped for them to get their proportions right. It is all very well to see a giraffe in a picture, but only when you see it close up, do you realise how long its legs are for instance. So we feel we have improved the shapes of our predecessors and strive to improve all the time.”
Today, the factory employs more than 70 people, including two glassblowers who were trained under the Swedish aid group, and has vastly expanded their product line. Beyond their material success, however, is the massive impact they’ve had on both their community and the environment.
From the beginning, Ngwenya Glass has used 100% recycled glass in all their products. “Our Swedish predecessors decided that recycling bottles was the easiest way to go,” says Prettejohn. “We continued with this, but were told early on that we should not advertise the fact as it would be detrimental to sales. We disagreed and so have always advertised the fact, so we were recycling way before it was cool to do so.” The factory pays local people to collect glass bottles and engages school children in the project, teaching them about caring for their environment and, in exchange, funding sports and educational programs in the local schools.
Over time, they’ve expanded their sustainability efforts far beyond recycling glass. “We use old cooking oil from KFC and other fast food outlets to fire our furnaces,” says Prettejohn. “We collect rainwater for use in our toilets and production. All our packaging material is recycled newspaper. We have installed 550 solar panels on our roof that produces 92 kilowatt hours of power for us in the factory on a good sunny day. We gave up using plastic straws in our coffee shop, way before all the hype that is surrounding this now. We are fair trade registered and are one of the founding companies of the Swaziland Fair Trade movement.”
They’ve also grown their charitable works and conservation efforts. Ngwenya Glass has partnered with Swaziland’s Big Game Parks to protect endangered wildlife; they’ve built a block of toilets in town where there was previously only a pit latrine; they’ve donated food to the local orphanage and blankets to the elderly, and planted more than 100 indigenous trees in the area; they’ve funded a counselor to support abused women and children in the community, as well as those living with HIV and AIDS (Swaziland has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world); and every year they host a mountain biking event and donate the proceeds to Cheshire Homes, a rehabilitation facility for people who have been disabled, and Swazi Antivenom Foundation, which helps people who have been bitten by snakes.
Even with this long list of good deeds, Prettejohn is modest. “We do all of this ‘under the radar,’” he says. “We do not need any accolades, it is just something we feel is required of us. I think being farmers and growing up on a farm, the environment is a huge part of us and looking after it for the future generations runs in our blood. We are forever trying to find ways of improving what we do for the betterment of the environment and the people that live in our region. There is no way that we get everything right, but it is always front of mind to find ways to do things better.”
Have you visited Swaziland or used Ngwenya Glass? Let us know in the comments!