The stereotypical image of a South African township is not difficult to recall. Outsiders who venture into this foreign land, usually escorted or on a carefully curated tour, often can’t help but gawk at the obvious signs of poverty and remark on the general lack of organised infrastructure. These are the images that usually make it to the front page or to evening news headlines.
As undeveloped urban stretches reserved for non-white residents during Apartheid, townships received little or no governmental support. Roads, electricity and running water seldom made it to the informal houses packed close together on the Apartheid government’s unwanted lands. Even 20 years after the fall of Apartheid, many townships still struggled to attain the resources to reverse many years of marginalisation.
Two years after the boon of hosting the football World Cup, poor service delivery, rampant corruption, regular power outages and very few obvious advances in many townships have created a new kind of restlessness on their streets. To the outside eye, the sprawling chaos to South Africa’s townships could only represent a sense of desperation and an assumed hopelessness.
And yet out of this perceived, or real, misery rose a fashion-centric subculture that seemed to buck this notion. A subculture that focused on sharp international fashion, top-shelf liquor, and flagrant disregard for money. The young men calling themselves skhothane appeared on YouTube burning cash and high-end clothes, washing their hands with whiskey, and mock-feeding greasy potato crisps to the crocodile logos on their Lacoste golf shirts.
Yet like many subcultures, almost as soon as it peaked in the general conversation, so too did it simmer down. Mainstream media from South Africa and around the world swooped in to capture this exotic exhibition unlike anything they’d seen before. They clambered through the township of Soweto, where skhothane originated, to find fresh angles and unique footage of the events in an attempt to understand, or perhaps just capitalise on it – and, whether knowingly or not, they participated in killing it off.
Though many believe the media’s exposure of this seemingly flagrant disregard for money played a role in skhothane’s demise, others suggested that, in fact, it never really existed as the mainstream press presented it. That the scene existed on some level is hard to deny: amateur photographs and videos of burning clothes and money are still out there for all to see. But when camera-toting media descended on the streets of Soweto looking for new footage, it was only natural to assume that some would exaggerate it for the attention, putting on a show to give them what they wanted.
The less eye-catching aspect of the movement — those who simply appreciated fine clothes, dance moves, and the cultural subjugation — never made the headlines. Many would walk away looking for a new culture to subvert. Ultimately, what much of the hype missed about the growing scene in South Africa’s townships was that the core of skhothane was rooted in something far more complex.
Subcultures using dress to assert status
Many subcultures over the years have used the display of wealth and fashion to assert their status within society. In many ways, the Skhothane practise borrows from that seen in hip-hop culture from the early 1980s, where the concept of bling rose out of the Bronx to become commonplace. Russian oligarchs in ’90s-Moscow also revelled in bold statements of wealth and opulence.
The concept is also common in countries across the African continent. Men in poor post-colonial Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, dressed snappily as a response to their dire situation. These Congolese sapeurs donned expensive, brightly coloured suits and classic hats despite the widespread poverty.
Mirroring the gaze
Many of these wealth-based subcultures also use fashion to subvert dominant Western and colonial trends. As CNN Style reports, Congolese sapeurs, for example, borrowed heavily from the fashion of their colonisers, in some cases comically emulating all aspects of their outfits.
A similar process has taken place in South Africa’s neighbouring Botswana, where a burgeoning rock scene features performers wearing clothing and accessories associated with traditional cowboys.
In both of these cases, and in that of the skhothane, it would be possible to argue that these are young people looking to stand out, gain respect and create a clear identity out of a society that many outsiders erroneously deem homogeneous.
Form of rebellion
The use of clothing and displays of wealth – particularly those that mirror European cultures, such as the Italian and French clothing common in skhothane – often contain subtle, and slightly comical, twists as a sign of understanding, individuality and rebellion.
Though outsiders may look at the foreign attire in its township context and simplify it down to lust, greed or a misunderstanding, in many ways it’s a subtle form of cultural appropriation and commentary, or a super stylish inside joke of sorts, considered more a middle finger than anything else.
Apart from a way of breaking the stereotypes and standing out from the crowd, many subcultures use personal appearances as a way of taking back control. Often, this is the only way some parts of society can actually do so. In a township where many struggle to break free from poverty, there can be few greater forms of agency than attaining wealth, and then destroying it in charismatic style.
But skhothane was not to last. Together with reports of increased police presence at some of the gatherings, criminal elements looking to capitalise on the movement, and the mainstream simplification, it ultimately signalled the end of the first iteration of skhothane. In its wake came new spinoffs – and a slew of confused people on the outside looking in, wondering if all that really did happen.
But was the much-publicised clothes-burning angle the dominant thread of skhothane, or a misunderstanding of the subculture? Was this movement a subversion of capitalist norms creeping into townships? Or was the more dramatic side easier to portray than a crew of snappy dressers who used flashy fashion and slick dance moves to escape their everyday lives?
These are difficult questions to answer, but one answer that did emerge from the rise and fall of skhothane is that much of the international press really have very little idea of how to examine and convey the myriad cultures that exist in the country’s diverse and constantly shifting townships.