In 2012, the popular South African news program Third Degree exposed the burning era of skhothane culture, causing the police to clamp down on gatherings where money was being burned, which is a crime in South Africa. While skhothanes speak of this so-called golden era with a kind of wistful nostalgia, it’s also clear that their culture is maturing as they do.
Despite this evolution, headlines such as “Why Are Poor South African Teens Buying Expensive Clothes and Destroying Them?” still persist. Such stories follow a simple logic: Removed from the struggle of apartheid, these morally bankrupt and entitled youths ostensibly see no problem wasting the money that not long ago their parents would have barely been able to earn. These headlines imply a more loaded question: Why would anyone in Soweto spend their money on anything but getting out of Soweto?
To understand why unemployed 20-year-olds walk around Soweto in $1,120 outfits, you first have to understand what it means to grow up there.
Soweto is South Africa’s largest township, with an official population of 1.3 million. More than 40 percent of the population is under the age of 25, and nearly 50 percent of young people are unemployed. Most afternoons, young and idle Sowetans pass the time loitering on street corners.
In some ways, Soweto in 2014 is a paradox: While the last decade’s proliferation of shopping malls, big supermarket chains, and car dealerships signal improved purchasing power overall, it belies the grim career prospects for the young born-free who grow up here.
At the Shoprite U-SAVE in the Mofolo area of Soweto, two liters of Fanta and a large bag of Lays potato chips costs about $2.60. A minibus taxi ride to Johannesburg’s Central Business District, 9 miles away, costs $2.80 round trip. Fifty megabytes of Internet to charge a smartphone cost just under $1.
You might expect these to be relatively small expenditures for someone like Tshepo, who is wearing trousers that cost $170. But they are not. The economic gains throughout South Africa in the last two decades haven’t helped him find so much as a job.
With fire-engine-red hair, 22-year-old Tshepo is a lead member of the Commandos. What he lacks in employment he more than makes up for in his ingenuity. On his Facebook profile, his current job exists in aspirational terms only: a senior animator at Marvel Studios. He has a low-fi production company that he calls Don Dada, which consists of him shooting and uploading videos of King Mosha’s marathon dance sessions to YouTube. He uses Internet cafes to create posters publicizing upcoming Commandos gatherings and spreads them via WhatsApp.
Despite the township’s woes, Tshepo is upbeat about living in Soweto. “I came here from the Free State province, and I live with my grandma,” he says. “I’m so glad I came here. I will live here forever. If I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have Internet, and I wouldn’t be in magazines.”
Greg Potterton, managing director of Instant Grass, a Johannesburg-based agency that specializes in studying pockets of youth culture in Africa, says that in a place like Soweto—which is bordered by freeways and was designed during apartheid to be isolated—Tshepo’s local pride is often a product of circumstance. “When a lot of these kids are growing up, they really don’t have much option or aspirations to go anywhere else because they didn’t know about anything else,” Potterton says. “Then, you get reverse innovation happening: In the absence of luxury, creativity is born. Over time, it’s become a cooler place to be.”
In absence of money or much chance of upward social mobility, skhot-ing gives Tshepo social currency, which has a certain value in itself. All told, the return on investment on a $1,120 outfit is pretty impressive. First there are the girlfriends, which the Commandos all claim to have in droves. There’s the sense of community (members with money help buy clothes for those who don’t). There are the paid appearances at local weddings, parties, and funerals. And lastly, there’s the recognition they receive in their neighborhoods and across Soweto. In the case of the Commandos, which has both black African and Cape Malay (referred to in South Africa as “colored”) members, this sense of respect even manages to transcend racial divides.
The general attitude toward skhothane culture has softened since the clothes- and money-burning days. Shainida Neigshaan-Smith’s son, Tolouse, is a Commando member. At 21 years old, he is unemployed and lives at home. Contrary to the common assumption that all skhothanes steal money from their parents, Neigshaan-Smith is proud of her hard-earned middle-class status that allows her to fund Tolouse’s lifestyle. “It started with his matric [graduation]: We bought him his first two pairs of Arbiters and a custom Sfarzo suit and had a big party,” Neigshaan-Smith says. “He’s an adult already, so whatever he decides to do is up to him. But it’s nice to be able to provide for him.”
The Commandos are clearly familiar with the concept of self-branding. The career that they describe for themselves—being brand ambassadors as well as stylists, models, and tastemakers for their favorite labels—sounds similar to that of I See a Different You. With international appearances and a sizeable social media following, I See a Different You is using fashion to promote something that can otherwise be hard to find: a positive image of black South African youth from the townships.
The crew believes Soweto style can spread beyond the township. “If the skhothanes package themselves as fashionable youngsters from Africa with something different—which they are—and put themselves out there more, there’s definitely room for them to be great in the fashion industry,” says Mukheli. “We see what they do as an art form.”