Can This Ostentatious Soweto Subculture Offer a Way Out of the Slums?

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
July 18 2014 8:01 AM

Soweto Style

In South African townships, an ostentatious youth subculture is about much more than expensive clothing.

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The Commandos art-direct their own photo shoot with a rehearsed sequence of poses.

Photo by Motheo Modaguru Moeng

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SOWETO, South Africa—Tolouse is wearing three pairs of trousers. The bottom pair is solid black, the second a violet floral pattern, and on top is a copper coin print that matches his turtleneck shirt. It’s April 26, the eve of Freedom Day in South Africa, marking 20 years since the former apartheid nation first held open and democratic elections.

The autumn evening temperature at Thokoza Park, located near Moroka Dam in the township of Soweto, doesn’t warrant Tolouse’s sartorial overload. But his reasoning is simple: “If someone comes up to me and says, ‘Those look cheap or dirty,’ I can show them I have two more pairs on.” Each pair, he proudly notes, cost “one point eight,” or 1,800 rand—about $170.

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Tolouse and his similarly dressed crew, who call themselves the Commandos, are wearing outfits that, “kop to tail” (head to toe), cost up to $1,120 each. In South Africa, groups like this are called skhothanes, an adaptation of a Zulu word meaning “to lick” or “to boast.” The day’s occasion is similar to a dance-off, but the broader subculture it is a part of, known as izikhothane, is specific to the “born free” generation—those born at the end of apartheid—living in the townships of South Africa. Born-frees like Tolouse have no direct memory of a time when nonwhites lived in townships like Soweto by force instead of economic stagnation.

Many subcultures in different times and places have used ostentatious dress and exorbitant spending as a way to assert status, from 1980s hip-hop culture in the Bronx to post-communist Moscow’s uber-rich oligarchs in the 1990s. To some extent, the skhothanes are no different. As they skhot (boast) about the names of the high-end Italian brands they’re sporting—Arbiter, Rossi Moda, Sfarzo—they never fail to mention the price tag, too. For young men living in a country where economic development hasn’t translated into what’s needed most—jobs for young people—skhothane culture is not just a way to stand out, but a way for young South Africans to move up in a society that offers them few options. While this social mobility may be more perceived than actual, one township local summed up their motivation nicely: “When they do what they do, absolutely no one can do it better. They feel like kings.”

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King Mosha, considered one of the best dancers in Soweto, poses with a Sfarzo button in his mouth.

Photo by Ntsane Monaheng

Late afternoon, the vibe at the leafy Thokoza Park resembles a boozy tailgate party—or, in township parlance, vula boot (“open trunk”). The Commandos’ most famous member, King Mosha—a rail-thin 19-year-old who is widely regarded as one of the best dancers in Soweto—is doing an improbable dance move that resembles planking and twerking. He effortlessly contorts his body to the deep house beat with an expression on his face that suggests, “I’m so good at this, it’s disgusting.” The crowd is loving it.

Soon another crew, known as the 18 Boys, arrives at the park, appearing to be a bit self-conscious. Their group was once so prolific that it spawned an impostor Facebook group that has nearly 39,000 likes. But for this particular occasion, they haven’t dressed up.

“Where are the 18 Boys now?” a Commando named Cheslin taunts loudly, alluding to the fact that in this crowd, an outfit costing only 300 rand renders them invisible. “I don’t see them.”

Spoko, an original member of the 18 Boys, is physically restrained by one of his fellow members. “I feel like doing it, but I’m not in the right mood,” Spoko says, referring to prospect of retaliation by way of dancing. “I’m not dressed for it.”

Skhothane culture first sprung up in the Johannesburg-adjacent townships of Soweto and East Rand in the mid to late aughts, but like many manifestations of street culture, the exact origin story depends on whom you ask.

Skhothanes were not the first to use clothes as a way to transcend township life. The swenkas of Johannesburg regarded dressing in custom three-pieced suits for elaborate fashion shows as a form of moral code. The pantsula style of dress and dance, which reappropriated the gardening uniforms black South Africans were forced to wear during apartheid, gained enough prominence that it was featured in Beyoncé’s music video for “Run the World (Girls).”

The Soweto-born fashion and photography trio known as I See a Different You are the township’s de facto ambassadors of style. With the goal of portraying Soweto “as we see it,” founders Innocent Mukheli, Justice Mukheli, and Vuyolwethu Mpantsha are acutely aware that clothing in Soweto goes way beyond aesthetics.

“Dress and swagger and what you wear in Soweto is extremely important because it defines not just your income, but your character,” Mpantsha said. “If you present yourself as a clean guy who dresses smart and pays attention to what he’s wearing, a lot of people will respect you. But if you dress in another way, people will be afraid of you or think you’re guilty of something.”

A few years ago, the skhothanes went from being famous locally to infamous nationally after crews began burning the expensive things they coveted. The habit of skhothane youth burning clothes, money, and other pricey items as part of their dance-offs and wild parties was even immortalized in an advertisement for Nandos, a popular South African fast-food restaurant. As one skhothane explained, “If I can burn this two point three shirt, who are you? You are no one.”

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