They blew up and bust like boom times. Named the "skhothane" – South African township slang for "hustlers" – theirs was a subculture of status, wealth-on-display as a fashion statement. Cut from the same cloth as the Converse-and-overall-sporting pantsulas and the hip-hop-inspired umswenko subcultures, skhothane were the "boasters", the "braggarts", the cash-money club of a cross-section of society that has precious little to waste.
It was 2012, and in townships like Katlehong and Tembisa outside of Johannesburg, this scene was common: crews sporting silk shirts and bucket hats, Italian-made shoes, designer jeans and bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. There were parties in parks, where contending crews held dance-offs that often climaxed in what outsiders would call gross waste. Indeed, to the rest of the world, these skhothane gatherings looked unsettlingly like the tragic society predicted by Steve Biko, anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement: "[One] driven to chaos by irresponsible people from Coca-Cola and hamburger cultural backgrounds."
This is what the skhothane came to represent; the possessions, the passions, the fashions and the actions revolved around one all-encompassing creed: "Look at me; I can afford this."
What came with it, though, were rumours of arson, violence and crime – wastefulness gone mad as cash was burned, clothes torn, crisps and custard strewn on streets. The evidence is there – just a search away on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
As soon as a local investigative news programme called The 3rd Degree picked up on the craze, the scene began to devour itself as viewers recoiled in horror – and perhaps shame. Here were the 99 percent adopting what they believed were the values and characteristics of the 1 percent – the ultimate underscoring of a gaping wealth divide: an entire subculture that saw wearing two different pairs of £100 shoes as "luxury", while somewhere in the world an oligarch flew his pet cat to Paris by private jet.
But the images beamed across the internet were compelling – here was the new exotica, a hybrid of contemporary materialism and freaky Africana. The skhothane scene snowballed into an international youth culture phenomenon that saw even the BBC come down to explore this "bizarre" subculture. The programme revealed the high-intensity with which the skhothanes approached one another, and themselves, including the tearing of money, the biting of iPhones, the stomping on designer shirts and buckets of KFC chicken, all set to the tune of a restless kwaito, hip-hop or house beat while a crowd of hangers-on and supporters sip on expensive whisky and cheer for their chosen crews. These might not have been regular occurrences, but the media-selected picture was there – and the world wanted more.
As camera crews came down looking for the braggarts who burnt things, the image itself went totally meta and the youth played into it. Whereas diehards in 2015 still think of skhothane as more fashion and flash than arson and assault, the media had a different story to tell. And thus skohthane culture was appropriated for the media market – it became part and parcel of the township narrative, appearing in Nando's ads, online cartoon serials, myriad local music videos. It became a brand of brands and swallowed its children, who were only too willing to take their materialism to the next level. At some point, the spectacle slid from legitimate scene to more of a media construct, and in doing so penned itself off on the final chapter of a story that had been written for it.
So what actually happened during its inception? How often was cash burnt? How often were clothes torn, fists thrown and Lays crisps poured over Lacoste golf shirt emblems in a move known as "feeding the crocodile"? Was the media skewing a story too good to pass up? Did it matter? In the echo chamber of the internet, the demise of skhothane subculture was spelt out amid a haze of moralising, art world hot air and pseudo-sociological analysis. It peaked in front of the cameras and crashed behind the scenes. Where it's at now is hard to pinpoint – many lay claim to the legacy, yet few are in agreement as to what exactly this constitutes.
What is fact: skhothane culture saw its brightest night on the 29th of September, 2012, a night where tens of thousands of skhothane and residents of the Thokoza township came together for the East Rand vs West Rand battle in Rockville, a suburb of the Soweto township outside Johannesburg. Three years later, there are hardly any skhothane be found in this area. Police have clamped down on the often raucous gatherings, and a campaign of community vitriol has dampened the spirit of most. Plus, as "reformed skhothane" Lister Khotment puts it: "Skhothane isn't cool now; there are new subcultures, things are always changing." What is left of the once-thriving skhothane scene is a smattering of crews across Gauteng's townships, from Tembisa to Daveyton.
A compilation of various skhothane videos filmed by Tshepo Pitsa
Tshepo Pitsa (AKA The Don Dada) was there for it all. He was barely out of matric – the final year of high school – when the media swooped in and skhothane gained international notoriety. He featured in magazines and blogs from ELLE to the BBC, and is the most viewed skhothane YouTuber. His crew, The Material Boys, are strictly anti-burning and anti-tearing. For them, it's all about fashion and dancing.
For Pitsa, skhothane is simply a way of looking and feeling while going about your day: "We do what all people do, but we look different," he says. Is that all there is to it? Hard to believe post-hype. But Pitsa is perhaps on the money; forget what you've seen on TV, he warns. As cultural commentator and academic Sarah Nuttall writes, the "accessorisation of identity, including racial identity, through compositional remixing" – cutting across sartorial and sonic cultures, as with skhothane – is "decreasingly attached to the transfer of meaning... but rather inhabits a matrix of transfiguration." Skhothane wasn't – and, for guys like Pitsa, still isn't – some deep, artistic undertaking. Nor was it all superficial. It was about transforming oneself and thus one's circumstances. Fashion maverick Miuccia Prada knew the deal: "When you get dressed, you are making public your idea about yourself," she told New York Magazine. Fashion as elevation, as identity.
Pitsa also tells us why there are so few, if any, skhothanes to be found in this area, when just a couple of years ago it'd be impossible not to spot the bright shoes and floral shirts blooming across Thokoza park and alongside Moroka dam, where we stand now.
"That thing was happening [the parties], but it was very rare... it was not one case, but it was very rare. I've never done it. It's rare for someone to see burning money," he tells me. "When the media came to these boys, they said, 'Don't you want to burn something?' But that's not what we were doing. The media was asking people to pour Ultramel [custard] and do these things."
Pitsa pauses, summing us up, then continues earnestly: "They didn't know that this would kill us and destroy our image. They asked us to burn money or tear something or waste something. We saw that this thing was killing our culture, so we started denying doing it. We are normal people like other people, but if we do something wrong it's a different story. They [the community] won't complain if some other person from some other culture does it. We do interviews like this to explain better. We sometimes come across newspapers that make up their own stories, just to sell the paper. And we can't be going around suing people all over the world. We'd waste our time and money. So I'm fixing things now."
The skothanes of 2015 are fakes, says Pitsa – counterfeits, undeserving of the title, shills of the big-name media who are handed bottles of whisky and fresh pairs of designer shoes, given a match and told to smile at the camera while they set it all alight. There's no centralised authority or regulatory agency to dole out punishment to those who don't conform, because there's no central idea marking out what exactly skhothane is. Skhothane is a culture – it can be anything that's put into it. And this is what it's become. Apparently.
Pitsa has also grown sceptical of an international media that he feels has no way of knowing or accurately conveying what truly takes place in the seething mass of culture and conflict that is a South African township.
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Certainly when we asked the police in Katlehong (where the original investigative documentary was shot) if they received complaints about skhohane, the answer was a resounding "no" – something that renders implausible the idea that funeral pyres of Italian shoes and R100 notes were being lit up all over the place every weekend. But that hasn't stopped the image from sticking, or the various ex-skohthane and locals we quiz from talking it up.
When we asked another crew to meet us somewhere, their response was, "What do you want us to dress like and what do you want us to bring?" So clearly there are different types of skhothane – the question is, which are the originals and which are the counterfeits, and, more importantly, to what extent does authenticity allow for the dictates of the documentarian and not the practitioner?
The exposure of the scene by the media was only part of the reason for the disappearance of the crews. Police apparently started clamping down on showdowns that often became violent, and a black market trade sprang up as tsotsis (township gangsters) looked to capitalise on the big money being blown. Muggings became common at events, and original garments were taken and sold to unscrupulous buyers at discount prices. Local stores also began importing counterfeit skhothane styles as the subculture ballooned in the wake of the media interest. The skhothanes themselves were even rumoured to have delved into crime to support their habit. It became a vast culture of imitation that had kids and community alike foaming at the mouth, albeit for different reasons. The suicide of a local teenager, allegedly due to his inability to afford expensive clothes and thus fit in, capped off a round-robin of negative press and publicity that seemed to sound the death-knell of skothane. What happened in reality was more of a divergence.
The Tarianas – slang for "Italians" – are an example of this: a crew of ex-skhothane based in Tembisa who now do things their "own way". The expensive attire remains, but there's no destruction. It's about the "spirit of the Italian" as Thembisa Matsepe, leader of the crew, puts it. It's about a style of dance and a style of clothes, a kind of skhothane-lite, revelling in the sartorial as status symbol and dance skill as a measure of township savoir faire. It is, as they put it, a direct result of the continued community and media reaction to the hate that the skhothane elicited from the people around them. No one really owns a scene, but it's clear when one has evolved beyond at least the first cycle of decay. Matsepe says that many of the skhothane he used to respect are now in jail, and that he never wanted to be a part of that.
The story is murky, like anything related to street culture. It's predicated by an organic, evolving nature – no one can lay claim, truly, to what it meant, or means. The story of skhothane is complex and constantly changing, warped as it was by conflicting narratives and a frenzy of media coverage that left little room for interrogation. The Tarianas are the logical end product of the clash between society and street culture. Fashion changes, style endures. The crocodile has been tamed, but not before it was fed fat on myth and merit in differing measures.
The culture might not have had "meaning" insofar as its audience wanted an exotic nihilism prepped for YouTube or reality television, and the skhothane may have had their own unexpressed agenda, but for some the subculture became a kind of echo of something else. A sign of the times. In a country with endemic corruption, shambolic service delivery, a faltering civil service, regular national power outages, rampant wealth gaps, a plummeting currency and an increasingly restless, frustrated population, who knows how important that might be? Certainly the skhothanes didn't know – or perhaps they didn't care. People stared. They made it worth their while. Meanwhile, we saw ourselves reflected in the blistering curve of the skhothanes flight-path.
But hey, it was only fashion after all.
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