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Culture, Reality

Burn Swag Burn

by Lindokuhle Nkosi, illustration Trevor Paul / 04.08.2011

Two young boys in school uniform tentatively approach the car. Voices settling into manhood, faces broken out in swollen signs of puberty, they pass a cigarette between the two of them. “We’ll be performing in the park,” they inform me. “We are waiting for people to get changed and then we can begin. They shouldn’t be long, boma-ten minutes or so.” Their English is more telling than the words that they speak. An unnatural, broken flow of prose. Staggered. A smorgasbord of the bare minimum, core words that when strung together in conversation, wobble and buck under the pressure higher-level competency. The skeletal structure provided by hood public schooling where a good percentage of the subjects are taught in their mother-tongue.

The park is less than a minute’s walk away, yet the boys insist on getting in the car and riding to the rendezvous point with me. Car windows rolled down; they turn the sound on the radio up, waving at their peers in the street and ensuring that all and sundry have seen them.

I’m still unsure of why I’m here. Two weeks ago, a croaky boyish voice on the other end of the line promised me a good show (providing I bought them Ultra-Mel custard). They bill themselves as street performers, but their art consists of little more than branded clothing and face-offs with rival crews who compete over who has more money. The trend called “ukukhothana”, loosely translated as dissing, is a money-conscious South African version of the USA’s diss battles, but where the American jokes would begin with: “Yo mama is so…” these kids start theirs with: “I’m so rich I can…” And then proceed to demonstrate how much money they have by engaging in wasteful behavior. Starting in the smaller black communities of Gauteng’s East Rand, the phenomenon quickly filtered into Soweto. In a recent incident, a boy from Pimville bought a bucket of KFC chicken, threw it on the floor and then stomped on the chicken pieces, using his R2000 pair of loafers to grind the white meat into the ground before setting the food alight – and then the shoes.

In the 1950s, a similar trend arose amongst migrant workers and mine labourers who were subject to the cramped and confined conditions of hostel living. Men, separated from their families and forced into a perfunctory sense of congeniality, would hold contests in which they would trade their grimy overalls for the finest suits and flashy two-toned brogues. Called oSwenka, the winner would receive a goat or blankets and maybe some extra money to send home to their families in the Bantustans. For the izikhothane, there is no tangible prize; but the admiring glances from girls in the crowd seems to be sufficient reward.

Word spreads quickly. In a few minutes, a group of over sixty school children have gathered in the park awaiting the next izikhothane battle. The boys arrive in a loud, colourful fashion. Luminescent Nike Dry-fit T-shirts, multi-coloured tracksuits, ostentatiously branded shoes and mismatched soccer boots, their bright attire is in stark contrast to the environment. The park is no more than an undeveloped block of land. Dry grass, three barren and skeletal plants, two swings and a slide with faded paint and chipped edges. This is the stage where the teens meet weekly to gain respect and notoriety. “Everyone knows The Exclusive Italian Konka’s are the best,” says 16 year old Lesego. “It’s all about bragging, being better than everyone else. You have to show that you are the number one cheese boys.” Claiming the top spot however, reaches some ridiculous extremes.

It is no longer enough to merely afford the pricey clothing and bling; you have to be rich enough to not need it. This means publicly taking a pair of scissors to a R500 t-shirt, and playing tug-of-war with a R3000 pair of jeans before throwing the scraps to the unaffording, undeserving rivals. To earn an income, this particular crew sells refreshments at Orlando Stadium, but a more sinister rumour speaks of young men turning to petty crime in order to afford this outwardly lavish lifestyle. They indignantly refute this claim. “Ukukhothana actually keeps us away from crime. We work every weekend to get money, and when we do we spend every cent of it on all these clothes. No drugs. No alcohol, just clothes.”

The question remains though. Why do it at all? By their own admission, they aren’t as moneyed as they pretend to be. Why then spend the little cash they do receive on clothing that in some cases will end up tattered rags. The boys provide no answers. In a typically teenage manner, they have paid no thought to the psychology behind the trend. It’s tempting to think of izikhothane as some kind of nihilistic reaction to a rampantly consumerist culture, a negation of the power that “stuff” has over us. But really it comes off as an over-exaggerated homage to consumerism. The desperate quest for individualism that ties its success to brand names and price tags. A shunning of dependency and behavioural expectations that feeds off generic appeal and the admiration of strangers. This is their moment in the spotlight, but unlike Andy Warhol’s prophesized fifteen minutes, this is a search for self-value and not notoriety. When all the romanticism has been sucked out of the ghetto, when history’s lessons have stripped you of what should be inherent self-respect, dignity is inferred. Izikhothane will borrow Armani’s name and Diesel’s reputation, until they can make one of their own.

*Illustration © Trevor Paul.

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