Wealth Gap: Custard couture grows up

2015-03-01 15:00

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Youths who burn designer clothes to show money doesn’t matter are channelling the bling-crazed society we live in, writes Tseliso Monaheng

I’m not skhothane, ke Letariana, (I’m not a skhothane, I’m an Italian),” says the man in a gold, white and black polo neck with matching pants.

Impressed by the attention he has obviously paid to his appearance, I ask permission to take a photograph.

He strikes a pose in his dazzling gold outfit, pushing out his torso, tilting his head slightly to one side like a model and positioning his right hand so each of the three silver rings on his fingers can be seen.

The camera shutter clicks twice. After exchanging a few words, we part ways and he returns to his crew.

We’re at Maftown Heights, an annual event in the Joburg CBD that attracts Motswako hip-hop adherents including, in this instance, the subject of the photograph, Muziwakhe Lephoto, better known as Muzi.

The 24-year-old fashion lover grew up in Orange Farm. Over a crackly phone line a few days after our brief encounter at Maftown Heights, he elaborates on his skhothane comment.

“Izikhothane are a level below Matariana [Italians]. We’re into buying expensive clothes, not spilling Ultra Mel and burning money.”

Izikhothane have captured Mzansi’s imagination since the 2012 exposé by the TV current affairs show 3rd Degree, which labelled them practitioners of a “disturbing new township youth culture”.

Dressing in expensive brands, then covering these clothes with custard before burning them – to show that money is no object – has come to symbolise the trend that has been growing since the late noughties.

The local documentary Soweto Rising by Noxolo Mafu and Lilian Magari adds a layer of complexity to the perception that supporters of the craze are wasteful, ungrateful and pointless.

In a segment featuring King Mosha, a dancer and self-proclaimed skhothane, he says: “We used to wear Carvelas. But now, it’s obvious I have to wear the Italian shoes?...?Italian wear,” showing how izikhothane have changed with the times. “It’s like technology. Everything upgrades and then it’s upgraded.”

The township experience isn’t frozen in a time capsule waiting for the next curious observer with a checklist.

Ekasi trends can germinate and fizzle out in six months, leaving new seeds to grow, weeds to multiply and offshoots to be rehashed in conversations about “the new thing” at dinner tables. Like amapantsula, matsatsantsa, the swenkas and many other subcultures before it, ukukhotha – the acts associated with being izikhothane – are always moving to the next level.

For instance, izikhothane and the Italians wear the same brands, but those in the former subculture have largely moved away from burning them.

It is not necessarily a craze rooted in criminality, but is about being noticed by society.

For instance, Muzi helps to run two family businesses, a grocery shop and a tavern, which is how he makes money to support his lifestyle.

“I dress in expensive clothes because, when I look good, I feel good,” he says. “People notice me.”

What does he think about izikhothane?

“I salute them. They’re the young elders; they inspire me,” he says.

Still, hardened views persist, mostly from parents who view izikhothane as ungrateful youth who waste their hard-earned money.

Ukukhotha isn’t so much an expression of frustration as a celebration of youthful assertiveness in a society that tells us having and flaunting material possessions is a sure way to get attention.

Like its childhood variant, ho somana (play-joking or dissing), izikhothane and their variant, the Italians, use culture as a way to show one has “arrived”.

In extreme cases, and after a few swigs of liquor, burning money might come into play. But it is no longer the end game.

Call it stuntin’, oswenko, ukukhotha?…?these are all trends in which young people participate.

It is a way of mimicking the bling-crazed society within which they exist.

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