In my last year of high school, I shocked my parents and our neighbours when – after disappearing from home for a few weeks – I came back with my hair in dreadlocks.
This at a time when dreadlocks were a loud declaration to the apartheid police: “Come and arrest me, or come and search my house, for I might have a stash of banned books and/or some marijuana to boot.”
By the time I started working as a journalist, I’d abandoned the dreadlocks after discovering they were a turn-off to girls. You laugh. The things we do for girls. And the things they do because of us: they punish themselves wearing those impossibly high high-heels so we’ll think they are tall and slim, with curves in all the right places.
Anyway, to change my image, I rushed to a fashionable hair salon and got myself a perm. My comrades in the Azanian People’s Organisation were scathing. The perm was counter-revolutionary. It was a betrayal of blackness, they said. Steve Biko would not have approved of it, I was told. (So you see, black women of the 2000s and your weaves and wigs, attacks on one’s preferred hairstyle did not start with you! So, sit down and let this old man continue.)
Anyway, I conveniently closed my ears to the tirades from my comrades. I kept my perm. And it was not just a regular perm. I got the greasiest one, which was called the Peabo Bryson – after one of the popular musicians of the time. To get the Peabo Bryson look, the hair stylist had to stretch your hair all the way to the collar of your shirt.
The girls loved the Peabo Bryson. But taxi drivers hated it so much they posted messages inside their vehicles “I like your perm, but not on my windows.”
Then, from the perm I moved to what was called isChicco or isMike Tyson, that fashionable box cut made famous by Chicco Twala, Rebecca Malope and, of course, the ear-biting boxer Mike Tyson.
Kids, as you all know, you don’t do your hair in a vacuum, so to speak. You have to dress in certain fashion, to complement your hairdo.
As a result, in the rage of my growing up, I experimented with many fashion styles: from ragged Bob Marley-style military garb to Michael Jackson-style leather jackets with many zips; from pantsula-style Brentwood and Crockett & Jones brogues to tight-fitting Bang Bang jeans and high-heeled Watson shoes.
Yes, those of us who wore tight-fitting jeans, high-heeled shoes and perms were invariably called Ivy Boys or American Dudes. I’ll say it again: the girls loved us.
But why am I telling you this? All this old man is trying to say is I know a thing or two about fashion. Which is why I cannot keep quiet any longer about one of the biggest sins committed in the name of fashion. Yes, you saw the outfit that was foisted on those lovely kids representing our country at the Olympics.
My word! For a moment there, when I looked at those pictures, I thought I was looking at people attending an Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging bosberaad or a gathering of game rangers from Kruger National Park.
I know I am not the first person to express disappointment at this. I also happen to know that, for all its boer sensibility, the uniform was designed by black dudes. And not just average black dudes, but fellows from my home province, KwaZulu-Natal. Hhawu! Benzani labafana?
I know it wasn’t their original idea; they worked to a brief. And that brief came from moneyed people who do not have the same load of melanin as the poor designers themselves.
To use the language of the woke generation, the black designers “did not have agency”. Which, in simple English, means that they did not make the decisions.
So, what you saw on that stage in Japan was not a reflection on the designers. These young fashion designers are pawns in a corner of the South African fashion world that still bows to white hegemony. Ah, I finally get to use that word!
Now that the dust has settled, I am wondering what fashion style would have been truly representative of our country.
I know if our athletes had rocked up in umbhaco-inspired gear, many South Africans would have jeered: “Down with Xhosanostra!”
If they’d turned up in amabheshu nezidwaba, a section of our populace would have shouted, “Not all of us are from Nkandla!”
Had they settled for Kaapse Klopse-inspired uniforms, some of us would have cried, “Why was Khadija from Manenberg assigned to design the national outfit?”
Had they been sycophantic enough to come in Thohoyandou-style garb, some of us would have said, “One MuVenda at the top is enough.”
Had they gone for tartan kilts, the woke crowd would have moaned, “What’s this Eurocentric crap?”
You see! You can’t win. Why can’t you win? Because South Africa is not as homogenous as, say, Japan, for example. It is still a long, long journey towards a shared nationhood, a shared South African culture.