Brash bling and ghetto fabulous

Izikhothane, impoverished teenagers who destroy luxury brands in a carnival of excess, have attracted sharp criticism. Percy Mabandu traces the phenomenon’s roots and our contemporary culture of bling.

Forget Marie Antoinette’s dictum of cakes for the revolting masses. Children of the restless poor in South Africa have taken to Ultra Mel custard and expensive booze.

They buy lavish items of clothing and proceed to trample and burn them to show off to their friends, or simply to negate their feeling of glaring dispossession.

These are teenagers born of working-class parents, many supported by the pensions of their grandparents.

We’ve come to call them “izikhothane” collectively, or s’khothane for the singular, a Zulu word that means “to lick”.

It has become an urban colloquialism for reckless bragging, perhaps from “licking” the copious amounts of custard that is also sipped, spat and spilled across the township streets of Gauteng’s East Rand.

These teens are players in a curious relationship between disempowered lives and luxury brands. Designer clothes, diamond-studded jewellery and premium alcohol are deployed in a carnivalesque spectacle by the poorest of the poor.

Now the izikhothane have filtered into the media, and have risen like a pimple on the face of our popular culture.

The nation first became aware of izikhothane through some adventurous photojournalism by social media users and work by visual artists such as Jamal Nxedlana.

He has videotaped izikhothane for documentaries about emergent street cultures on his web series Cuss TV.

His underground work attracted curious newshounds and talk-show hosts, and izikhothane took a seat at the dinner tables of the chattering classes.

There was outrage at the wasteful exhibitionism of a troubled generation.

The SABC’s Cutting Edge became the first major platform to expose izikhothane last year.

However, it wasn’t until the word was uttered by the stiff upper lip of’s Debra Patta that the mainstream began talking.

Newspaper reports carried tragic stories about suicides.

Ekurhuleni mayor Mondli Gungubele announced his metro’s plan to spend R20 million on youth development in an attempt to root out izikhothane.

The mayor was quoted as saying: “This culture is abhorrent and should be condemned in the strongest terms. Our social development department has been tasked to work with local youth advisory centres to ensure such behaviour is curbed.”

The tag of being s’khothane was tainted. It was no longer the hilarious referent of bragging clowns in the hood.

It was inevitable our enfants terrible would entrench their place in pop culture courtesy of Nando’s. The fast-food franchise used the s’khothane spectacle in one of their latest adverts.

The s’khothane’s game theory is simple.

They compete with their peers over who can afford the most expensive apparel.

They come out to parties or street bashes dressed in high-end brands like Carvela or Rossi Moda’s designer Porsche shoes that must generally cost no less than R1 000 a pair.

To be a true s’khothane, you must own multiple pairs of the brand.

Then there are the colourful double mercerised cotton shirts, which can be labelled by anyone from Kurt Geiger and Polo to DMD.

Then you burn them.

However, this ravenous need to be seen, this ostentatious posturing by the underprivileged, has a long history in the urban black experience.

Writing about life in the newly built Soweto of the early 1960s, journalist Nat Nakasa observed: “Not many people earn much money here.

There are people, thousands of them, who don’t eat three meals a day . . . But Soweto has many faces.

The number of American cars never fails to amaze outsiders.

“As long as the car remains there, the world will know that the man of the house once had his spell of gracious living . . . You see this in the drinking sessions.

A man will take his whole week’s pay and buy drinks for half a dozen of his friends. ‘Fill the table, count the empties’, he will say to the shebeen queen.

The idea is to live well while you can and face the troubles of tomorrow when they come.”

Earlier examples of showy dressing can be found among the Sophiatown gangs of the day.

Going by names like the Americans and the Russians, these ruffians were noted for their sharp attire amid the squalor of that township.

In fact, even Nelson Mandela is remembered for his natty dressing in expensive suits when he couldn’t have possibly afforded them.

The 1970s ushered in a new type of thuggish fashion peacock. Known as Mapantsula, they were a throwback to the gangsters of the 1950s.

Both drew inspiration from the mafia. This lot wore Florsheim, Brentwood, Pringle and other hot brands of the time.

Mapantsula, memorialised in Oliver Schmitz’s 1988 film, were also vicious knife wielders.

There are stories of people who were stabbed to death in tussles that started with somebody mistakenly stepping on a ’pantsula’s expensive shoe.

In another film, The Swenkas, Jeppe Ronde documents a regular pageant by migrant workers in the hostels of Joburg who compete for the title of best-dressed man.

Many work in the mines or as pick-and-shovel staff on construction sites.

They buy expensive suits and parade for prize money at hostels, sometimes sharing stages with scathamiya musicians.

Similar to izikhothane, it is designer clothes that define their status, except to be a s’khothane you must be willing to destroy the threads that define you.

The competition for respect among izikhothane can become macabre.

It’s reported that a 14-year-old boy, Kamohelo Tsimane, committed suicide because his father could not afford the outfits he needed. So death becomes the highest cost where nothing is spared to be the most expensively dressed kid in the hood.

Call them ghoulish and corrupt, but in a sense these bad apples haven’t fallen far from the tree.

Consider socialite Khanyi Mbau’s statement to Patta on national television: “I’m not going to feel sorry for someone not having bread . . . If they can’t put bread on their table, too bad. I’m going to have my croissant with my blue cheese.”

Mbau, of course, follows in the footsteps of the kwaito generation.

These were freedom-era young people who found themselves in command of an entertainment machine worth hundreds of millions of rands in the 1990s.

At the height of their shine, kwaito trio TKZee were making unprecedented amounts of money.

At a time when average music video budgets were R15 000, they were spending R100 000 on a shoot for a song such as Fiasco.

Arthur Mafokate was king of his stable, releasing talents like Abashante and Makhendlas, who were performing to sold-out clubs and bashes across the country.

Money talked at the parties these young stars threw.

DJ Oscar Warona, for instance, was known for splashing out with ice buckets full of bourbon, which he passed around in celebration.

It was the spirit of a country learning how to be free of apartheid’s tyranny and defiantly partying it up as if they were already living in a country free of poverty.

Minister in the presidency at the time, Smuts Ngonyama, put it best when he said: “I did not join the struggle to be poor.”

What of the memorable court appearances by blinging political elites facing corruption charges?

Think here of the parades made infamous by Tony Yengeni and his wife Lumka. Even better, Shauwn Mpisane turned heads at the Durban Magistrates’ Court when she wore turquoise heelless stilettos retailing at about R33 000 a pair.

The Communist Party’s general secretary and Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande splashed out on a R1.1 million BMW like a true s’khothane.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa was also s’khothing hard around the country.

He infamously racked up more than R578 000 at the Durban Hilton for himself and his buddies.

This while we lament the under-resourced state of the police.

How else could we explain the president’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma’s behaviour?

He arrived at then national police commissioner Bheki Cele’s wedding driving a R2.5 million Mercedes-Benz, against the backdrop of a series of suicides by starving and unpaid mine workers at his company, Aurora Empowerment Systems.

Even as the now-embattled youth leader Julius Malema kept reminding his detractors that he was “chosen by the poorest of the poor youth in South Africa”, he would address these destitute youngsters while flashing a Breitling watch worth R250 000.

When Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V was launched in Joburg in 2007, the whisky makers claimed that Madiba’s country was the fifth-largest whisky market by volume in the world.

This year, Johnnie Walker Platinum Label is being launched in South Africa.

A collector’s bottle signed by master blender Jim Beveridge will retail at R115 100 a pop.

Tenderpreneurs at zooty bars will chug it back with a chuckle. This in a third-world country that struggles to supply textbooks to school children.

But this is s’khothane country. Even the opening of our Parliament is a parade where the political elite strut their stuff in peacock fashion.

Designer clothes and flamboyant hairstyles and jewellery to match have become their uniforms, lest they don’t make the Sunday papers’ social pages.

Once they’ve been seen in their finest gear they couldn’t possibly wear it again. How different are they to the kids burning new clothes?

Perhaps our thirst for disposable bling is best explained by African-American rap star Kanye West, addressing a similar obsession in hip-hop.

“We are quick to show that we have something because we always had nothing,” he said.

“It’s almost to make ourselves be truly citizens, to move up in the caste like that . . . We’ve always had chains around our necks. Now they just have diamonds in them.”

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