dissecting the backlash against the skhothane
South Africa’s Skhothane are obsessed with consumption and designer goods, how is this different from every other subculture?
Youth tribes have been using conspicuous consumption as a form of aspiration since, well, since youth tribes were invented. From the sharp-suited tailoring of the mods to the deifying of the Air Max 95 among London grime crews (known as '110s' due to the hefty price-tag), to New York drag ball's early 90s obsession with passing as preppie princesses and yuppie bankers straight out of Country Life and the FT.
Yesterday we released a documentary by South African photographer Pieter Hugo about Johannesburg's Skhothane, a subculture in which gangs compete with one another to see who's wealthier in a series of elaborate, ritual dance offs, growing out of RSA's blossoming underground house scene.
The Skhothane were described as "materialistic" and "shallow" in comments on our YouTube channel. They were, to more than one commentator, "making me uncomfortable". So what was it about them that provoked such a strong reaction? Are the Skhothane doing anything worse than youth tribes have done throughout history?
The Skhothane are based in Tembisa, a large township established in 1957 when black people were resettled from Alexandra and other areas in Edenvale, Kempton Park, Midrand and Germiston. Emerging around 2008 in dance battles set to South African House and Kwaito, it's all about standing out from the crowd and demonstrating that, unlike their Apartheid-raised parents, the Skhothane can shop where they want, wear what they want and do what they want. Accustomed to poverty, it's a situation not too dissimilar to one described by Ian Hough in his book Perry Boys, a history of the casual gangs of Manchester and Salford:
"The cosy web of established communities were ripped apart, and their occupants randomly assigned space in this or that tower, on this or that estate. This had several effects on those caught up in the concrete tide: it created a need to be around like-minded people, namely those who felt alienated and dissatisfied; it created relatively long-distance communication between former neighbours who had been separated; and it fostered a sense of victimhood, which replaced the comfortable feeling of familiarity with the old faces from the terraced streets now gone.
As a result, a new age of urbanite evolved in the inner cities, one in need of satisfaction, determined to obtain it be hook or by crook. They wanted more, and they decided to take it. Where their ancestors had been excluded by those in the higher social strata, the natives from these smashed communities themselves rejected contact with those who didn't understand, and a culture of its own was born."
What's striking is that - bar the obvious references to concrete estates and terraced housing - pretty much any of the above could have been written about the Skhothane. And what's more, so too could several aspects of the film be about any other Western subculture. For example the wearing of odd shoes to show they can afford more than one pair (similar to the idea of `boxfresh' sneakers among New York b-boys); the idea of looking sharp and dressing to impress (the clean living under difficult circumstances of the mods). Even their ritualistic wasting of crisps and custard is surely no more offensive, and certainly no more harmful, than the ritualistic wasting of petrol, cigarettes and money on cheap drugs that has defined Western subcultures for time immemorial. We all have our signifiers of wealth.
Perhaps the problem here is not what's being done, but exactly who is doing it. In an article on last year's Band Aid 30 single, Bim Adewunmi wrote that there exists a paternalistic way of thinking about Africa, one that "places those of us in the west in the position of benevolent elders, helping out poor Africans, mouths always needy and yawning, on their constantly blighted continent." In fact, one of the recurring comments that cropped up over the last twenty-four hours was, "Where do they get their money?" as though some viewers expected the youth of Johannesburg to still be living in grass houses.
Or could it be that we find them uncomfortable as they don't fit into a Western stereotype of Africa, one that casts the generalised African as a 'noble savage', free from civilisation's corruption, and therefore symbolic of humanity's essential goodness. It's a theory explored by Edward Said in his book Orientalism. Said saw it as a degrading leftover of the West's imperial legacy, which justified colonialism as a bringer of progress to the disadvantaged, and which continues to assume that Africans are underdeveloped and undereducated.
Are we uncomfortable when we see the Skhothane not because what they're doing is wrong, but because it does not conform to this narrative? Rather than meeting our expectations we are forced to recognise that theirs is a society whose excesses mirror our own. In doing so, we recognise that we are all the same. We are all Skhothane.
Text Matthew Whitehouse