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Burn after wearing -- township kids' hottest fashion statement

Sibongile Nkosi

It is a cool night in the heart of Soweto and crowds of trendy young people are heading in one direction only: Pimville Zone 6.

It is a cool night in the heart of Soweto and crowds of trendy young people are heading in one direction only: Pimville Zone 6. They all want to be seen at the Reflection Destructor Crew’s party at Leroy’s* house.

Two Volkswagen minivans with shiny rims edge into Leroy’s yard. Teenage boys and girls stick their heads through the windows, checking out the scene. At Leroy’s gate, huge speakers pound out house rhythms and compete with the music that thuds from the shaking vans.

The boys emerge first, dressed in luminescent Nike Dri-Fit T-shirts, multicoloured tracksuits, flashily branded shoes and mismatched soccer boots, according to a report in local culture magazine Mahala. One van carries the Element of Style crew; the other van belongs to the Milano Boys. The neighbourhood onlookers are not too impressed.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” says one. “Wait till the RDC get here.” He confirms what everyone knows: the Reflection Destructor Crew are the main players in the game. But the other kids are not in the mood to wait. Already they are dancing and showing off their bottles of Hennessy cognac. Lady Destructor, otherwise known as Lesego*, attracts the crowds as she tries out her moves in the middle of the street. “Take a good look at me! I don’t wear Pick n Pay clothing!” she declares as she tosses her tracksuit top at them.

The excitement and the dancing reach fever pitch. In a rush Lesego pulls a fancy T-shirt out of her bag. She asks a friend for a match. Impatiently she tries to set fire to the shirt, but the wind is too strong for the flickering flame. She tries again and nearly succeeds. But suddenly she no longer cares. The Reflection Destructor Crew has arrived and she hurries off to see them.

As she goes, a woman in the crowd says in disbelief: “Abanye abantwana baya jabula [Some children have it easy]”. There is a mixture of disapproval and envy in the woman’s voice. Lesego is a self-styled “cheese kid”. She lives in an upmarket house opposite Maponya Mall in Pimville and is one of the few girls who are devotees of i’khothane—a youth craze that began on Johannesburg’s East Rand and is now sweeping through the city’s townships.

I’khothane is street slang, derived from the Zulu word ukukhothana, which means “to lick like a snake”. The slang term originally referred to playful competition between various “crews” whose members see themselves as icons of street fashion and kings and queens of the latest dance moves.

Nothing playful
In its early days, in 2008, the craze was simply a South African version of the “dance battles”, popular among young, urban black people in the United States. But there is nothing playful about i’khothane’s latest incarnation.

These days, such gatherings often culminate in the burning of expensive designer clothes—and even money. It is about standing out from the crowd: proving to your mates that you are so rich that expensive possessions mean nothing. It does not stop at clothing or R50 notes. Sometimes i’khothane also involves the destruction of “party” food such as KFC, which the dancers stamp into the ground as other kids look on.

According to i’khothane legend, in Pimville someone once bought a bucket of KFC chicken and stepped on it. Then he took off his Carvela shoes, set them alight and declared: “They [the shoes] have finished eating and now they are full!” I’khothane “battles” are usually held at a local park or other open space. The news of the gatherings is spread by word of mouth and the crews are mobbed by hundreds of admiring children and teenagers as they arrive. It is instant celebrity.

“You should see the little ones,” says Thulane*, an i’khothane regular. “When they spot us at shopping malls they scream and some even ask for our autographs.” If you want to join the i’khothane craze, you have to start with your shoes. For the boys, nothing less than a pair of Carvelas will do. They are a famous brand in the townships and a pair costs between R1 200 and R2 000. In the 1990s they were admired by everyone; if you owned a pair, you were immediately regarded as “middle class”. Today you have to be prepared to destroy them in public to show how rich you are.

In Pimville Zone 6, the host of tonight’s party says it is a “dream come true” for his crew. Leroy has been saving for six months to host the event. “By hosting such a party, already you have made a statement,” he says. Then, worried that he is sounding too serious, he abruptly adds that “it’s just about having fun and dancing”.

Tonight’s group of royalty—the Reflection Destructor Crew—has 10 members. They were “groomed” by the legendary Skarra of the Sexy Boys, based on the East Rand. The crew make their way into the crowd. Young girls follow them like a swarm of bees. Their dancing is magnetic, but it is often disrupted by their fans trying to get a closer look. Leroy is cool about it. “What’s more important to a young guy than ­having girls throwing themselves at you?” he asks.

Leroy and his crew are dressed in their usual, expensive “uniform”: a floral DMD long-sleeved T-shirt and white Nike tracksuit pants. As they move to the music they show off their designer jeans, which they wear underneath. Every time the fans glimpse a famous label, the screaming gets louder. This attracts members from rival crews, who also start to show off their labels.

Looking for respect
Reflection Destuctor Crew member Thulane explains what it is all about: “Abuntu baya kufatela mawudla isdwdwe [People respect you when you dress expensively and stylishly],” he says. “It brings you the fame and fame brings you the girls. Ultimately, people in the township like bringing others down. You have to prove to them that you are worth a lot.”

For Thulane and his mates, that is also why ministers and political leaders have to drive “flashy cars”. If they do not, they will not be respected or taken seriously. Bongane, a member of the Milano Boys, starts unpacking a bag of clothes on the street outside. As he does, he shows off the labels to an admiring crowd.

“It is no longer enough to merely be able to afford pricey clothing and bling. You have to be rich enough to not need it,” he says, according to Mahala. Bongane’s friends call him the “king of Italian style”. They still talk about the afternoon when he ripped up his Levi jeans and burnt his Carvela shoes.

By now the party is heating up and more and more kids are arriving. Some are tipsy from Hennessy cognac and Red Square vodka. It no longer feels so safe an environment as everyone waits in anticipation for the battle to begin. There is much bragging and boasting—good-humoured, sure, but it feels as if it could tip into violence quite easily. Perhaps it is only the music that keeps everything calm.

Muzi Ndaba**, from Central Jabavu in Soweto, is another style icon. He boasts about being the “king of burning clothes”—even if he is not so great at dancing. “No one will beat me. I am not scared of burning my Carvelas. I can afford to buy more,” he declares.

But not all young people are impressed by this outlook on life. Nokuthula Luthuli says one of her friends has recently joined the i’khothane craze, but she regards it as nothing but an attempt to get attention and find acceptance. She calls it “sickening” because many of the boys and girls are not as rich as they claim to be.

“They’re lying to themselves. We all know that some of these kids stay in four-room houses and live off their grandmother’s pension money.” Buhle Makhubu**, the older brother of an i’khothane fan, says it is a “really disappointing” trend, especially when expensive clothes are destroyed in front of children who live in poverty.

Without a trace
He adds that some of his little brother’s clothes have disappeared “without a trace”. Buhle believes his brother is just a “spoilt brat” who does not appreciate his privileges.
Parents are also worried about the negative effects of i’khothane.

Gladys Nkosi, a mother of four who stays in Dlamini in Soweto, worries about peer pressure. “Whenever they have battles you will know, because the young ones flock there like bees,” she says. Her young grandchild, Mpho, is one of them. He even imitates “the way they talk” and knows all their dance moves. Another grandmother describes the craze as “Satanist”.

Celebrities such as Metro FM DJ Sbu have warned of the dangers of i’khothane and he now runs ­programmes in high schools to ­challenge young people about its lack of morality. “I am really disappointed by this trend,” he says. “They [the kids] are just wasting their opportunities by bragging about wealth they don’t even have.”

So where does all the money for i’khothane come from? Ndaba says his father buys him the clothes, but admits that he also uses his pocket money intended for school. One member of the Element of Style crew says his grandmother and sister work for him, so he can afford to maintain the lifestyle. Nobody talks about how far they would go to get money to buy clothes. Nobody mentions crime. For now, i’khothane is just about being better than everyone else. As Muzi explains: “You have to show that you are the number one cheese boy at all costs.” *Only first names could be used. **Not their real names

I’khothane: Cultural ritual or cash flash?
Parties and fashion are central to township life. A similar tradition to i’khothane, called oswenko, developed among mine workers in the 1950s for their Saturday night entertainment because they often could not afford it or were not allowed to leave the compound.

Between isicathamiya (Zulu dance) performances, individuals put on their best suits and “swanked”. They posed, removed their jackets to show off their shirts and lifted their trouser legs to display matching socks. The audience’s reaction would be taken into consideration by a judge when awarding the prizes.

David Coplan, an ­anthropologist at the University of the Witwaters-rand, also links the trend to a cultural ritual used by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest in the United States, called potlatch—a gathering to commemorate a specific event, such as the appointment of a new chief. Just like i’khothane it would involve competitions with one another, providing a forum to display wealth within a tribe.

Mark Turpin, a consultant and life coach with Kessels & Smit: The Learning Company, associates i’khothane with the vision the youths have of life. “The extreme of burning their clothes shows their lack of vision of the future. They can find meaning and identity only in the now. When people can’t see much into the future, they get too stuck in the present,” he says.

Social worker Naledi Diani says the burning of clothes is of great concern, because it shows high levels of extremism. She cautions that this trend might be a subtle reflection of the values of too much consumption and materialism that are entrenched in society.

“It’s a reaction to the status quo: ‘I can do whatever I want as long as I have money.’ South Africa is all about a flashy lifestyle. Everyone aspires to be a VIP. We see ministers and MECs splashing government funds on fashion sprees and attending high-class events. What do you think this is saying to children?”

** Not their real names

In the original version of this article two sentences were not attributed to the original source material, a Mahala magazine article titled “Burn swag burn” by Lindokuhle Nkosi. We apologise to the writer and the editors of the publication for our serious omission, and have noted the mistake in our newspaper and online.

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