Of black hair and politics

John Matshikiza with the lid off My old friend Moji from exile days came running wildly up Rockey Street the other day and seemed relieved to see a friendly face.

He sat down without even saying hello after all these years. He had a heavy situation on his mind. “I just paid R10 for a street haircut,” he said, leaning his elbow on the table, his chin resting on his fist, frowning into my face.

“Fine thanks, and you?” I replied. He ignored my sarcastic remark. “But R10!” he sailed on. “What do you think?”

By this time we had been joined by painter, poet and singing sensation Fikile, who also sat down in an informal way. “What’s wrong with R10?” he asked, staring at Moji. “Do you know each other?” I asked. They didn’t. I introduced them. This cleared the way for Fikile to ask me to buy him a drink. This is Yeoville, I reminded myself, suppressing a sigh, and dug into my pockets. “What would you have expected to pay at a street barber?” I asked. “I don’t know,” answered Moji. “But 10 bucks sounds like a hell of a lot for just sitting under an umbrella and getting your hair clipped.”

“You’d pay about R60 in town,” Fix interjected, settling into a comfortable argument with Moji. “Probably about R100 in Sandton.”

I looked closely at Fix for the first time in this conversation. Unusually for him, he was sporting a full head of hair. Well, full by his standards. You see, Fix is one of those black men who just happens to have hair that is quite soft and thin. The kind of hair you can comb with the same kind of comb that Lady Godiva would have used. Nice and easy to handle. But I also say his hair was full by his standards because I am used to Fikile going around with no hair at all. Since I first met him, in a downtown jazz club that has long disappeared into history but was the place to see and be seen in the early days of the exiles’ return, he has always been a strict baldhead. Baldhead was the badge of struggle and mourning in the townships. It was the badge of defiance. Fikile’s bald head was one of those. Nowadays, male buppy society, of which I guess all three of us must admit to being a part, is divided into roughly three groups. There are the baldies (known as cheesekops in the heady 1950s); there are the be-bops, meaning guys who like to go halfway, with more on top than on the sides; and there are the Rosebank Rastas, meaning those whose dreadlocks are not wild and free like those of Bob Marley, Mutabaruka or Cheikh Lo, but have been carefully tailored at one of Jabu Stone’s funky salons into the kind of corporate-friendly manes that are acceptable in the boardrooms of the new South Africa. Rosebank Rasta locks can be worn either long or short, or can be faked with synthetic extensions.

Black hair, male and female, is big business. Moji, Fix and me are the stingy end of the trade, refusing to venture into the luxury end of the market. Moji, of course, is the worst, begrudging some struggling brother at the tight end of Yeoville even R10 for performing a quick and necessary service. Fix, on the other hand, has made the big move from crazy baldhead to no-cut-at-all. He has no intention of paying anybody anything to cut his hair for the perceivable future. He is just letting it grow, even though it does not grow very far when it is let loose to do so. He has, as I said, almost silky locks for a native. But then Fikile told us something quite interesting. He said that he had been wearing his hair in the baldhead style for a long time in the 1980s and then decided, like he had decided now, to let it grow. Some other brother had accosted him in the streets of Hillbrow, pointing at the unaccustomed growth on his head. “What kind of hair is that?” said the brother. “So it means you’re a bushy after all.”

“Bushy”, as you all well know, is a not very complimentary term to describe a person of mixed ancestry – little bit of black, little bit of white, little bit of everything, like a lot of us. The term derives from the word “Bushman”, which has a double-edged, derogatory significance all of its own. But in some quarters, then as now, being a bushy was in itself a sign of weakness and betrayal. Every nuance of a person’s being could be interpreted to place them on one side or the other of the struggle. Not being black enough could land someone in a lot of trouble in Hillbrow, or Alex, or Soweto, or a lot of other places. Not that Fikile is a so-called bushy. But from that time, Fix went back to wearing his hair bald again, to avoid unnecessary unpleasantness.

So what made him decide to let his hair grow nnin its own nnnatural nnway nagain now? Fikile didn’t explain. He just felt nlike it. He’s an artist. And besides, nowadays you don’t get necklaced on the basis of rumours and suspicion. Some things have changed in the new South Africa. But it was interesting that a run-of-the- mill conversation about haircuts could move from the plane of economics to the plane of politics, while never actually touching on the question of aesthetics, which is what it should really have been about. So in some ways, I guess, we South Africans still find it hard to adjust the logic of our discourse, after all.


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