South African Street Tribes

The tribes have spoken and luckily for us Sandiso Ngubane was listening

Words: Sandiso Ngubane

In the 1987 South African film Mapantsula, Panic, the protagonist, robs a white South African of his wallet in one of the opening scenes. Panic proceeds to threaten the helpless victim as he tries to retrieve his belongings. A small-time crook, Panic is nonetheless pretty well-dressed, often wearing suits and like the pantsula of an era gone by, Florsheim shoes and hats – always looking dapper.

I’m pretty sure the Oliver Schmidt classic means a lot of things to a lot of people, but for me, it was the costume that I found fascinating, especially because there is not a lot of documentation from that period about the sartorial aspect of the early day pantsula.

I'm reminded of the pantsula and his dresscode as I ponder the significance of black dandyism and the pervasive street style culture that has engulfed Joburg over the years, giving us a multitude of street style crews. I remember a few years ago when I first spotted the duo of the Sartists, specifically. Dressed in tailored knee-length shorts, vintage suit jackets, shirts buttoned up and ties clipped, Wanda Lepoto and Kabelo Kungwane wore dress shoes, with panama hats finishing off their dapper ensemble. I immediately associated this with the dress code of the old pantsula.

Both Wanda and Kabelo are from Alexandra township where the pantsula was born in the 50s and I concluded that this is how they were paying homage to their roots, through fashion. It’s been exciting, also, to see how they’ve been photographed dressed in the modern pantsula uniform of Converse slacks, ispoti and All Stars; further confirmation – for me anyway – that their considered style is not just about black dandyism but more about telling the story of their township heritage.

I’m not sure why the pantsula never features in contemporary discussions on black dandyism. I assume it is the lack of documentation because it is often Jamaica’s rude boys who get that nod from commentators who are excited about the re-emergence of the black dandy through street style crews like the Sartists, Brooklyn Circus’s Ouigi Theodore and of course the likes of Street Etiquette. Both the pantsula and the rude boy emerged in the 50s, yet the pantsula never quite got his shine. It is therefore great to see the Sartists taking on that role of documenting this heritage in the age of street style.

They are not alone in retelling the South African story through style. Crews like Khumbula, I See A Different You and even the ‘future mfana’ vibe of Okmalumkoolkat and the Boyz ‘n Bucks crew are all, in different ways, owning the style narrative and using their voices to navigate the vicissitudes of South African identity, and more specifically black South African identity.

If one thinks of the Mqoco sisters and their knack for merging traditional elements to their contemporary style aesthetic and how the Fashion Rebels, with their OTT, super-customised thrift wear, are exposing us to a Pretoria few people even knew existed, it's impossible to deny that there’s definitely a brave new world emerging from the streets of South Africa.

Many people will remember the Smarteez, who came to prominence before social media became as prominent as it is today. With Lolo Veleko exposing them to the mainstream with her stunning images of the crew that consisted of Kepi Mngomezulu, Sibu Sithole, Lethabo Tsatsinyane and Floyd Mantoane, it was then, late last decade, that the street style crew phenomenon entered the digital age.

But long before the awesome foursome from Soweto came and before digital media gave way to blogs, giving everyone who is anyone space to shine, there was the Swenka subculture in greater Johannesburg, where, on the weekend, migrant mineworkers would dress their best and gather for amateur competitions where swag could earn you street cred and even a cow. In his new video for Mswenkofontein’, Okmalumkoolkat pays homage to the dapper Zulu migrant labourer who defined himself beyond what Apartheid sought to confine his identity to – little more than just a slave, working daily to maintain an economy that only benefitted a few. 

Today, the Skhothane subculture is fulfilling a similar role for urban township youth in Tembisa, Soweto and the East Rand, or Ekurhuleni as it is now known. They are reimagining their reality, refusing to bow to the poverty-and-hopelessness narrative that the township tale so often assumes. It is precisely for this reason that many find the subculture so repulsive, because in their middle-class snootiness, they can’t make sense of why and how these kids in the township can live so freely.

Dissecting this sort of snobbish backlash, i-D Magazine’s Matthew Whitehouse writes: “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.”

He goes on to ask: “Are the Skhothane doing anything worse than youth tribes have done throughout history?”

The answer, of course, is a resounding “No!”

On close inspection, the street style tribes of Joburg have a function that goes beyond just fashion. There’s a message there and it’s about self-affirmation in a world that often seeks to negatively define youth, blackness and the experience of being African.

Similarly, Panic, in the movie Mapantsula, may have been nothing beyond a small-time crook in the eyes of many, but for him, dressed in his dapper suits and Florsheim shoes, he could offer us a different narrative.

This one quote from a blog post by Khumbula sums it all up quite nicely for me: “For our parents their story remains untold and their dreams remain in the underground mine dumps. That’s just the way it is (but) things will never be the same because we are the new generation, filled with uncapped ambitions. We understand the meaning of hope and perseverance.”


* Smarteez pics by Chris Saunders and Nontsikelelo 'Lolo' Veleko