The skhothane scene of South Africa comprised of the boasters and braggarts of certain Jozi townships who had little to waste yet flaunted as much as they could. “Look at me, I can afford this” is what they came to be about, yet the fad died out as quickly as it erupted.
It was 2012, and in townships like Katlehong and Tembisa outside of Johannesburg, this scene was common: crews sporting silk shirts and bucket hats, Italian-made shoes, designer jeans, and bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. There were parties in parks, where contending crews held dance-offs that often climaxed in the burning of luxury items—something outsiders would consider gross waste. Indeed, to the rest of the world, these skhothane gatherings looked unsettlingly like the tragic society predicted by Steve Biko, anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement: “[One] driven to chaos by irresponsible people from Coca-Cola and hamburger cultural backgrounds.”
What came with it, though, were rumors of arson, violence, and crime—wastefulness gone mad as cash was burned, clothes torn, food strewn on streets.
As the trend hit local news and the spiralled internationally through media interest, the most exciting and tantalising elements of the youth culture phenomenon were showcased, including:
the tearing of money, the biting of iPhones, the stomping on designer shirts and buckets of KFC chicken, all set to the tune of a restless kwaito, hip-hop, or house beat while a crowd of hangers-on and supporters sip on expensive whisky and cheer for their chosen crews.
And the world wanted more.
This only propelled the image of the braggarts into being appropriated by the media for their audience and, while today the skhothane are seen more as fashionable and flash than arson and assault, what the media did then was make them a parcel of South African township narrative.
At some point, the spectacle slid from legitimate scene to more of a media construct, and in doing so penned itself off on the final chapter of a story that had been written for it.
While the fad peaked in front of camera’s, it crashed behind the scenes. But where is it now?
What is fact: skhothane culture saw its brightest night on September 29, 2012, a night where tens of thousands of skhothane and residents of the Thokoza township came together for the East Rand vs West Rand battle in Rockville, a suburb of the Soweto township outside Johannesburg. Three years later, there are hardly any skhothane to be found in this area. Police have clamped down on the often raucous gatherings, and a campaign of community vitriol has dampened the spirit of most. Plus, as “reformed skhothane” Lister Khotment puts it: “Skhothane isn’t cool now; there are new subcultures, things are always changing.” What is left of the once-thriving skhothane scene is a smattering of crews across Gauteng’s townships, from Tembisa to Daveyton.
The media took an innocent craze and exploited it for their own benefit, obviously. From someone who was there from the beginning:
That thing was happening [the parties], but it was very rare… it was not one case, but it was very rare. I’ve never done it. It’s rare for someone to see burning money. When the media came to these boys, they said, ‘Don’t you want to burn something?’ But that’s not what we were doing. The media was asking people to pour Ultramel [custard] and do these things.
This has just resulted in skepticism towards the international media. When Vice asked an ex-skhothane for an interview, he asked what he should wear and what he should bring.
The exposure of the scene by the media was only part of the reason for the disappearance of the crews. Police apparently started clamping down on showdowns that often became violent, and a black market trade sprang up as tsotsis (township gangsters) looked to capitalize on the big money being blown. Muggings became common at events, and original garments were taken and sold to unscrupulous buyers at discount prices. Local stores also began importing counterfeit skhothane styles as the subculture ballooned in the wake of the media interest. The skhothanes themselves were even rumored to have delved into crime to support their habit. It became a vast culture of imitation that had kids and community alike foaming at the mouth, albeit for different reasons. The suicide of a local teenager, allegedly due to his inability to afford expensive clothes and thus fit in, capped off a round-robin of negative press and publicity that seemed to sound the death-knell of skhothane. What happened in reality was more of a divergence.
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