Fashion or arson: the Skhotane subculture

by Otsile Mabote

What do you call someone wearing designer labels 'kop to tail' (head to toe)? I'm talking about silk shirts, Italian-made shoes, designer jeans, designer everything. Think of the Billionaire Boys Club but in a South African context. You get Skhotanes!

[ABOVE: A Skhotane, posing on the street in an expensive. Source - Motheo Moeng]

An altering of the Zulu word meaning to lick or boast. Skhotanes were the ‘flexers’ amongst the township youth in South Africa. This subculture first emerged from the townships of the East Rand and Soweto in Johannesburg, but like many expressions of street culture, the exact origin story depends on who you ask.

Having spent a few years of my childhood in the township, I can confidently say this style and what you wear is critical. This is because it does not just define your income, but how people see you, too.

If you present yourself as a clean guy who dresses smart and pays attention to what he is wearing, a lot of people will respect you. However, if you dress in another way, people disrespect you, and you will be labeled as dangerous.

For young men living in townships, where economic growth and development works against them, Skhotane culture is not just a way to stand out. It is a way for young South Africans to move up in a society that offers them very little. Skhotanes feel like kings when they dress how they want, and think “nobody can do it better”.

Many subcultures in different times and places have used gaudy and flamboyant dress as well as excessive spending as a way to assert status. Think of the 80s Hip-Hop culture for example; the gold grillz, gold chains, gold rings and excessive spending on women. to some extent, the Skhotanes are no different. As they khota (show off) the names of the high-end Italian brands they are wearing - DMD Muracchini, Arbiter and ROSSI Moda - they never fail to mention the price tag. In the absence of sustainable money or much of a chance of advancement in life, being a Skhotane gave them social ranking in popularity.

Over some time, Skhotanes went from being famous locally to being infamous all over the country. This is because members and followers of this subculture developed a habit of burning their expensive items as a way of boasting and showing what they represent.

This was the belief of “I can afford anything I want”. This custom of Skhotane youth burning clothing, money and other pricey items was made even more famous after numerous TV shows exposed this trend. Police also began to shut down gatherings that were hosted by Skhotanes because deliberate fire-setting is a crime in South Africa.

Years later, the general attitude towards the Skhotane culture has softened up. Skhotanes chose a different route to take, which shows a much higher level of maturity. Skhotanes now define themselves as being brand ambassadors, stylists, models and tastemakers for their favourite labels.

More fashion and flash rather than arson and assault. Some might even say that this subculture is promoting something that can be otherwise hard to find: a positive image of black South African youth from the townships.

“The new exotica, a hybrid of contemporary materialism” is how international show BBC described the Skhotane subculture.

[ABOVE: Wearing mismatched shoes shows that they can afford to buy 2 pairs, a subtle flex. Source - Photo by Motheo Moeng]

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