World Unknown: South African IzikhothaneBy Nabihah Iqbal, Photos: Jamal Nxedlana
A couple of months back, I was on my way to the beach in Cape Town when two teenage boys strutted past me. Both were dressed in garish silky floral shirts, tangerine jeans, and dazzling patent leather loafers: think Jazzy Jeff in a Versace advertorial circa 1993’. But their gaudy choice of garments wasn’t what caught my attention. My eyes were drawn to their fists, each one clenching tightly onto a thick wad of cash, arranged like a flourish of playing cards. The two boys fanned and flaunted the banknotes as they headed on down the street, feigning an attempt to cool themselves with a money-breeze in the beating heat of the South African summer.
They belonged to the sub-culture known as izikhothane (a Zulu word which has come to mean ‘bragging’ or ‘boasting’), and which has been burgeoning among the black youth of South Africa’s townships. What started out around 2010 purely as dance-battles between groups of kids, set to the rhythmic compressed beats of South African House and Kwaito music, has since developed into flagrant displays of so-called wealth between the different crews. With gang names such as The Overspenders and FBI (Full Blooded Italians – to signify their lust for designer labels), rival youths partake in the ostentatious and ceremonial public destruction of their valuable possessions. They will spend thousands of rand (hundreds of pounds) on designer outfits, only to wear them once and then to tear up and destroy them. They will trample KFC and custard (both regarded as luxury food items by poor blacks living in townships) into the ground, as hungry kids stand by and watch. They will set 200 rand notes on fire. And of course, they’ll document the wreckage by taking pictures on their camera phones and uploading them to Facebook. From filling up the back of a pick-up truck with water and bubble bath to create a portable pool party, to sticking smartphones under a running tap, the Facebook groups devoted to the izikhothane culture provide an abundant picture library for such obscene displays of wealth and destruction.
This South African youth movement, occasioned by a particular style of music and dancing, seems to partly be a kind of mutation of American hip hop culture, which has no shortage of its own arrogant displays of wealth. However, the fact that these are black kids born into post-apartheid era South Africa, who come from the poorest parts of what is officially the most unequal country in the world, makes the whole scenario considerably more unpalatable than listening to Drake singing about wearing every single chain, even when he’s in his house. These kids will put their struggling parents into debt just so they can finance their own self-indulgent lifestyles, whilst themselves remaining unemployed and out of school.
Looking beyond the shock factor of their nihilistic and decadent lifestyle, though, these kids probably understand the value of money more than most others. They are growing up in shacks made from corrugated iron and cardboard, without running water or electricity, hustling everyday. Post-apartheid South Africa still has a long way to go in terms of providing them with the opportunities that had been promised by the ANC. Contextualising izikhothane in this way, it seems as if these young men and women have created a hyperreality for themselves, rejecting the impoverished lifestyle of the township for vulgar displays of wealth and destruction through which to gain social notoriety. They’ve swapped one extreme for the other.
Jamal, who took the photos for this piece, had the following to say about izikhothane: "I am part of an artist group called Cuss, we were working on a Johannesburg Webisode and my contribution to the webisode was a responsive video piece on the Izikhothane sub-culture. I shot a few stills while I was shooting the video. A big part of the Izikhothane sub-culture is based on arrogance, I was a victim of this attitude, it was quite annoying at times. At the same time though their attitude is what makes their showdowns so captivating."
You can listen to and download some izikhothane music here.
Nabihah makes South African influenced electronic music under the name Throwing Shade. Check it out here.
World Unknown: South African Izikhothane